The Past is Made of Family History


For the past month or so in our homeschool, we have been investigating the American Civil War.  What a fantastic topic for a unit study!  It can include history, geography, science (Physics of cannon balls? Anatomy?  Biology and bacteriology?), art (photography, battlefield sketches done for newspapers), math (percentages, averages, distance, multiplication – if 26 soldiers received $13 per month for a 3 year tour of duty…), writing (recruitment posters, letters to and from the front, newspaper articles, speeches), debate, reading (many historical novels for kids deal with this period, in addition to textbooks and nonfiction accounts); philosophy;  human rights…we could probably work in P.E. if it weren’t January in Alaska.  I doubt any Union or Confederate soldiers did much drilling or marching in temperatures below 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

All of this is wonderful stuff, and lets us dig deeper into the topic than we would if my Boy and Girl were public school kids.  The best part, however, is the connection we can make to history through our own family.

My father is an avid genealogist, as is my mother-in-law.  Thanks to my dad’s research, I knew long ago that when we got to the Civil War, I could share with the kids the story of their great-great-great-great grandfather, the Union soldier, but I didn’t have any details for him, other than the name “James B. Hawk,” and that he survived the war.  I emailed my dad for more info on James B., and any other ancestors he knew of who were involved.

Dad came through with FIVE relatives and their military history.  I wondered if there might have been any relatives who fought for the Confederacy; he remembered about a multiple-great uncle (Andrew Hawk) who left Pennsylvania in 1784 for the South, eventually ending up in Augusta, Georgia.  It was possible … After checking with a Hawk cousin in Oklahoma (whom he’d met through previous research), he discovered that there were many, and sent on some military detail and stories of life in the South during the war and Reconstruction.

Knowing that my mother-in-law is also interested in genealogy (and her grandkids education), I cc’d her on the emails going back and forth between my dad and me.  She looked into that side of the family.  With the help of another distant relative, she came up with some more great stories, including one man who was a prisoner of war, one who retrieved his company colors twice on the battlefield after his comrades were wounded, and one who refused to fight, as he was responsible for the welfare of several female relatives.  He was sentenced to three years in a Federal penitentiary.

So, now our little unit study includes research by three generations in at least five states.  When we read stories or our textbook, we can listen for mention of Company E, 130th Pennsylvania Volunteers.  Maybe we’ll read about the Battle of Sharpsburg, where James B. was wounded by getting hit in the neck with pieces of a fence hit by a shell.  Maybe we’ll read about a brave soldier who carried the flag, and remember Samuel S. Bierer, the great-great mentioned above.  Was the army surgeon who was killed by guerillas near Rappahannock Station in Virginia a good one?  He was my great-great-great-great uncle.  There were Bierers at the Second Battle of Bull Run – fighting Hawks who called it Second Manassas.  What was it like to life on a cup of cornmeal a day, mixed with dirty water and set in the sun to “bake”?  That was prison life for one Bierer ancestor.  And there’s a Hawk relative buried in Marietta, Georgia, near where he died in the Battle of Peach Tree Creek, who’s not descended from the Hawk who went South in 1784.

My dad asked me the other day if the kids were as excited about all this Civil War stuff as I am.  Honestly, they are not. But they are more excited about American history than I was at age 7 or 9, which is not to say that I was not interested.  I was pretty good in history in fourth grade.  I even won a little Liberty Bell for getting 100% on a test, once. 🙂  But this is different.  This is deeper.  Even Boy, who would definitely rather make origami X-Men than look at a map or learn about 1860s weaponry, grasps that the people who fought  and died, or lived with the scars of battle, were real people, not just cannon fodder.  Some of them happened to be our ancestors.  Some of the people we know are probably descended from others.  Some never got to be ancestors, but they, too, are part of someone’s family history.   And that’s what history is, after all, the connections between people over time.

Thanks, Daddy and MIL, for helping to strengthen the kiddos connections to family and to the past.  Oh, and Daddy –  Boy wants to visit Gettysburg, to “see the monuments,” and Girl has memorized the Gettysburg Address.  I didn’t assign that. 🙂


8 responses »

  1. Wonderful impact, having two sides of the family represented quite thoroughly. Lots of good stories abound, so let your father and I know when you want another installation! Rev War? Spanish American? Just plain life in various time periods? He and I just love this stuff, you know!
    Grandma Bierer

    • Got anything on X-Men? 🙂 Or the time period “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away?” Boy just asked me for 250 sheets of origami paper to make 1,000 origami Yodas. Sigh.

  2. Pingback: Super Hero Project | Butterscotch Grove

    • Girl really enjoyed two by Ann Rinaldi – Amelia’s War, about a shopkeeper’s daughter living in Gettysburg, and Numbering All the Bones, about a plantation owner’s mixed race daughter living near Andersonville prison at the end of the war. There’s also a Dear America diary of a Civil War soldier (can’t remember the title off the top of my head – I’ll post it later). We read The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg as a read aloud – both kids really liked that one. I know your kids are about as old as mine. Something to remember about any Civil War story is that there will most likely be some uncomfortable scenes (amputations, battlefields or prisons with dead soldiers…). Some kids could be bothered, so you might want to keep your kids’ tolerance for that sort of thing in mind.

      • Thanks for the list. My kids haven’t been too phased by the more gristly bits from history so far (my son was particularly eager to learn about guillotines during the French Revolution). I won’t even go into the bloody battles they enact with Legos… 🙂

      • LOL! Mine were guillotining mini-figs for about a month awhile back. Wish you lived nearby! 🙂

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