Friday, February 3, 2023

This summer, these kids are spending a week in a very different world

Confederate campers on the move at Endview Plantation. Alison Johnson/HNNDaily
Confederate campers on the move at Endview Plantation. (Alison Johnson/HNNDaily)

NEWPORT NEWS — Life as a Civil War soldier is full of surprises for a modern kid. How communications were built around flag motions and hastily-laid telegraph wires. How troops stayed in precise lines not only to march but to fight. How many steps went into loading a musket.

The disgusting vegetables that were part of the food rations? That’s probably easier for kids at Endview Plantation’s annual summer Civil War camps to grasp.

Sometimes served with hard biscuits and salted beef or pork, “desiccated vegetables” were mixtures of potatoes, beans, peas, beets, carrots, cabbage and more that had been ground up, dried and pressed into blocks for transport. Once they finally reached soldiers, they went into boiling water for softening.

“They weren’t popular,” notes Timothy Greene, education coordinator for the 18th-century property in Lee Hall. “A lot of soldiers called them ‘desecrated’ vegetables. It’s one of the things we can talk about to give these kids a sense of how hard a life this was.”

Endview’s week-long camps are designed to immerse young Civil War buffs in battlefield life. Divided into Union and Confederate regimens, kids carry cap guns and canteens, learn military drills and commands, trek through forests and fields and fight both historic and fictional battles. One camp wrapped up last week, and another will run in late July.

“I couldn’t believe all the smoke from the guns,” says Evan Craft, 10, of Newport News, after one mock battle. “It was everywhere. I know a lot more how they felt now.”

Diving into the past

Built in 1769, Endview has a rich history that includes use as a Confederate hospital, occupation by federal troops and a temporary home for relocated black farmers toward the end of the war. This past week, it hosted 32 kids, ages 8 to 13, who focused on several battles fought in 1863.

Campers get to choose whether to be a Confederate or Union soldier, and numbers are usually evenly split, Greene says. A few kids even have pre-researched the week’s battles to get on the winning side.

Kids don “kepi” hats, once-popular caps with flat circular tops and visors, and carry “haversack” bags, single-shouldered packs where soldiers carried gear, food and personal items. They’re also issued cap guns – toys that still create loud bangs and puffs of smoke – and water canteens.

Troops take a break to talk to Timothy Greene, right, Education Coordinator at Endview Plantation. Alison Johnson/HNNDaily
Troops take a break to talk to Timothy Greene, right, education coordinator at Endview Plantation. (Alison Johnson/HNNDaily)

The first day is all about mastering basic maneuvers, which admittedly isn’t so fun.

“But that’s what real soldiers went through, when they also just wanted to get out there and fight,” Greene notes.

Historic battles follow a script, while impromptu contests generally involve capturing a flag.

“It’s fun ’cause we just get to shoot our guns and run in the woods,” says Luke James, 11, of Gloucester.

Some surprising lessons

Campers also learn many unexpected facts.

“The soldiers played baseball then,” volunteers William Buxton, 8, of West Virginia.

It’s true: bored soldiers turned to the sport, one of Abraham Lincoln’s favorites, with balls made of walnuts, yarn and horsehide, bats carved from tree limbs and no gloves.

“I didn’t know how much bands played,” adds Patrick Linkous, 12, of Yorktown.

In fact, sometimes fifers, drummers and buglers from opposing armies played in a sort of contest the night before a battle.

Campers bring their own lunches, but Greene fills them in on a typical day’s diet for a soldier: 10 biscuits, known as “hardtack”, and three-quarters of a pound of extremely salty meat. Sometimes, bugs got into bread. Union regimens did tend to be better supplied, traveling with cattle for fresh meat.

And then there’s the mysterious world of pre-cellphone messaging. Along with telegraphs, armies had colored signal flags – mostly white for use against green backgrounds, for example, or mostly black for bright skies – to “talk” over miles with precise motions. At night, torches took over.

The next session of Civil War camp at Endview will run the week of July 23. Alison Johnson/HNNDaily
The next session of Civil War camp at Endview will run the week of July 23. (Alison Johnson/HNNDaily)

While programs such as Endview’s camp and this summer’s World War II-themed camps at the Virginia War Museum must compete with technology and other specialty camps, Greene feels they’ll always be a draw.

“You get to make a lot of noise and run around,” he says. “It’s a great way to get an education.”

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