Fifth graders get a taste of life during Civil War

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Marshall County 5th graders were able to study history as presented by Civil War re-enactors 10 days ago when they visited the 19th Alabama Infantry and Civilian Corps at their camp at historic Lairdland Farm House, south of Cornersville.

In front of the house the "civilians" had set up their tents and were demonstrating what life was like for women and children in the 1860s. The children watched in horrified fascination as Elizabeth Ray showed off specialized pliers for pulling teeth, and a fleam and basin for bloodletting.

Amber Sebring explained the origin of the expression "Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater" in her talk on bathing and hygiene: after everyone in the family had taken a turn in the same tub of water, starting with the eldest, the water might well be so dirty you couldn't see the baby in it.

Sixteen-year-old Molly Lynn demonstrated carding and spinning wool and talked about textiles. She explained how fabric and yarn were recycled 150 years ago: once a garment was totally worn out, the cloth might be cut into patches for a quilt or braided into a rag rug. Knitted items were unraveled and re-made.

Ruth Sines was preparing food in her outdoor kitchen, but Bill Hoover was in charge of the cooking, in pots over a fire, and also in enclosed metal ovens beside the fire. Mary Ann Hoover explained that the women tried to keep away from open fires because of the danger of setting their long skirts alight.

Melanie Barksdale was in her second day of portraying a Confederate spy. She's only been re-enacting for two years, but says, "It's a great hobby." Barksdale says she really doesn't miss the 21st century when she is spending the weekend in camp, though she admits it can be nice to get home to air conditioning and a hot shower. Barksdale says, "You have to do your homework," in other words, study the period and everything about it.

"We love doing these things - the kids are great and 90 percent of them are eager to learn," said Mary Ann Hoover. "It's one of the best family things we could ever do," she continues, adding, "We show the other side of life - in school they're only learning about the battles."

Other members of the group talked about funerals and mourning customs, toys and games, and farm tools and gadgets.

Behind Lairdland Farm House the soldiers were set up to demonstrate their guns and equipment. Boys and girls listened attentively as Color Sgt. Karl Ryan talked about Civil War battles. He told the group that "lead flew everywhere" during a battle, and, statistically, it took 200 bullets to hurt one person. The casualties during the Civil War were staggering: the United States has had 30,000 casualties during five years in Iraq, while at the Battle of Chickamauga, there were 35,000 in two days. Ryan was barefoot and explained that this was very often the case with Confederate soldiers. Boots wore out after about 250 miles of marching, so members of the Army of Tennessee who marched from Alabama to Kentucky might well have arrived barefoot. Capt. Robert Nichols, a retired regular army soldier, talked more about camp life and showed the children his waterproof case to keep matches dry, and a small jar of "essence of coffee" which is made by boiling down coffee to the consistency of axle grease. A small quantity of this concentrate is added to a big pot of water and boiled up over the fire to produce coffee to drink. He had a wooden box in his tent marked "Ales and Lagers," but inside it was a modern cooler for his drinks and snacks. Re-enactors are allowed things like this, and modern sleeping bags and air mattresses, as long as they're not visible during public visiting hours.

Some Union soldiers were present also. Sgt. Ron Bednarczyk and Lt. Jerry West of the 42nd Indiana Infantry Regiment talked about the Union soldiers' experience. They had a copy of the 42nd Indiana's regimental colors and among the names of battles embroidered on it were Wartrace and Stones River.

Lairdland Farm House is on the national register of historic places. The original home was built in 1831 and remained in the Laird and Blackburn families until it was purchased by Bennita and Don Rouleau in 2002. This is their third Living History Weekend. The Rouleau's were showing small groups of children around their private museum in one of the front rooms of the house. "It's our contribution to the community," said Bennita. She finds that the Marshall County teachers are very supportive and the students are well behaved and ask good questions. They charge $2 per student, and all the money goes to the re-enactors. Their web site is www.lairdlandfarmhouse


The 19th Alabama Infantry and Civilian Corps is a living history and Civil War re-enactment organization headquartered in Huntsville. Organized in 1982, the unit has grown to be one of the largest and most active re-enactment groups in the area. Check out their web site at www.19thalabama.