Never mind that they were dressed in
jeans and T-shirts, some in tank tops and running shorts. Never mind
that they carried long wooden dowels instead of muskets, marching in
formation on The Green and not a Civil War battlefield.
On a warm, late-summer afternoon, Ritchie Garrison's History 411 students were learning drills and marches like Union soldiers.
"I am going to let our officers issue non-lethal muskets, which I
bought at Home Depot this morning," said the smiling professor of history and director of the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture. He handed long wooden sticks to his two doctoral students, Lucas Clawson and Tyler Putnam.
Unlike the undergraduates, Clawson and Putnam were dressed the part.
Clawson was a soldier, complete with full beard, forage cap and blue
wool coat. Putnam, a second lieutenant, wore a Prussian-blue officer's
coat and kepi hat.
Both University of Delaware graduate students also happen to be Civil War re-enactors.
The day was one of the highlights of Garrison's course, "The
Emancipation Project," in which undergraduates are creating a digital
version of a Civil War diary passed down to Garrison by his great uncle,
John Ritchie, a quartermaster of the Massachusetts 54th Black Regiment.
Working with the History Media Center's media specialist, Tracy
Jentzsch, the students are helping make this diary accessible to
"They are proofreading the diary and writing a series of short
papers, to be published alongside the diary to make it publicly
available to anyone who would like to read it," Garrison said. "They are
crowdsourcing the information."
"Even though it's an analog kind of day, they will turn this into a
digital aspect when the students begin editing the video," Jentzsch
A rare opportunity
For the students, the course is offering them a rare opportunity to
work with original historical documents, publish their own research
online for distribution, and to actually become a part of what they were
learning, Garrison said.
On this humid day, sunlight dappling through the trees, the juniors
and seniors listened intently as Clawson and Putnam taught them how to
stand at "dress:" lined up closely shoulder-to-shoulder. They learned
how to march with and without "doubling," (side-by-side and in
single-file) and how to "fall in" as they made their way across the
Like a unit-in-training, the students marched, taking their roles
seriously. Some seemed nervous they wouldn't respond correctly to a
The group drew attention from curious passers-by and some students
waved nervously as friends walked past. Others giggled, proud to be
there, marching and learning drills most students only ever read about.
"It's very complicated," said senior Connor Gerstley, a double major
in history and English. "There is much more to this than I ever
Garrison's class had studied the Army Manual of Arms, but actually doing it really brought the lesson home for the class.
"You can read about it all you want," he said to his students. "But
you'll always remember this day. You'll be telling your grandbabies
The class learned how to handle their pretend muskets, responding to
the commands given by Clawson and Putnam to "shoulder arms," "present
arms," and "order arms." There were many commands to learn and
techniques to grasp.
"It takes a bit of coordination," Clawson said, as the class learned
to maneuver their weapons. "It's a lot to keep in mind and a lot to do
with your hands and these [pretend muskets] are light."
During the war, soldiers in rank were packed closely together and
having a good handle on their weapon could be a matter of life or death
for them and their colleagues. Being close together allowed them to fire
en masse, increasing their chances of hitting a target, and also
conveyed unity and strength. But it also left them vulnerable to
misfires and poor aiming abilities.
As the class members learned how to bring their muskets from ground
to hip to shoulder in a ready position, Garrison told them to "look
"Looking soldierly is important not only for discipline," Garrison said, "but also for safety."