“It Was So Much Fun! I Died of Massive Blood Loss!”

The problem with Civil War reenactments for children

By Karen Park Koenig

Illustrator: Karen Koenig

Shouldn’t their consciousness be raised, too?
Photo courtesy of Karen Koenig

It was so much fun! I got shot in the leg and died of massive blood loss!” With these words my daughter’s friend, a 5th grader in the Appleton, Wis., public schools, completed her happily breathless description of the Civil War battle reenactment she had participated in that day.

Each spring since the early 1990s, 5th graders in Appleton have, as part of their social studies curriculum, participated in a daylong American Civil War reenactment which culminates in a 30-minute battle sequence. Though not common, Civil War reenactments do take place in elementary schools throughout the country, although most feature modified battles (one school used ping pong balls) or allow children to watch a reenactment without actually participating in the mock killing. In Appleton, the children dress realistically and participate fully in mock warfare. While the teachers are present during the entire exercise, the reenactment is supervised and facilitated by “professional” adult Civil War reenactors who bring with them actual battle plans from Civil War battles waged on land far from this upper-midwestern soil. Teachers separate the children into Union and Confederate armies and distribute the appropriate blue or gray uniforms which are then worn by the children throughout the daylong event. Each child is also issued a large, black, wooden facsimile rifle?and when the battle begins, the children aim at their friends and classmates, and shoot to kill. The child soldiers are also given cards which describe their “fate” on the battlefield. These include survival, grave injury, or grave injury followed by death.

Why is the Appleton school district teaching war in this way? What are the pedagogical priorities here? How did such an exercise become part of the social studies curriculum for children as young as 10? What sort of follow-up is offered so that the children can contextualize their experiences with mock battle and death? After speaking with parents informally about these issues for several weeks, I decided that our concerns needed to be taken to the district administration. During a two-hour meeting which took place in the summer of 2008, I presented some of the following pedagogical and ethical questions and concerns to the Assistant Superintendent in charge of social studies curriculum: First, what are the children learning about war during this exercise, and why are they learning it? Without exception, when they are asked, the students themselves describe the battle as “fun.” It is obvious that unless the purpose of the Civil War reenactment is to teach the students that war is fun, the reenactment would seem to be a failure on that basis alone. The administrator assured me that the pedagogical goal was not to teach that war is fun, but could not articulate in positive terms what the goal was. In fact she told me, “I don’t think we’ve ever talked about it.”

Many of the district’s school websites proudly display photographs of the 5th graders participating in the Civil War reenactment battle. These photos show children holding rifles up to their eyes and squinting down the barrels, with their friends and classmates in their sights. They also, perhaps most disturbingly, show children lying scattered in the grass both “dead” and “dying.” When these photos are juxtaposed with some of the many extant photographs of actual Civil War battlefields it becomes clear that what the children are being asked, even required, to do by their teachers is to enact violence, death, and horror as they place their own friends in the crosshairs, and then lie down motionless in a grassy field to “die.” Parents also participate in the battle reenactment. Many choose to attend the battle as spectators, cheering one side or another as the casualties mount. They are also asked to compose letters ahead of time to their children on the “front,” which the children open and read while “encamped.” In these ways the schools invite and encourage parents to participate in the mock agony and even the deaths of their own 10- and 11-year-old sons and daughters. And yet all of this curricular engagement with violence, on the part of students, teachers, parents, and community members, takes place without any clear pedagogical intent; it is both presented to and received by the community as part of a “fun” outdoor field-day-type experience.

The Appleton 5th-grade Civil War battle reenactment raises many troublesome issues related to pedagogy. For example, how can this reenactment be reconciled with the school district’s own prohibition against weapons or facsimile weapons of any kind? According to the bylaws of the Appleton Public School district:

The Appleton Area School District is committed to providing a safe and secure learning environment for all District students. No one shall possess, use, threaten the use of, or store a weapon or look-alike weapon on school property, in any vehicle located on school property, in any school facility, in any school vehicle, or at any school-sponsored event or function.

At no time during the preparation for the reenactment, or the reenactment itself, does anyone make clear to the students that this activity is an exception to the district’s own policies (or why). No one explains that should the students decide to continue the reenactment on the playground the next day, they will face possible expulsion or criminal prosecution. Why is this activity allowed as an exception to the district’s own bylaws, which were developed in order to support the educational goals of the entire district?

Another issue involves safety. Northeastern Wisconsin is a part of the country with a robust hunting and gun culture. Yet the schools don’t teach that the Civil War reenactment is an activity that must not be continued over the summer, after school, or on the weekend, when many children have access to real weapons in their homes. There is no safety education, no sensitivity to the experience of students who have parents or siblings on the current battlefields of Iraq or Afghanistan, no awareness of the global human rights atrocities being perpetuated on child soldiers in Africa, Asia, and South America, no attention to the ways in which the race and ethnicity of the students might impact their experiences on a mock Civil War battlefield. In short none of the pedagogical, ethical, social, or historical issues inherent in this activity are addressed sufficiently, or at all.

