Civil War history becomes 'real' for Pa. high school students
MOORESTOWN, Pa. — For weeks, the students of Moorestown High School had read about the American Civil War in books. They completed homework assignments and took quizzes.
But on Friday, the war came to them in a more personal way — through the uniforms, swords, letters, images, and diaries of Moorestown residents who actually fought it.
The Historical Society of Moorestown brought its entire exhibit on "Moorestown During the Civil War" from its headquarters at the Smith-Cadbury Mansion to the school.
The media center was transformed into a museum where students were introduced to Joseph Hugg, a Navy surgeon who served on the Hartford, a flagship commanded by Adm. David Farragut.
They learned of William Gold, a sailor aboard the Cumberland, which was sunk in a battle with the CSS Virginia, formerly the USS Merrimack.
And they heard the story of George Wiltshire, a farmer who joined the Union Army at 19, was wounded twice, and was held as a POW at the Confederacy's dreaded Belle Isle Prison Camp.
But more than that — during the war's 150th anniversary — they could see uniforms worn by some of those veterans and read letters they penned.
"This makes it more real," said Felicia Aukett, 15, a sophomore. "This is specifically from Moorestown residents.
"You can connect to them," she said. "They're from my town."
Nearby was an image of Hugg, ramrod straight in a Union uniform with a double row of buttons.
In a letter to his sister, he wrote:
"In a breathing spell between two battles, I sit down to write a few words to you if I am not called away too soon for we are expecting every minute to get underway. . . ."
On a nearby table, sophomore Ana Sabet-Payman, 15, picked up a sword. "I didn't realize how heavy they were," she said. "I didn't know Moorestown played such a big part in the Civil War."
Though home to many Quakers, the town also had plenty of warriors, even among the Friends, who were conflicted because of their pacifist beliefs and antipathy toward slavery.
The idea for bringing the exhibit to the school was hatched last fall by Lenny Wagner, president of the society, and Andrew Forshay, a history and economics teacher at the school.
"One of our goals was to grow our audience and have more people learn about the collections" at Smith-Cadbury, said Wagner. "One way to do that is to take our exhibits to where the people are."
Besides partnering with schools, the society hopes to present its collections to churches and Rotary Club events, he said.
On Friday, about 200 students saw the Civil War exhibit. Many of them said they had never visited the society's headquarters at 12 High St. — and probably wouldn't have seen the artifacts if they did. The exhibit at Smith-Cadbury Mansion is open from 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesdays and 1 to 3 p.m. Sundays.
"We're always looking for ways of working with the schools," Wagner said. "We think the more the kids learn about their town, the better citizens and students they'll be."
Getting so many students to the exhibit at the society, though, was a problem.
"We said, 'Wouldn't it be great if the kids could see this exhibit about their own community?' " Forshay said of his meeting with Wagner. "It would give them a greater awareness of the [Moorestown] people who fought in the war."
The exhibit in the media center was a hit all day Friday as class after class toured it, saw a video on Moorestown's Civil War participation, and performed Internet searches.
Moorestown residents fought in many of the greatest battles, including Gaines Mill, Va.; Sharpsburg, Md.; Fredericksburg, Va., and Gettysburg.
Some of Wiltshire's descendants live in Cherry Hill, North Jersey and Richmond, Va., Wagner said. It wasn't clear whether the descendants of other veterans remain in the area.
"The students looked closely at the displays and took notes," said Forshay. "They were engaged. There was very little off-task behavior."
The 10th graders were "asked to identify certain people and items, and give descriptions of something that had an impact on them," said media center specialist John Bishop. "That helped keep them on task."
Seeing the relics and letters "gives you perspective," said student Kiara Serrano, 15. "What were they thinking? Who did they know and who did they love? You get into their minds a little bit."
The impact of the war on Moorestown surprised student Dominick Caprarola. "I didn't know there was an Underground Railroad stop [in a house] on Main Street," he said, after seeing a photo of a familiar location. "That's really cool."
"I pass that house every day," added Max Argentieri, 16. "I wouldn't have known. I've got to read more to get specific information."
Some of the items on display were personal. They included Hugg's diary as well as his flute and toiletry case.
While students studied them, the eyes of soldiers and sailors stared from faded images.
"I like the swords," said Eurim Kahyaoglu, 15. "They look so ancient.
"I didn't know a lot about the Civil War," he said, "and now I'm learning how much Moorestown people impacted it."