With jackets buttons, caps slightly askew and imitation muskets perched on their shoulders, a group of elementary schoolchildren marched in time to the beat of the drum and attempted to stay in a straight line.
Spending a few days in the life of a Union Army soldier is the focus of the Eating Goober Peas day camp at the Mahaffie Stage Coach Stop and Farm.
The camp — aimed at ages 7 to 12 — teaches kids some of the basic skills someone would have needed to know as a Civil War soldier.
“The kids really enjoy pretending they’re civil war soldiers, it’s a chance to march and drill. They get to see firearms in action. They get a chance to experience the rest of the farm as well,” said Katie Lange, daily programs coordinator at Mahaffie.
This is the third summer for the camp, which uses historical re-enactors to teach kids about life at the front in the 1860s. Mahaffie also offers farming and cowboy camps and a young ladies’ academy.
“We know there’s a lot of interest in the Civil War, especially for young guys. It’s an appealing sort of topic and a great way to get them out from in front of the screen,” Lange said. “…to say a 9-year-old is all of the sudden going to appreciate the complexities of the Civil War-- that’s quite a task… but when we think of the stories of the people who build our community, that’s fun, and they’re interested in learning more.”
One of the things they learn is that a soldier’s life wasn’t just about battles.
“I like the practical side that they don’t realize the soldiers (needed to know), You did know how to sew. You did know how to cook. You needed to have some of those practical skills,” said Mary Schmidt, historic interpreter and site guide. This year's camp took place June 18 to 22.
Last week, one camper told her he didn’t know how to sew — then surprised himself by showing Schmidt a more complicated stitch than the one she was trying to teach him.
“They always want to tell you right away, ‘I don’t know how to do that.’ And that’s why we’re at camp,” Schmidt said.
Seven-year-old Marley Eden sewed a button onto his haversack — a canvas bag soldiers carried — without help, surprising everyone with his skill.
The kids cooked bacon over a camp fire and tried hardtack, a long-lasting cracker than was a staple of a Civil War soldier’s diet.
And although the sight of muskets sent a ripple of excited chatter through the group, volunteer Charlie Pautler said he’s quick to teach them that those imitation firearms aren’t toys.
“We try and instill in them that the Civil War was a pretty serious deal, and it was the defining moment in our nation’s history, we try to teach them that this dummy (musket) symbolizes something very solemn,” Pautler said.
“The Civil War, it wasn’t fun and games. It was a real national struggle that revolved around people losing their lives. We try and teach that, but we also teach all the aspects of life back then.”
Pautler, who’s the director of Shawnee Town 1929 when he’s not volunteering as a re-enactor, wants the kids to enjoy the experience but also learn something. Sometimes that’s a challenge when the kids want to point muskets at each other or play with drumsticks instead of learning about battlefield communications.
“You see movies and miniseries on Netflix, and you get a real idea of what you think the Civil War was like, but in actuality, it’s usually far different than what we see on film. We try and give them a little bit grittier version of that but still make it educational and fun,” Pautler said.
At least once a camp, one of them will ask Paulter if he was in the Civil War. He doesn't let the question bother him.