5 Things I Learned While Teaching Kids About the American Civil War

I became a Civil War re-enactor in 1982 while taking a course in American military history in college. When we were talking about the Revolutionary War or the Civil War, my professor would show up in his uniform of that era and tell us all about what his equipment and infantry tactics and how he made his own uniform and all kinds of little details that the textbooks overlooked and made history real. I was hooked.

That summer I did my internship at Old Fort Jackson in Savannah, Georgia, and lived the life of a 19th century sailor and artilleryman (I joined the 22nd Battalion Georgia Heavy Artillery). Every day I would teach the kids how to reaf a sail, throw a heaving line, tie all kinds of knots, and finally I would drill kids in how to load and fire a small naval cannon. (The kids just learned the drill; once they were a safe distance away I actually loaded and fired a gunpowder charge. They loved it!)

Pretty soon I was being asked by school teachers to come and teach their kids for an hour about the average life of a Civil War soldier.  (The teachers always handled the political/moral issues of slavery, states' rights, secession, etc.  I have been content just to teach about how the average soldier lived, fought, and died.)

Here's what I've learned over the past 34 years:

1. It's fun to teach!

It didn't matter if the kids were in the 3rd grade or the 11th grade, all the kids I've taught love it when I show up. Their curiosity, their awe, their excitement when I come in all dressed up tells me they are ready to learn. I've gone to public and private schools, juvenile detention centers, homeschool co-ops, Boy Scout and Girl Scout meetings ... it doesn't matter.

It's like somebody in one of those black and white photos just stepped out of the history book. I have never had a bad experience in any school with any age group. I have a story to tell, I have fun telling it, and they have fun with me!

My favorite age group is from about the fifth grade to the seventh grade. They still have that child-like thrill of seeing something new, and they are able to ask good questions. I tell them all about my uniform, pull all sorts of interesting items out of my haversack, and tell stories about them.

They learn what a "housewife" is (it's a sewing kit), how my toothbrush is made from animal bone and hog's hair bristles ("oooooh! gross!!"), and how they made hardtack (a big flat cracker) and ate salt pork fried down to mush and mixed with bug-infested flour (yuck!). I also show them my rifled musket, carefully teach them how it was loaded and fired, and give them reasons why the soldiers often fought in ranks standing up.

I show them my original Bible from 1861 and let them know how important this was to the soldiers (no public school has ever censored me for this!).  I pull out my bayonet (they usually think it is a sword) and tell them how to use it as a last resort (that always "grosses" them out).

At the end of the class, I usually sing a Northern song  ("Battle Cry of Freedom"), a Southern song ("Goober Peas"), and then the favorite hymn of the Civil War ("There Is A Fountain").  We cap it off with all going outside and I shoot off a couple of gunpowder charges up in the air (after clearing it with the school administration and the police, of course). The kids have a blast! (Ha-ha! Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

Next page: The best way to teach history.