SALEM – A Confederate soldier in full uniform, wearing U.S.-issued brogan shoes and armed with an 1842 Springfield musket calmly answered questions from fifth-graders about how he and his buddies defended Salem from Union invaders 150 years ago.
Inside the Salem Museum, Union soldier Larkin Burwell told kids how he came to drive wagonloads of supplies for the Army of the North in the 127th Colored Troops, served in Texas, then worked as a dining room attendant in West Virginia before being buried in an unmarked grave in East Hill Cemetery North.
No shots were fired the day the young people visited, on the 150th anniversary of Averell’s Raid, when all of the fifth grade students in Salem Schools had an opportunity to meet the War Between the States in person.
Doug Camper had his cooking pot, an iron pan, and other contents of his haversack spread on a small patch of ground near the main door. “The difference between our boys and is that you’re wearing shoes,” said Camper, to South Salem Elementary students fresh off the school bus who were already shivering in the 40-degrees and wind.
Stone Chaisson and friend Zain McFann inspected Camper’s cooking bucket with lid.
“We learned how the bullets changed over the years, from Minie balls to big bullets,” explained G.W. Carver student Hallie Darnall later.
“I liked the Confederate soldiers in the encampment,” said Stephen Vandoren. “It was pretty cool how they used certain weapons, like the swords.”
He learned the difference in a Confederate sword – a ceremonial, straight-bladed weapon – and a saber – which is slightly curved and longer – from Andrew Lewis Middle School history teacher and re-enactor Greg Gallion, who was stationed upstairs, wearing a colonel’s uniform.
Carver student Owen Roberson could tell a visitor exactly why Salem had been under attack in 1863: “It was a military target because of the railroad line laid through the valley,” he said.
In December 1863, Union Gen. William Averell brought a Cavalry unit to Salem to destroy the tracks of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, the students’ handout prepared by Salem Museum Director John Long explained.
On exactly the same day as the students’ field trip, Dec. 16, Averell’s raiders arrived in Salem where they killed Capt. Thomas Chapman when they briefly seized the town. The Union troops destroyed miles of track, the depot, a mill and seized or burned supplies and food stuffs that could not be replaced.
Long’s summary of history relates that the Yankees then made “a daring escape back to Union territory through the frigid Virginia countryside.”
Inside the museum, Dolores Eames and four other members of a Daughters of the Confederacy chapter from Rocky Mount explained how the war affected women.
“If a lady lost her husband or son, she would decide to wear black,” explained Martha Hubbard of the Jubal Early Chapter of the UDC. “Even if she got married again, she would dress in black when she went out in public.”
On the second floor of the museum, John Whitfield as Burwell fascinated students who were meeting a Yankee for the first time.
“It was against the law to teach an African slave to read and write,” Whitfield told an astonished group. “My brother had learned to read and write. I joined him in Philadelphia, and fought for ‘a brand new life of freedom.’ I earned a whole $12 a month. Why, you could feed a family for $12,” said Whitfield who is a volunteer interpreter at the Booker T. Washington birthplace in Franklin County.
Although the almost 300 fifth-graders spent only 10 minutes listening to interpreters and asking questions in the four stations, they came away more than only entertained.
“The field trip relates to several items in the Standards of Learning,” explained Diane Washenberger, director of elementary instruction for Salem Schools. “Even though fifth-graders will not study the Civil War until later in the school year, the field trip provides a good introduction for them.”