Eagle County students re-enact Civil War's Battle of Shiloh this Friday.
By Melanie Wong
Darrell Osburn’s middle-school audience groaned and erupted into appreciative murmurs as he described the damage done by an 1860s musket and bayonet.
“They were taught to ‘charge’ and ‘develop’ into the midsection of the body,” says Osburn, who was dressed as a Union soldier at Homestake Peak School, earlier this week to a group of eighth graders. He demonstrates the ramming and gouging action with an antique rifle and bayonet replica. “You can imagine the damage it did.”
Gore and guts get the attention of middle school kids, that’s for sure, but Osburn had much more in store for his audience. The director of the nonprofit program You Can Live History, Osburn and his brother travel around Colorado staging battle re-enactments, mostly for school-aged groups.
With Osburn’s help, on Friday, May 25, 220 Eagle County eighth graders from Homestake Peak, Gypsum Creek Middle School and Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy will take to the battlefield (Maloit Park in Minturn) to reenact the Battle of Shiloh. The two-day battle, one of the bloodiest and most famous of the Civil War, took place near Pittsburgh Landing, Tenn., on April 6, 1862.
Some Eagle County students participated in a re-enactment of the Battle of Bull Run in Denver last year, and teachers wanted to bring the same experience to more Eagle County students, says Homestake Peak teacher Tracy Teetaert. The eighth graders are studying American history from the American Revolution through the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, and the opportunity to re-enact a battle seemed to fit right in the lesson plans.
“This became the most safe, authentic and historically accurate way for students to learn about history of the United States,” Teetaert says. “The Battle of Shiloh was chosen because of the location. This battle was fought for two days in the woods and along rivers; hence, we thought the location and setting in Maloit Park would be perfect.”
The bout, which began with the outnumbered Confederate troops taking the Union soldiers unaware, was the deadliest battle in American history until that point, with an estimated 23,000 total casualties. On the second day of battle, Union Gen. Ulysses Grant’s counteroffensive and reinforcements turned the tide and defeated the untrained Confederate troops.
The road to battle
In the classroom, the students have been preparing for the battle by studying “expert” voices and the experiences of people involved with the war.
“Students have studied many major battles of the Civil War and collected and tracked the name, date, location, leadership and victors of each battle, how each side won that battle, and the impact that each of these battles had on the Civil War,” Teetaert says.
On the day of the battle, the kids playing soldiers will wear costume-style Civil War uniforms and carry replica muskets complete with foam bayonets and packed with flour to create smoke effects.
During preparation, Osburn ran the students through various drills and commands (not an easy task for a couple hundred restless middle school kids), showed them how to “load” a musket, and regaled the audience with stories and history surrounding the battle.
On Wednesday, the students were trained outside for their scenes and talked about the safety aspects of the campaign. Osburn says the goal is to be as safe as possible, but also authentic – besides costumes, props will include a union camp, canons and pyrotechnics during the actual battle. Such re-enactments happen all over the country – sometimes adult productions take weeks of planning and last for days.
“Our real goal is not to turn them into re-enactors, but people who love history and want to learn more about it,” Osburn says.
The entire reenactment will be filmed, and You Can Live History creates a video from the footage for the students afterward. That means everyone has roles, from soldiers to officers to flag bearers. Key scenes will be scripted, such as the death of Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, and there are even girls who will play the Confederate women who came to beg Gen. Grant for their loved ones’ bodies after the battle.
Osburn stressed the gravity of the battle and the war for the students, even though the fun re-enactment will be far removed from the reality of real civil war.
“Some of the new recruits had just been shown how to load their guns. But it was a time where you cared about your reputation, and they were very brave,” he says, adding that in the more than 10,000 battles in the Civil War, more than half of those fighting were killed or seriously injured for life. “It was a mega event – everyone lost someone in their family. Your odds were worse than 50-50 of being killed or ruined for life. That’s amazing, if you look at that extrapolated to the U.S. population today.”
Learning through history
For Osburn, recreating battles stemmed from a lifelong interest in history and a penchant for story telling. In his 21 years running You Can Live History, he’s directed almost 600 battles from the U.S. Civil and Revolutionary wars.
As a child, Osburn says he was fascinated by the stories his grandfather would tell about an uncle who had fought in the Civil War for the Union. He and his brother would beg his grandfather to tell him the stories over and over. Once of his favorites was about his great-grandfather, who was a Union chaplain.
After the siege of Vicksburg in Mississippi, hundreds of escaped slaves came to the union Army seeking protection. The Union officials, unsure of what to do, housed the runaways in a camp across the river. Unfortunately, the camp became an accidental concentration camp as starvation and disease began to take hold.
According to Osburn, his great-grandfather posed as an officer and diverted a wagonload of supplies for the Union Army to the escaped slaves’ camp.
“It fed all those people, and I’m really proud of that,” he says.
Stories like that and the experience of the re-enactment have an equally dramatic effect on some of the students. Osburn says he’s heard from students years later who were inspired by the experience in a variety of different ways.
“I’ve had kids tell me years later that they became a video editor or history teacher,” Osburn says. “One student even told me he had become a captain in the Marine Corp.”