Civil War brought to life at Eastford school

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Eastford - posted Mon., Sep. 30, 2013
Gail Usher White is dressed as Civil War surgeon Mary Edwards Walker. Photos by D. Coffey.
Gail Usher White is dressed as Civil War surgeon Mary Edwards Walker. Photos by D. Coffey.

Eastford Elementary School became a Civil War showcase on Sept. 24, as members from Historic New England brought their “Rally Round the Flag” education program to students in grades three through eight. The program gave students a glimpse into what life was like during the Civil War.

Five stations were set up on the playing fields behind the school. Students learned about the life of a soldier, how the signal corps helped win the war for the North, how battlefield injuries were treated, how troops moved across land and water, and what games children played during the 1860s.

HNE’s Dylan McCartney greeted students in a Union soldier's uniform in front of simple tent. On a blanket in front of him lay a piece of moldy cheese, some old potatoes, an onion and a bag of dried beans. “That’s what soldiers ate for three years,” he told them. He took off his foraging cap. “They’d go off in foraging parties, throw stuff in their caps and bring it back to camp.”

He talked about the soldiers' long marches, and put the students into formation so they could march themselves. He talked about the lice and fleas that infested the soldiers' clothing and the infrequency with which they bathed. “Soldiers were more likely to die of disease than gunshots,” he said.

HNE’s Gail Usher White was dressed as Mary Edwards Walker, the first female surgeon in the Civil War, and the first woman to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. She wore pants under a calf-length skirt, a short jacket tied with a leather belt and a woolen hat. The skirt was a nod to femininity, according to White. Its length was a nod to the bloodiness of the battlefields. 

For 40 minutes she shared stories of battlefield medicine as well as what some of the best medical practices of the day were. Students learned that there were no vaccinations, x-ray machines, blood tests or emergency rooms. People didn’t realize how important it was to wash their hands. She had them try their hand at making stretchers and lifting the stretchers with their classmates on them.

Each of the stations offered a hands-on activity for the children. A station explaining how the signal corps helped the army transmit messages in secret gave children a chance at encoding and deciphering their own messages. A station geared to the games and pastimes of children and adults during the mid-1800s let them try the games of hoops and graces. And at one of the stations, they were enlisted to help build an actual pontoon bridge across a make-shift “lake.”

Social studies teacher Charles Kernan said teachers would be able to use the experience all year long with their students. “There is something here that will resonate with everybody,” he said. “No matter what kind of learner we have out here today, they will be able to take something away from this and give it back to us at some point this year.”

“We can make all these interdisciplinary connections between topics as well, not just social studies,” he said. The lessons from “Rally Round the Flag” can be used in talking about math, science, history and language arts. “The curriculum implemented in 2010 puts an emphasis on writing,” Kernan said. “Students can do a comparison/contrast. They can write first-person narratives based on the information they now have.”

“These are things they will always remember,” said Superintendent and Principal Linda Loretz. “They won’t necessarily remember something you tell them 100 times in the classroom, but they will always remember something like this.”

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