HM - May 2015 - Reed

Classroom Applications


Digging Into Civil War History
By Tom Reed

High school and middle school students are literally getting a hands-on approach to Civil War history at an archaeology site in northern Ohio.  For more than two decades, the Center for Historic and Military Archaeology of Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio, has been excavating the site of a Union prison for Confederate officers on Johnson’s Island, near Sandusky on Lake Erie. Dr. David Bush, professor of anthropology and director of CHMA, has opened the program up to younger students to work alongside university students in doing the tedious, methodical work.

An 1863 drawing from the Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The prison was hastily built in 1862 on the small island in Sandusky Bay. During the course of the war, it housed almost 10,000 prisoners, as many as 3,200 at any one time. The island location made escape difficult, but not impossible. There were several attempts, and some were successful.

Students from Danville (OH) High School excavate a section of the Johnson’s Island prison.

Dr. Bush has been directing an archaeological study of the 16.5-acre site since 1988. A few years later he initiated a program to bring in students from the fifth through twelfth grades for a one-day session. About 30 schools participate each year. Working under a big white tent, the students get down on their hands and knees and carefully evacuate one unit (a two-meter square) at a time. When they find something of interest, they are told to avoid the temptation to pull it out and see what it is. Instead they carefully mark it and work around it to see if there are any other related pieces. They collect the soil in buckets and take it outside to sift it under supervision of Dr. Bush, his staff, and university students.

Dr. Bush and two students examine contents of a “dig box”.

Bush says items like pieces of glass, buttons, and nails are found on a daily basis. While I was there, a high school freshman found a glittering metal object, which turned out to be a gold hairpin, thought to be used to keep eyeglasses in place. Items of significance like this are numbered and cataloged.

But the project is more than simply finding and identifying artifacts.  Dr. Bush places great emphasis on integrating the archaeological findings with historical research, relying on such things as diaries and letters. During lunch breaks, he reads aloud from these primary source documents. “If the students can hear what the captives wrote,” he says,  “it helps bring home the experience.”

Mike Beheler, a history teacher from Danville High School in central Ohio, used similar phrasing to describe the value of the experience to students in his elective class on Civil War history. Several of them found objects, two of which were labeled and cataloged as field specimens, including the gold piece found by the freshman.
Students from Danville High School are briefed at the cemetery where more than 200 Confederate officers are buried.

When school groups arrive at Johnson’s Island, Dr. Bush meets them at the Confederate Cemetery, the only place on the mostly-residential island that’s open to the public. More than 200 men are buried there, 52 of them unknown. Dr. Bush briefs the students and asks some challenging questions, such as “Where do you go to find out about Johnson’s Island?” There are books about it in libraries near Sandusky, but probably not in most students’ hometowns.

A teacher from the Lorain County Early College High School, Mark Jaworski, prepared his students for the visit in cooperation with other faculty members. An English teacher assigned them to research a specific prisoner buried on the island and write a report. When they got to the cemetery, they each located their prisoner’s headstone. “It makes it real for the students knowing that they are standing three feet above the remains,” Jaworski says.

One student, Elliott Pawloski, was assigned to study Robert M. Smith, who took pictures of his fellow prisoners with a camera he fashioned from materials such as cigar boxes and pieces of copper with an army spyglass for the lens. Since this was against the rules, he bribed the guards to bring him the chemicals he needed.

Another student, Savannah Miscuda, wrote an eloquent essay about the prisoner she was studying, Joel Barnett, using alternate sentences in her voice and his.

The full-page document opens like this:
My name is Savannah Miscuda.
My name is Joel Barnett.
I’ve been learning about Johnson’s Island.
I’ve been imprisoned on Johnson’s Island.
My teacher took me to visit the island.
My captors took me to die on the island.

One of the Heidelberg University students supervising the Danville High School dig in 2014 was Felicia Konrad, who was graduating that year with a double major in history and anthropology. She became interested in the Civil War after seeing a reenactment when she was in the third grade, and in archaeology as a fifth grader, after taking part in a five-week summer course by Dr. Bush. She remembers the excitement she felt when she uncovered an artifact and realized she was the first person to see it in 150 years.

It is this intertwining of the scientific pursuit of archaeology with the study of history that marks the Heidelberg program. Dr. Bush’s use of primary source documents is not limited to readings at the site.  He is the author of a book I Fear I Shall Never Leave This Island: Life in a Civil War Prison, published in 2011 by the University of Florida press. It’s based mostly on letters between a prisoner, Wesley Makely, and his wife Kate from Alexandria, Virginia.

Johnson’s Island is one of the few Civil War sites in Ohio and is a National Historic Landmark.
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