By Larissa Lytwyn
Though gathered in the cool sunshine during the afternoon of October 8, St Rose School’s eighth grade class was soon baking under the summer heat of Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland between 1861 and 1865.
At that time, the United States was divided, between the Northern Union and Southern Confederacy in the Civil War. It was America’s bloodiest war.
Dressed as a Union soldier, Newtown resident and self-described history buff Robert Graves brought the Civil War to life through a lecture that included samples of hard tack, salt pork, and even authentic black powder gunfire.
First, Mr Graves described his uniform, including a type of boot known as a Brogan that was capped with a real horseshoe on its heel. "The purpose of the horseshoe was to prevent the Brogan from wearing through," Mr Graves said.
He took out the most valuable items soldiers carried with them: a haversack, Bible, and canteen. The haversack, made of a basic canvas material, was used to create tiny one-man tents for men to stay in at night. Often, the soldiers also slept outside in the grass.
"Soldiers tried to travel as light as possible, because they were always on the move," Mr Graves explained.
Next, he took out an 1853 Lee-Enfield Musket and showed students exactly how the weapon was loaded, from inserting bullets, or, more commonly, black gunpowder, to cocking it on his shoulder, ready to shoot.
Then, with just as much ease and expertise, he proceeded to show students how the gun was unloaded.
The students’ eyes didn’t leave the now-ammunition free weapon, especially when Mr Graves pulled the trigger. Students and faculty jumped alike. Several onlookers even released audible gasps of surprise.
In addition to the musket demonstration, Mr Graves cooked a slab of salt pork over a small open fire he made at the edge of St Rose’s lush athletic field.
"Salt pork was almost entirely made of [pig] fat," Mr Graves explained. "Now, back then there was no refrigeration, so to keep the food edible it was heavily salted."
Before cooking a piece of salt pork, the meat was soaked in fresh water for as long as a day to remove the excess salt.
Another staple of the Civil War soldiers’ diet was a flour-and-water biscuit known as hard tack. "Often, [civilians] would send packages of hard tack to the soldiers on the field," Mr Graves said. "But by the time it arrived to them, it was often covered with maggots or mold."
To prevent looking at the foodstuff, the perpetually malnourished soldiers would often eat hard tack at night.
Despite his less-than-appetizing description, most of the students couldn’t wait to try a piece of hard tack. Many even requested seconds!
After his presentation, students were allowed to try on uniforms and handle some of the equipment Mr Graves had discussed, including the rifle and canteen.
Mr Graves, a lifelong history lover, first became interested in Civil War reenactments several years ago. "Reenactments are fascinating to witness and great to be a part of," he said.
Mr Graves, a member of the 2nd Connecticut Volunteer Heavy Artillery Regiment, has participated in encampments in and around Connecticut. He also lectures frequently on Civil War history at area schools.
"Although these eighth graders studied the Civil War last year, the message is still fresh for them," noted history teacher Joe Demaida. "It really inspires an interest in history."
Though Mr Demaida has brought students to Revolutionary War reenactments at Putnam Memorial Park on the Bethel/Redding line, he has never brought students to a Civil War reenactment.
"Though there are some in Connecticut, they often take place during the summer, on weekends," Mr Demaida explained. "It’s hard to get together with students during that time."
Still, presentations like Mr Graves,’ he said, were an excellent way of reinforcing lessons and even helping students learn new information. This was confirmed by the comments of several students.
"I learned a lot today," said eighth grader Michael Kirk. "I watch the History Channel a lot so I knew a lot of things about the Civil War, but now I’ve learned that most of the time the soldiers weren’t shooting bullets! They were shooting gunpowder!"
Another student, Tara Mullins, said the presentation had inspired her to "go down to Virginia and see a Civil War reenactment, someday soon!"
To learn more about the 2nd Connecticut Volunteer Heavy Artillery Regiment, visit www.the2dconn.com.
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