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February 19, 2014

Students Make Movies to Experience US History

by Deborah Block

There's nothing like experiencing history to understand it. So instead of reading about the U.S. Civil War in textbooks, some schoolchildren in Virginia are taking a hands-on approach to learning about what happened in their area. They are creating videos related to the conflict, in which the northern Union and southern Confederate states fought over several issues, including slavery, from 1861-1865. 

The young filmmakers re-enact American history, where it happened. In one scene children portray two Union generals, meeting at the Rapidan River in central Virginia.

The 12- and 13-year-olds are producing a mini-video -- or vodcast -- on the key role temporary pontoon bridges played during the war.  Transported by soldiers, the bridges consisted of small boats tied together with planks on top.  After building and crossing a pontoon bridge on the Rapidan, Union soldiers defeated a Confederate army in the Battle of the Wilderness. 

Shane Lohr, who played one of the generals, learned the bridges provided big advantages for the armies because they could set them up quickly.

“They took wagons, horses, and all the soldiers across the bridges, and once everyone crossed it they took it apart and brought it with them,” Lohr said.

The scene is in one of several videos relating to the Civil War being produced by local school children. The project is sponsored by the Journey Through Hallowed Ground, which raises awareness of historical sites from Pennsylvania to Virginia, including many Civil War battlegrounds.

Jessie Aucoin, the group's Educational Programs Director, said the vodcasts are put to good use.

“We can upload [them] on the Internet and teachers across the country, and arguably, across the world, can then use them in their own classrooms," Aucoin said.

With help from advisors, the children also research, write, and edit the videos. Alexis Albert got a chance to try out directing and learned a lot about Civil War history in the process.

“It helps me more as a student understand it more than reading a book and looking at words,” he said.

In another scenario, students portray soldiers who are marching to the river with muskets. Today, the area is part of a national military park. 

Park Educational Coordinator Peter Maugle shows the children how to hold the fake musket.   
 
“Hopefully they will understand why these places are important through projects and programs like this, and they will make an effort to go ahead and keep these places preserved for future generations,” he said.

Another backdrop for the videos is nearby Ellwood Manor, the plantation where much of the Battle of the Wilderness was fought. At this location another group of children is focusing on the diary of a woman who lived in the region during the war.

Student director John Ashley says the experience has made him think more about the human aspect of the war.

“In history books, you read about the battles and that sort of stuff.  I learned a little bit more about the people who were living here at this time,” said Ashley.

Filmmaker Ghil Hong donated his time to help the students, who he said have caught on quickly.

“They are trying to convey the emotions that might have been conveyed back during the Civil War.  They really focus on wanting the story to be accurate,” Hong added.

The vodcasts will be available in May, and - like student videos produced over the past four years - can be viewed on the Journey Through Hallowed Ground website and on YouTube.