Don Balyeat

South Dakota Schools

While not a teacher in the traditional sense of the word, educator Don Balyeat travels throughout the Midwest to share his passion for the Civil War with students in several states.  With a hands-on approach to teaching, Mr. Balyeat uses personal experience to connect with students and show them the value of historical education.  In addition to his teaching career, Mr. Balyeat is an American Battlefield Trust Color Bearer member and a member of the Honor Guard Legacy Giving Society.  Here, he shares what motivates him as an educator.

I was born at Fort Jay in New York Harbor. My dad was a professional soldier, and during his three years in Europe during World War II my mom and I stayed in the Bronx with my Irish Grandmother. It was during this period of time I was introduced to history.

As I moved through my early life I learned that my dad was making history every day. My Grandmother opened a whole new world for me when I learned that her father, my Great Grandfather, served in the 156th Infantry Regiment from New York. I was learning from a person who actually lived with a Civil War veteran.

When my dad returned home he was transferred to different Army bases throughout the north and south. We stopped at many historic sites, from both the American Revolutionary War and Civil War. My first visit to Gettysburg was in 1948. This is also when I learned that I had Confederate ancestors on my dad’s side. Turns out I had my Great Grandfather and 4 more Great Great Uncles from Ohio in Union blue and a Great Great Grandfather and 3 of his brothers wearing the grey. I feel this is what gives me a total view of the war.

In 2005 I joined the Civil War Trust as a regular member, but before long I became a Color Bearer and remain a very proud member of the Civil War Trust. Now that I no longer have to dress to impress, I spend most of my days wearing Civil War Trust logo shirts. This leads to great conversations and interest from others. It also allows me have great conversations with Park Rangers, local historians, museum staff. Even more important, I have visited with local people who had ancestors fight on battlefields that I visit.

During my career with AAA National Travel and my ongoing consulting contract with the State of Wyoming Division of Tourism, I have had the opportunity for almost 35 years to travel the entire United States and Canada as a paid tourist. This has given me the opportunity to visit hundreds of sites and also travel the Underground Railroad from the deep South to Canada. It has also given me the stories I now share with students.

Two years ago, I wondered if schools would allow non-teachers to visit classrooms. It didn’t take me long to learn that teachers wanted people to share their stories and adventures with their classes. I have received letters from students thanking me for not reading to them, thanking me for sharing my family stories and my travel adventures. The hard part out here is that there are no Civil War battlefields or sites for them to visit. I try to explain that they should visit sites that did have an impact on this area. I also try to get them to research their ancestors because there is a very good chance they have Civil War family ties since it was these veterans who expanded this part of our country. The town of Custer, SD is named after General Custer, but its first name was Stonewall after General Jackson. At that time there were more southern veterans looking for gold so they picked the name. That changed when more Union veterans moved in.

This is an example of the type of stories I share with them. I also share actual letters from my ancestors and explain the importance of preservation. I do this by telling the story of my Great Great Uncle Archibald Hensley who served with the 16th Infantry Regiment of North Carolina. He was killed on May 3, 1863 at Chancellorsville. Because this battlefield has been preserved I was able to visit on May 3, 2013 and with the help of the Park Rangers I was able to walk in the area he was killed. I explain to them that he has been in an unmarked grave since his death. I also tell them his twin brother Wilson was with him in this battle and he never knew where Archibald was buried. Preservation allowed me to visit him. 150 years later to the day.

I feel it’s important to explain the role of the women and children during the war, especially the southern women and children. Since most of the war was fought in the south, it was not unusual for a mother and her children to find themselves in the middle of a battle that would turn their homes into field hospitals. How the family would treat and care for the wounded on both sides. How they would sit and hold the hand of a soldier who was dying so he thought he was with his family.

Recently I worked with the Sturgis, SD After School Program and we took 12 students in period costume to the Fort Meade VA Hospital. Each of the students portrayed a real person from the Civil War, we avoided the usual Lincoln, Lee or Grant character and went with common people. The student told their story and we had a photo of the real person on the screen behind them. This is the statement from Kim Spransy, Fort Meade Program Director: “On July 24th 2013, the Sturgis After school program and Don Balyeat of the Civil War Trust put on a wonderful program for our long term care and Rehab veterans. Even the veterans with a diagnosis of dementia, stayed attentive with the familiar and not so familiar names of our Civil War history. The children in the program is what got the most attention however. Appearing in period costume, the kids performed their assigned civil war figure to the much delight of the vets”.

I guess if I have anything to share with teachers it would be to look for people like me who are willing to share true stories with their students. This applies to any period of our history. I explain to the students that I am not an expert nor a teacher of the Civil War, I’m a history traveler and I am going to share my travel experiences with them. I want them to understand that history was not yesterday, it walks side by side with them every day.

I charge no fees or bill for any expenses. This past school year I visited schools in the Black Hills of South Dakota and 2 very rural schools in Minnesota and met with almost 1,400 students. Teachers tell me if you can reach 10% of the class you had a good day. I hope I have opened the door for 140 new “Civil War buffs!”