Special to the Sun / Mona Shield Payne
Saturday, May 30, 2009 | noon
By the final battle, the Union soldiers were ready to die.
“Hit me, hit me,” the Edna Hinman Elementary School fifth-graders under the command of Mark Giuliano begged their Confederate counterparts.
After an hour of maneuvers on Mat 29 at the Wells Park baseball diamond in Henderson — their wool uniforms already shed in the 94-degree heat — the students just wanted to feel the water balloons burst against their skin.
The reenactment of the Battle of Bull Run — that’s the Battle of Manassas if you’re from the South — was the soaking conclusion of a three-month study of the Civil War and its battle tactics led by James Edwards of the Veterans of Foreign War Post 983.
The water-balloon battle is part of a new program the post, with help of other VFW groups, has put together for Hinman and J.M. Ullom Elementary schools to bring history alive and teach order and discipline to the students.
The program is based on President Abraham Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers for 90 days in 1861. Each fifth-grade class became a regiment for the three months, and the teachers became colonels.
Students took the role of soldiers during drills every Wednesday, teacher Stacy Skinner said. They had to earn the right to become standard bearers, corporals and sergeants for the final reenactment.
They learned how to march in formation, lead troops and hold their fire. They learned that when a leader falls in battle, the next person in authority has to take over — even if it’s a private, Edwards said.
During a pre-battle inspection, Edwards ask student after student, “Sergeant, who will replace you if you fall?” “Private, are you ready to replace that corporal if she gets shot?”
He smiled with satisfaction as he watched during battle after battle different students take charge as others were taken out. He pointed out with pride how the front line of troops kneeled so the back lines could throw water balloons over their heads.
And he noted that one side had to stand there as targets while the water balloons were carried from the supply point.
“That mimics what happened in real battles,” Edwards said. “It took 20 to 30 seconds to reload. They have to go through the frustration of standing there and being shot at while they wait to get their order to fire.”
The lessons spilled over into the students’ lives, Skinner said.
“It turned them around,” she said. “They don’t want to miss school. It helped with grades. They wanted to be able to participate.”
When the program started in March, Skinner said, 10 of her students had more than 20 assignments missing. By the day of the reenactment, only three were missing any.
Posters are up to recruit for next year, she said, and “the fourth graders are saying, ‘I can’t wait to get there. I want to be a sergeant.’”
During a break, Tristan Bronson bragged, “I hit Mr. Giuliano here and here,” pointing to his shoulder and upper thigh.
As the students headed back into battle, Bryan Shaffer paused to explain his role. “I’m the quartermaster. I give out the balloons to people so they can throw them. I’m very important,” he said.
This year’s fifth graders are the first class to participate in the program but, Edwards said, they won’t be the last. The VFW plans to keep the program going so that these students can return as parents and watch their children perform the same drills.