About 250 Lewis and Clark Middle School eighth-graders arrived at the Billings Public Library on Thursday much the same way their forebears got anywhere: the students walked the 2.2 mile route in about 45 minutes.
Once they arrived, the students, who are just beginning their Civil War studies, were treated to five interactive Civil War displays, courtesy of educators and other community members. At one stop they even got to try on period clothing.
It’s safe to say the urge to dress up wasn’t limited to the girls.
“The hoop skirts have been very popular with the gentlemen today,” said Glenda Brauneis, who works with costumes at Billings Studio Theater.
Brauneis told students that corsets stiffened by whalebone were laced so tightly and were so restricting that they rearranged the wearer’s internal organs. But that didn’t dampen anyone’s enthusiasm for the hands-on — and clothes-on — experience.
“I thought this was going to be boring,” said student Berlyn Haggerty, who was trying on skirts and blouses with her classmate, Ryann Thompson. “But it’s been hands-on and a lot of fun.”
“This was my first trip to the library,” Thompson said. “It’s huge and I was afraid I’d get lost, but we’ve had a good time and we’ve seen a lot of cool pictures.”
By donning 3-D glasses at one stop, students took in some souped-up Civil War-era photos, simulating the stereoscope effect popular with people of all ages 150 years ago.
At another, they used a magnifying program loaded on their school’s iPads to get a close-up look at period photographs and documents.
“It’s an app that lets students look for details,” said Elizabeth Waddington, the librarian at Lewis and Clark. “We’re asking them what they can infer” by closely examining the reproductions of the artifacts.
Students were also treated to a brief talk on Civil War photography by Jen Lynn, a history professor at Montana State University Billings.
One well-known photo taken at a Gettysburg site called Devil’s Den and featuring a dead Confederate sharpshooter and his rifle was staged, Lynn said. He didn’t die where he’s depicted, and the rifle placement was also “staged for dramatic effect,” she told students.
She said she hoped students will learn to be discerning about historic documents — even photographs.
She also displayed the trading cards of the day, the “carte de viste,” or “visiting card.” For a fee of 25 cents, a soldier could have his picture taken by Matthew Brady or another photographer of the day. Copies were then printed and left behind so that the soldier’s sweetheart, parents or children, for the first time in the history of armed conflict, had a photo to remember their loved one.
That’s a good thing, because many soldiers on both sides never made it back home. By quickly separating students into groups, Jim Vaughn of Laurel, a re-enactor playing a fictional Union officer, demonstrated that up to one-third of soldiers on both sides died of disease or sickness even before seeing battle.
Vaughn showed students the weapons that Civil War soldiers used. Attaching a bayonet to one, he said soldiers were more likely, once they’d run out of ammunition, to use the rifle as a club than to run an opponent through. The reason? Because of suction, it’s too hard to free the bayonet from the opponent’s mid-section. “You lose your weapon that way,” he said.
Vaughn’s partner and fellow Civil War re-enactor, Tiea Tobey of Laurel, wore a dress she sewed herself to portray Clara Barton, the Civil War nurse who after the war founded the American Red Cross.
She surrounded herself with replicas of the bandages and medicine in bottles similar to the ones Barton famously and furiously collected to enhance the medical care soldiers received.
According to Tobey, Barton was astounded to discover surgeons using cornstalks as bandages, so she spent the war getting supplies — especially the basics, such as bandages and candles — in surgeon’s hands.
Barton also worked hard during the war to help soldiers send and receive letters to and from loved ones. That emphasis on caring for military families remains an important part of the work of the American Red Cross, Tobey noted.
Tobey has a blouse in her possession that she said defines Barton’s heart as she spent the war caring for soldiers. The blouse features a hole in the arm where a bullet just missed injuring the famous nurse.
Unfortunately, that same bullet struck and killed the soldier whom Barton was nursing.
“I’m trying to tell students how important the Civil War was to our history,” Tobey said. Along with the American Revolution, “it’s one of two wars that determined how we will govern ourselves.”