Tuesday afternoon, East Ridge Middle School seventh graders hurried through lunch at an unusual pace. They were excited to enjoy the rest of their day viewing a musket demonstration, touching civil war artifacts and learning about the camp-life that Civil War soldiers endured.
“We’ve been studying the civil war for at least a month,” seventh grade teacher and Department Leader, Michelle Meyers said. “All of the seventh graders had research projects.”
Some of the students chose to research the fashion of the Civil War time period. Others researched weaponry or food. As long as the students remained focused on the Civil War, they were free to choose any topic within the time period that they desired.
Besides giving a visual presentation, students were required to create a two-page thesis that they tried to prove either correct or incorrect.
“It’s really a higher-level project for the seventh graders,” Meyers said.
After spending a month researching the Civil War, studying pictures of the battlefield, watching movies and discussing the time period, seventh graders were excited to have a hands-on experience where they were able to touch artifacts such as clothing, canteens and camping tents.
“It’s just an awesome culmination for the students at the end of the year,” seventh-grade teacher, Andrea Donigan said.
Benjamin Crusen and Jacob Benicewicz, two Civil War reenactment participants, spoke to the students about soldiers’ uniforms and what the soldiers were expected to wear during battle.
“This is my fifth or sixth year doing this,” said Crusen.
According to Donigan, the decision to bring a reenactment company to the classrooms began when teacher Mike Settani had a student return to the classroom after a weekend of reenactment viewing. The student showed strong interest in the Civil War and Settani thought it would be a smart idea to give all students the same experience.
“It was great to see a student go outside of school and bring back something he was interested in,” Donigan said.
Benicewicz got involved in reenactment thanks to the persistent snail mail that his family in Fredericksburg, Virginia provided him.
“They would send me postcards and pictures of the civil war,” he said. “They started sending me this stuff at a very young age so I was interested in it for a long time. I saw a reenactment in Woodbury, Conn., and that’s when I decided to join."
Martin Schmidt and Eric Ploss were two more reenactment participants who joined the students on Tuesday.
“We are teaching them about how guns were fired in the Civil War,” Schmidt said.
“We are giving a little bit of history as well,” Ploss remarked.
Yasir Saleem, a long-time history buff, gave the curious eighth-graders a rifle cleaning demonstration.
“[The rifle] needs to be cleaned,” he told the students. “If it is not clean, it either explodes or doesn’t go off, which can be very frustrating.”
He also showed the students what a soldier would normally carry with him. Saleem passed around a pack that weighed about twenty pounds, the average weight of a Civil War soldier’s pack. Students were particularly interested to learn that when a soldier found something while marching, he placed in in his hat for safekeeping.
Lt. Col. Ralph Langham joined the reenactment company in 1995. He was in the film "Gettysburg," which the students will be watching this week.
“I’ve always loved Civil War history,” he said. “I was a captain in the Army, so I know the military.”
First Sargent, Tom Bierly showed each group of students that entered the cafeteria about proper Civil War marching procedures. Battlefronts were not an area where soldiers were willing to lose focus and structure, and the ERMS eighth-graders learned that they could use some practice in marching policies. With lefties marching right and righties marching left, teachers couldn’t help but laugh at the sight.
Lastly, students learned about casualty. According to Schmidt, 2/3 of soldiers died of disease and less than one percent died from bayonet injuries.
“Most deaths from bayonets didn’t occur till the end of the war,” he explained.
Students were treated to a musket demonstration and left excited about their day with the reenactment soldiers. Teachers couldn’t be happier with the opportunity to give the experience to the students.