Students re-enact history lesson with "Pikesville's Charge"


Standing squinting in bright sunlight on a wide lacrosse field, Genesis Mayer knew the story. As she fell into a long row, stretched and exposed behind Pikesville Middle School, she heard her teacher, Matt Young, bark out orders and imagined herself in another place, another time, when life wasn't nearly as sanguine.

Was this how it felt in those fields outside a sleepy Pennsylvania town called Gettysburg, on that hot July day in 1863, when Major General George Pickett lined up his rebel forces and prepared them for one last charge against Union forces massed atop a long, low rise called Cemetery Ridge? They had already endured two days of savage combat, and now they were being asked to advance into the center of Union forces, the teeth of General George Meade's army, and hope for some salvation.

As a Grade 8 student in Mr. Young's social studies class, Genesis knew it was not to be. Pickett's Charge, as the historic assault came to be called, was at once both the farthest north the Confederate army ever got and a military disaster that ended General Robert E. Lee's hopes of pressing the Civil War into Union territory.

But it was on a human scale that Genesis and her classmates now related to the cataclysm that befell the nation in the 1860s. "Standing there in the hot, humid field among my friends who decided to 'die,' I felt a cloud of dread," Genesis said in language that could have come out of a soldier's Civil War diary. "I then realized the real soldiers felt the same, only in much greater magnitude."

Added classmate Lauren Losin, "It was one thing in class when we learned about the challenges both sides faced in the Civil War, but it was definitely something else when we went onto the 'battlefield' and experienced the challenges for ourselves."

Those challenges, for two days this month on the Pikesville athletic fields, included learning military parlance and orders, how to march and maintain order in a regimented line, and experiencing just a little bit about how it must have felt for young soldiers those many years ago.

The backyard field trip has been a project for Young for the past eight years, and one always highly anticipated by his young recruits, in part because Young dresses in the blue uniform of a Union soldier of the time.  He equips his soldiers with painted yardsticks meant to represent Civil War-era rifles.

"I started holding this 'reenactment' nine years ago after a student suggested it might be a neat activity to go along with our Civil War unit in American History class," Young said. "It has been a yearly tradition since.  . . . The students who participate are all volunteers (like most Civil War soldiers) from my various classes and my goal is for them to get a small taste for what it felt like to be a Civil War soldier.  While we can never truly recreate battle conditions, I think getting outside, training and marching together helps the students to understand the sense of camaraderie that soldiers shared as well as the physical demands and challenges of being a soldier." 

Two years ago, Young took students on a field trip to the Antietam (Md.) battlefield, holding his reenactment on the fields where the battle actually occurred. 

This year, Young and his students had to settle for the lacrosse fields at Pikesville, but the experience was no less intense. Despite the nervous giggles and under-the-breath commentary, Young's students listened closely to his instructions about tamping down rifle shot, about marching forward, about holding the line when the enemy opened fire.

Though not a formal reenactor, Young says he learned how to drill his students from documents he's studied and a teacher institute he attended in Virginia.

"It was really cool to reenact things we read about in textbooks and make them come to life," said Grade 8 student Sami Semiatin.

"Being a Civil War soldier required bravery and a lot of coordination," noted student Michael Schuman. "It's crazy to think people actually did stuff like that."

Led by Young, the students finally charged across the field toward a grove of trees, an approximation of a "copse of trees" atop Cemetery Ridge that historians say was the Confederate goal.  Pikesville's Charge was mostly whoops and yells and a few fallen "soldiers" amid the lines, but when the dust had cleared and the day's exercise was done, the impression it left lingered.  

Aida Porter-Hyatt felt it, and she let the lesson seep in.  "It took all of the might of every Union soldier and so much more for our country to become united forever at last," she said. "Thousands upon thousands had to die to have freedom for all."

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Story and photos by Charles Herndon, BCPS communications specialist
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