Sure, life for teens today can be tough…you have to deal with dating, college applications and pressure from every direction imaginable. But what about for teens who lived in the 1860s, during the height of the Civil War? On February 19th, Amy Alessio --- author of TAKING THE HIGH GROUND, part-time librarian in Illinois and frequent Civil War reenactor --- decided to celebrate Black History Month and her book by teaching local teens a thing or two about military and teenage life in the 1860s. Read below to learn more about this fun event!
On Wednesday, February 19, teens gathered at the Schaumburg Twp. Dist. Library in IL, where I am a part-time teen librarian, to participate in a Civil War Mystery Party. The event was also to celebrate Black History Month and the publication of my young adult mystery, Taking the High Ground. That story features 16-year-old Joelle, who is embarrassed by her family’s Civil War reenacting --- and also trying to solve a murder.
I was inspired to write the book as I sat in hoop skirts around campsites as a reenactor. My husband, Kyle Dodson, and I have participated in Civil War reenacting as part of the 10th Illinois Unit, modeled after an actual military group. We’ve gone to battlefields and helped educate groups about Illinois in the Civil War and about the Underground Railroad in Illinois. Kyle is even a soldier (and a body) in the movie shown to visitors at the Stones River National Battlefield in Murfreesboro, TN.
At the Civil War Mystery Party, teens got to write an explanation for a crime scene they viewed as they came in the room. Reenacting artifacts along with modern accessories including a cell phone, an iPod and an asthma inhaler were scattered near a Civil War era quilt. Teens were invited to offer an explanation for why someone would run from the fictional reenactment and leave those particular articles behind. Two teens tied for most creative answers. One of those teens tied in the inhaler, phone, shoe, fan, quilt, journal and more in a fantastic explanation involving how the person was wanted for another crime and fled the scene of this one. That would have been a good scene for my book!
Kyle and I then invited teens to dress up in soldiers’ or ladies’ clothing. The soldier uniform included hot, scratchy wool layers, heavy leather straps, ammunition, gear, backpack and even an authentic Civil War musket. No one could believe how heavy the gear or musket was on top of the uncomfortable uniform. As many battles occurred in the summer, teens really got an unpleasant understanding of what life was like for the troops! Kyle showed them the musket and showed a few of the nine steps required to load it. As he showed them the bayonet, everyone realized that the triangular shape could really do some damage if you got stabbed with it! We discussed the lack of hygiene and medical treatment along with the damage the 1860s bullets would do. Our son Joshua is African-American, and we talked about how he would have been in a different, segregated unit, though still an infantryman from Illinois. A few teens had seen the movie Glory and knew about this.
We also talked about the life of women at home in Illinois in the 1860s. Three volunteers got to try on a work dress for farm life, a fancy day dress with hoops for social outings and even a ball gown with five layers of underwear. No teens liked the corset but I used to like wearing it while reenacting, as it would hold up all those layers! In TAKING THE HIGH GROUND, Joelle makes her own costumes. In the 1860s they would make and remake their outfits to get the most wear and to manage when supplies were low. Frequently dresses would have an additional band of fabric added when hemlines grew short or worn. Scraps from worn dresses would be remade into new. All teens agreed that even all the preparation required for modern proms is simple compared to getting ready for a Civil War ball.
Ladies 25 and older wore more mature fashions which amused the teens. I explained that I would have been downright elderly at 42 years old, by 1860s standards. Teenage girls would be considered young adults and be available to marry or start their own households or farms. Many teen men went off to fight for both sides.
Joelle works on quilts in the book when her family participated in Living History events. Some believe that quilts contained codes signaling that a home was part of the Underground Railroad, but others disagree. What is definitely true, though, is that quilt blocks had (and still have) symbolic meanings assigned by the designer. I have machine-pieced quilts, and sometimes make them by hand at events for the public. Good hand quilting requires 10 to 12 stitches an inch, though, and I do not have the patience for that!
The event ended as teens had apple pie and sugar cookies, which are similar to desserts served in the 1860s. Kyle passed around a nasty piece of hardtack bread that one observer said “looked like a Pop Tart,” but no one wanted to eat it. We discussed the rations available to soldiers, and how at home, people would have cooked over a fire. Kyle and I have eaten better at some reenactments than at some restaurants --- it can be delicious, though slow and a lot of work.
I enjoyed hearing teens complaining about the layers of underwear or uncomfortable clothes as they left the program. While life for today’s teens is not easy, seeing the necessities of life in the 1860s gave us all perspective.