Monday, June 05, 2006

A True Memorial Day Celebration

Over the Memorial Day weekend, I took my Girl Scout troop to a Civil War reenactment, complete with cannons, canvas tents, and women wearing corsets. The reenactment happens every year and was part of a package put together for Cadette and Senior Girl Scout troops by a friend of mine.

When I first got the information about the weekend, I figured the reenactment would be the "boring" part of the weekend, at least for the girls. I knew Hubs would enjoy it, especially since it involved simulated battles with lots of black powder. And I'm a history buff, so I knew I'd find something interesting. But the girls--sixth and seventh graders--really surprised me.

First of all, we happened upon the tent of Dr. Mary Walker, the second woman to become a surgeon in the United States and the first woman to be a surgeon in the U.S. Army. She had a collection of antique surgical instruments and talked about the state of medicine during the Civil War. The lack of understanding of simple sanitary precautions caused more deaths than battlefield injuries. She also spoke about how the change in bullet shape, from round to pointed, and rifling caused a dramatic change in battlefield injuries. Surgeons had neither the time nor the skill for reconstruction. About all they could do was amputations and they had about 90 seconds to do it before the patient bled to death. She also told us there are about 400 documented cases of women disguising themselves as men and fighting in the army, both Union and Confederate.

In real life, the woman is an administrative assistant. All this knowledge, all her equipment she has picked up on her own. This is her hobby.

The next tent had a mother and daughter who were burned out of their home by the Yankee soldiers. They barely had time to gather grandmother's china and a few carpets. They were on the road, looking for the mother's brother. "We heard he might be down in Atlanta and we were headed there," the mother told me. "But we heard tell that Sherman is headed that way. And we don't want to go where Sherman is. So we're headed to Savannah."

There was a "fashion show," which included the seven layers of undergarments that all ladies always wore. Sidearms were often worn by Southern ladies to defend themselves against renegade soldiers and who were forced to hunt for food.

And they met "Annabelle," whose tent featured a sign that stated "Gentlemen Welcome." That sign took a bit of creative explaining. Later, the girls actually met "Annabelle," who was quite well dressed and who had a Confederate $50 tucked in her bodice.

By this time the girls were primed.

"Can we take our picture with you?" they asked her.

"Of course," she said.

After the picture, one of the girls asked, "What do you do?"

"I'm a lady of the evening," she replied.

"What's that?" asked my youngest Girl Scout.

The LOTE looked at me and asked, "Shall I explain further?"

I shrugged. Then light dawned and I asked, "Are you Annabelle?"

"Indeed I am," she replied. "Have you heard of me?"

"We found your tent," one of the girls answered, while I told my youngest GS, "This is Annabelle whose tent we saw where she entertains gentlemen."

"Oh!" said she said. "You mean she's a prostitute!"

"Uh, yeah," I answered. This was one topic they never covered in leader training.

And--surprise, surprise--there were boys there. Boys the age of my girls. Boys who were more than happy to show off in front of them and explain the parts of a cannon or a rifle, how to aim, show them around camp and explain how it was set up. Boys who, following the custom of the 1860's, tipped their hats to the girls and kept their gloves on.

That didn't keep them from exchanging phone numbers, however!

One the way home the next day, the girls discussed the weekend. They all agreed the re-enactment was their favorite part, better than the Beach-Boardwalk.

"I learned so much!" one of the girls exclaimed.

"I wish we could learn all of history this way," another said. "It's so much more interesting!"

"Can we come back next year?" was the universal chorus.

"You know, the boys might not be there," I said.

"We don't care. We still want to come!"

I may ask them to do some research of their own, however. I am rather surprised, and appalled, frankly, at how much they don't know about the Civil War. One girl didn't know which side won. None of them were too sure about why the war was fought in the first place. They recognized Abraham Lincoln, but had no clue who Jefferson Davis was. They were surprised that many of the officers of the Union and Confederate Armies had been classmates at West Point prior to the war. I filled in some of the gaps as best as I could, but I thought that the subject would have been introduced in fifth grade, when they were first studying states and presidents. How can you talk about Lincoln without introducing the Civil War? How can you understand Martin Luther King, Jr., without knowing about Southern plantations and slavery and the peculiar agriculture economy of the South? I know that eighth graders learn about the U.S. Constitution and some history and that they study U.S. History again as junior in high school (and we used to have to study it once more in college, but I think that requirement has been watered down).

One re-enactor referred to the Civil War as "America's heart attack." The very fact that we are still "The United States" depended on the outcome of this war. Is history becoming too important a subject to leave to the whims and educational fads of the professionals? Perhaps it is...