Cottonwood Elementary's Civil War Experience

A Day of Living History
The class poses for a group photo in full costume.
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Cottonwood Elementary's librarian played the role of Louisa May Alcott.

Imagine walking into a gym full of sixth grade “Civil War re-enactors” led by their school librarian, dressed as Louisa May Alcott, a writer and nurse during the Civil War. As they enter the gym, they immediately see two flags, one for the Union, and the more recognizable battle flag for the Confederacy. They also see sixth graders clad in period clothing and brandishing the equipment necessary to be soldiers, bakers, laundresses, sutlers, photographers, doctors, nurses, spies, drummers, buglers, plantation owners and telegraph operators.


They are seeing the culmination of Cottonwood Elementary’s study of the Civil War. Students began their planning for this day by choosing an occupation from this time period along with a fictional name. They created a “backstory” to match their choice, including birth date, place of birth, family and Civil War connections. This was woven into a biographical poster authored by each student. It was fun watching these students create connections with others in the classroom.

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Two students bear the flags of the Union and the Confederacy.

One boy was the cousin of another boy, yet they were at opposite ends of the country, one from the north and the other from the south. Another group of girls move south to show support for their brothers fighting for Tennessee. We also had a sutler, who wisely chose to trade with both sides whenever possible since he had family in both Pennsylvania and Virginia. Our gifted students chose to be leaders during this time and so became Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, and Clara Barton to name a few. They studied their lives and contributions they made to the Civil War, which they shared with the younger students at Cottonwood. Don Balyeat joined our classroom for a day of sharing and information, helping our sixth graders better understand all of the complexities associated with this period in our history. 

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Four students assume the roles of laundresses.

The goal was for each child to come away with something they learned about the Civil War and this turbulent time in our history. Parents and teachers were impressed with how well they stayed “in character” while talking to their visitors. Mary Todd Lincoln sat sewing with her husband Abraham while sharing teacakes. Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant talked about battle strategy and played cards. Our bakers gave students hard tack and talked about how difficult it was to cook over an open fire. Our doctor and nurses gave gave students quinine camouflaged as Smarties. The laundresses allowed students to help them wash and dry soldiers’ clothing.


Soldiers marched with the students along with teaching them to use the flags of signal corps to share messages. The photographer took pictures of students, handing students a photo of someone who lived during this time, and the telegrapher gave students headlines of the war and time. The sutler had many wares to sell and the spies ran around the gym asking students to help them pass on messages. Harriet Tubman told of struggles of the slave and the courage many had to leave via the Underground Railroad. The farrier asked students to pound nails into paper horseshoes as she talked about how important the horse was to the Civil War cavalryman. Our plantation owners asked students to help make bandages and wear a piece of material around their wrist as a reminder of those who died during the conflict.  The drummer boy and bugler allowed students to try their hand at these two instruments. Students came away with many ideas and thoughts after listening and talking to our actors. 


The class poses for a group photo in full costume.

The day was a collaboration between the library and classroom, providing students with added expertise and support. Also, with the help of Don Balyeat, associated with the Civil War Trust, and many other community members, each group was able to create a fairly realistic space. There were washtubs, cameras, campfires, bugles, drums, and other items that helped to make this day a success. Students scoured second hand stores for clothing and borrowed from friends. Don graciously shared his period clothing and it was put to good use. All in all it was a great day! Who doesn’t like to dress up every once in a while and pretend?