Hundreds of Valley students reenact Battle of Gettysburg

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by Tami Hoey

Video report by Bruce Haffner

Posted on November 14, 2013 at 2:22 PM

Updated Thursday, Nov 14 at 7:54 PM

PHOENIX -- Union soldiers battle the Confederates. Cannon fire echoes through the hills. Weary soldiers write emotional last letters home from the battlefield.

These aren't just scenes that happened more than a century ago. These were events played out by nearly 500 middle school students at a Phoenix park on Thursday, as they performed a full-scale reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg.

470 seventh graders at Desert Shadows Middle School, along with nearly 100 teachers, parents and other volunteers, took over Phoenix's Sereno Park to bring a piece of history to life. The kids have been working for months to create their own realistic-looking costumes, weapons and flags, and have been studying the facts and strategies of the Civil War.

"The Battle of Gettysburg Reenactment is something students get excited about and remember forever," says Social Studies Department Chair Marci Olsen. "The reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg grew out of an idea that students should not just read about history; they need to participate in it and be totally immersed."

Olsen began the tradition of the Gettysburg reenactment in 2004, and has watched this large-scale production grow bigger and better each year.

Teachers at Desert Shadows have been working with the students to teach them about the history of the Civil War and the specifics of the infamous battle of 1863. Each student was assigned a side (Union or Confederate). They then had to come up with a uniform, and many designed and crafted swords, rifles and flags to carry into "battle."

Students had to stay in character all day, and act and talk as their "characters". Some kids were snipers, some were captains; others, simply foot soldiers.

"They role-play and research a real person who fought there, they have studied battle strategies and understand the why of certain maneuvers, as they relive the story," says Olsen. "They learn the story, they respect the sacrifices made because those sacrifices become more real."

"This experience has given me a new perspective of battles, wars and history itself! I used to think history was a waste of time, just another 45 minutes sucked out of my day," says 7th grader Madison Westervelt. "But because of the reenactment of Gettysburg, my perspective has changed for the better!  I now have a better understanding of how difficult and scary it would be to stand on the battlefield, watching your company and friends fall to the ground and die.  And also, I understand how frightening it would be to be charged at by the opposing side, knowing that there is no way out and no going back."

The day-long event not only included staged battles. Parents and community volunteers staffed several different stations presenting educational opportunities for the kids.

One station was a surgery and triage area, where a Valley doctor used a dummy and several pounds of real meat to show students how to extract bullets from flesh, and how amputations were performed in unsanitary battlefield conditions.

Another station offered the young "soldiers" an opportunity to write their "last letters home', a quiet, reflective area where the kids had to put pen to paper and write what could be a final letter from a soldier to loved ones.

Kids also learned to shoot homemade cannons, and examine actual Civil War artifacts.

"The Gettysburg reenactment is invaluable to our students' development because the experience not only helps them wrap their minds around why Americans sacrificed their lives in the Civil War, but the reason behind American sacrifice in all wars: past, present, and future, "says Social Studies teacher Kaitlyn John. "It is a reminder to the kids that they stand for an idea, and that idea has been consecrated by those who gave their lives so that that idea might live."

In addition to visiting the various stations, students had to draw their own battle maps of Gettysburg, and learn the stories and locations of the major action of this turning-point battle.

"Watching history come alive for DSMS students in the reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg is always one of the highlights of my school year," says DSMS Principal Patrick Clancy. "Rather than simply reading about history out of a textbook, the reenactment provides our students an opportunity to live and experience history. This kind of project-based learning inspires students, which leads to a desire to continue learning outside of the classroom now and into the future. And that is a formula for success."

Yes, the historical production was worth a big chunk of the kids' Social Studies grade for the semester! But many students say it was more than just a grade; it was an experience they won't soon forget.

"I think being in the Gettysburg reenactment is interesting because you can empathize with the soldiers and you get to live history," says seventh grader Ally Dowdell.

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