Role-playing and hands-on learning can and should be powerful educational tools. Reenactment is not the same as role-playing, however. In the case of Civil War reenactments, attention is often paid only to imitation and antiquarianism (What maneuvers were actually performed on the original battlefield? What did the soldiers’ belt buckles look like?) and very little to history. The teaching of the history of war in our classrooms must include critical engagement with the issues raised by large-scale destruction and death, or it is not history at all. If the students are required to take on the role of soldiers, to both “kill” and be “killed” then they must also be asked to consider questions like “What did it feel like to kill someone at close range?” “How might the conflict have been mitigated or avoided?” “What other choices were available to the combatants?” Other questions, too, would be important for the students role-playing Civil War battles to grapple with if they are really learning history and not just imitating events from the past. For example, “Why is it that we reenact the Civil War and not the Battle of Fallujah?” If the students are too young to engage with these questions, then they are certainly too young to enact such violence and brutality on one another.

After our meeting, the assistant superintendent promised to take these concerns to the rest of the administration and to the principals of the 15 Appleton elementary schools. She did so, and early in the fall of 2008 the principals agreed that the battle reenactment was problematic on many levels, and decided to eliminate it. The rest of the day’s activities, which include demonstrations about Civil War “camp life,” medical care, and cooking would remain unchanged, but the children would no longer take up arms against one another, and no longer be asked to lie down in the grass and “die of massive blood loss” while their parents and the community looked on. A responsible decision, but one that would not stand.

On March 5, 2009, the parents of Appleton’s 5th graders received a letter from Superintendent Lee Allinger informing them of the decision to remove the battle from the day’s activities. One week later, on March 12, the local newspaper, the Appleton Post-Crescent, ran a front-page story with the sensational headline “Appleton Schools Slash Civil War Reenactment Battle.” The first line of the article set the divisive tone of the rest of the piece by claiming that “a school program designed to offer fifth-graders a feel for conditions faced by soldiers during the Civil War will no longer include its most popular feature.” The online comments from readers of this first story, which quickly climbed into the hundreds, included calls for petitions to reinstate the battle, and many creative epithets for the “politically correct” and “whiny” parents and school officials who supposedly want to “sanitize” history by not teaching the children how war “really was.” But of course the main objection to the activity is precisely that it does not teach children about the reality of war and its terrible costs, but instead treats it like a costume party.

The furor grew, fueled almost entirely by the local media. Television news interviewed both children and parents in favor of the battle, several petitions in favor of reinstatement were submitted to school officials, the local paper printed more front-page articles, and calls and emails flooded both the school district headquarters and the schools themselves. Within days, Superintendent Allinger announced that the district would reconsider its original decision and soon the school district sent parents another letter informing them that the district’s decision had been rescinded and the battle scene would be reinstated. This same letter also explained that beginning in fall 2009 each school site will form a committee of parents, teachers, and students to study the format of the Civil War reenactment day for their building, but stressed that the district itself would not make a ruling, instead allowing the decision about the battle to be made at the school level. Perhaps these committees will lead to real change over time, but it is clear from the overwhelming support for the battle on the part of parents and community members, this change will not come quickly or easily. It is also clear that the administration has, at least for now, abdicated its leadership role with regard to framing the pedagogical intent behind an important curricular issue. If it is true that this controversy has, at the very least, ensured that the district cannot go back to the days of unthinking acceptance of this activity, it also seems that it will not be able to move forward unless the complex issues of peace education, war education, historical “truth,” violence, safety, and human rights are put back on the table.

My spouse and I cannot allow our daughter or our sons to take up arms against their friends, as this is against our values as parents, educators, and religious and ethical people. A suggestion to allow the children to enact the historical role of “Red Strings” (members of an anti-Civil war pacifist group whose numbers approached 10,000 during the 1860s) has meanwhile been rejected. In fact, peace will not be mentioned or enacted in any way on Civil War reenactment day because, as was explained to me by my own principal, who has been supportive of my concerns throughout this controversy, “The district does not want any more disputes this year.” The avoidance of controversy has trumped real historical engagement. Unless the reenactment includes questions about the historical complexities of the Civil War which push students beyond the caricatures about the North and South, slavery and emancipation, that too often pass for historical “truth” in our nation’s classrooms, the students are merely play-acting violence and death in an activity that, ultimately, has very little to do with U.S. history.

Why an entire community would rally to ensure that some of its youngest members be forced to take up arms as part of their 5th-grade curriculum, and why school administrators would capitulate with so little attention to the historical and pedagogical issues outlined here, are questions I will ask myself for many years to come as I continue the long struggle for peace, and thoughtful, consistent, educational policy.

Karen Park Koenig (Karen.Koenig@snc.edu) is an assistant professor of Religious Studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis., and the mother of three elementary-aged children who attend the Appleton Public Schools.