Students re-create life in Civil War camp Youths say project tops classroom study


As she prepared to amputate Jeff Sutton's bloodied leg, Kristin Lutz yelled out to her fellow nurses:

"Where's the gin?"

She reached for a serrated steak knife, instead of the saw a real Civil War nurse might have had to use.

Kristen and Jeff were among the 126 seventh-graders at New Windsor Middle School who re-enacted a Civil War camp Friday morning. They set up camp at the fire company field adjacent to their school.

From the collarless shirts worn by the boys to the long dresses worn by the girls, the students strove for authenticity.

But Klair Stonesifer didn't go so far as to cut off the rattail of hair hanging from the nape of his neck.

"My barber got shot before he finished cutting my hair," was Klair's clever rationalization.

The students learned much more by living the period rather than by just reading about it, they said.

"Most of the soldiers didn't want to go to the field hospital because they thought amputations were useless," Kristen said.

Many died anyway, she said, after going through an amputation with nothing but gin to dull the pain.

"It was really gory," said Mattie White.

Students worked in groups to research some aspect of the Civil War and home life of the time, then acted it out Friday.

There were infantrymen (and one infantry woman), of course, carrying out drills.

Sutlers, or merchants, followed the troops to sell them food, soap and supplies at greatly inflated prices. A can of preserved peaches, spools of thread and enameled metal bowls were among the props.

Nurses operated the field hospital, squirting red food coloring on wounds and bandages.

A few boys worked the wooden cannon made by student Ryan Van Der Linden and his father.

A group of girls built a house using 2-by-4 pieces of lumber and cardboard, to make a three-sided structure about 6 feet by 10 feet.

The girls furnished it with a wood stove, rocking chair, table and ++ a bunch of dried herbs hanging from the wall.

Mirian Ragula even baked a loaf of bread the night before, and put it on the table next to a bowl of oranges studded with cloves.

The loaf had been picked at by several hungry students passing by, and the girls sold one orange for $50 in Confederate money, not to be outdone by the sutlers.

The girls did a lot of research into home life and women's roles during the war.

"It was hard because most of it was about men," said Mary Matney.

The textbooks and most other books used in class also focused on the war and the male leaders, the girls said. Learning about how women sewed uniforms, took over farms and kept households running took a lot of digging on their part.

"We had to find it out on our own," said Amy Martinez. "The women were more important than people thought."

But what they learned they shared with fellow students during the re-enactment Friday. Boys would come by and ask questions about how certain things were done.

Mary Matney, who was holding a doll, was even able to answer a visitor's question about how women dealt with diapers and a lack of waterproof rubber pants.

"We wash a lot of diapers," Mary replied. No rubber pants, not even leather ones, she said. "The leather would have been rough on the baby's skin."

Five social studies teachers organized the re-enactment. One of them, Alan Powers, has been to several re-enactments arranged by adults. The pastime is a popular one in this area, he said.

Members of the Barber family also are avid re-enactors. Seventh-grader Justin Barber and his parents, Rick and Brenda, go to about 20 re-enactments a year, and helped coordinate Friday's event.

Mr. Barber said he and his wife were fascinated with the Civil War era even before they started going to re-enactments five years ago.

"It was a romantic and elegant time period," Mrs. Barber said.

"Ladies were ladies and they had certain things they could and couldn't do," Mr. Barber said. "Gentlemen were gentlemen and a handshake was enough."

Also, he said, the Civil War didn't happen in a remote land, such as Germany or Japan.

"It was in our back yards. It's our war," Mr. Barber said.

It may have been a time when "ladies" weren't allowed much of a role outside the home, but some fought in the war, disguised as men.

Mr. Powers drafted seventh-grader Ashlee McDonald to play the part of Sarah Edmonds, a young woman who managed to fool the right people and fight on the Union side.

"I was going to be a civilian like the rest of the girls," Ashlee said as she took off her kepi, the cap worn by Union soldiers, and let her sandy hair fall down. "I didn't want to be with the boys."

She reluctantly agreed, and said she learned a lot.

"At first, I hated history. Who cares what happens in the past?" she said.

But she was amazed to learn how soldiers survived with what they had in the field, sometimes foraging for food.

Each student wrote a report on some aspect of Civil War life, such as the music, clothing or family life.

Jeff Sutton wrote about the food, because he already has an interest in cooking.

"They usually had bean soup because that was easy to make," Jeff said. Other staples were salt pork, salted beef and hardtack, a very hard biscuit.

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