It was 160 years ago that the infamous Battle of Droop Mountain was fought, North versus South, brother fighting brother, in the bloodiest war America has experienced. The fallen soldiers are now simply names on a plaque attached to a monument in Droop Mountain Battlefield State park. Most of those ill fated men and boys had been residents of the Virginias, their surnames still carried by their descendants who live among us. The American Civil War’s death toll is comparable to the combined casualties of all our subsequent wars.
On Monday, the children of Hillsboro Elementary School rode their big yellow school bus to the battlefield where, for a time, they were teleported back to the battle that was fought in our community’s back yard. Their outdoor history lesson began with the Pocahontas County Honor Corps shooting the cannon, followed by a 21-gun salute to the fallen soldiers of Droop, and the haunting melody of a trumpeter playing taps. The children were in awe and seemed to intuitively know that this was a time for reverence.
The Honor Corps had set the mood for what was to be three hours of a living history lesson taught by locals who each had a story to tell. Helena Gondry, with the help of Janet Barker, had created mustaches and paper horses to give the kids an interactive experience in the poem she read by our erstwhile West Virginia poet laureate Louise McNeill. The props helped the children dramatize the poem, and although a very sad topic, the poem was read by Helena in such a way as to not be frightening.
Mike Smith, former park superintendent at Droop and consummate storyteller, made the battle come to life by regaling the children with vignettes of what actually happened, and the rugged life they experienced in the Civil War camps. He guided the children through the Droop Battlefield museum to explain the historical artifacts there, including the mouth bits used to control the horses. Speaking of horses, singer/songwriter Kate Long had written a song called Eighty-Five Horses that paid homage to their sacrifice as collateral damage in that battle. Greg Morgan, beloved music teacher at HES, taught the kids the song from a recording that was made as Kate sat in a coffee shop in Charleston. Like many folk songs, this was never written as sheet music. The school children sang the song after the 21-gun salute, and it was a truly moving experience.
Mr. Morgan also had the children in a large drum circle where they were able to play various rhythms and “go crazy” with beating their own rhythms. The reason for the drums was to explain the importance and bravery of the young drummer boys, some as young as nine years old, who stealthily beat out the orders for the soldiers to turn left flank, or right flank, or stay still, or maybe run. The enemy could not decode these instructions, and the soldiers marching way back in the line could hear the drums.
Blair Campbell, chef at The Hillsboro Public House, was on hand to build a campfire and demonstrate how the Civil War soldiers and their wives could eat by cooking over these flames. The kids enjoyed delicious chicken cooked by threading the meat on the end of a stick. Blair led them in a discussion of what sorts of food they were likely to find in the lush forests of our region.
Park superintendent Jim Weber took the kids on a short hike toward the trenches that had been dug by the Confederate soldiers in an attempt to have some protection from the Union soldiers. Walking through these trenches was sad and somewhat eerie. On the way, they passed the stump of the ancient fallen tree that had survived the battle only to be struck down by the derecho of 2012. Oh, if that tree could talk, just imagine what it could teach us.
This was a truly beautiful autumn day, and the best kind of history lesson that a group of children can experience. We owe many thanks to the organizers, Susan Arbogast and Helena Gondry, for creating this collaboration among the state park system, Hillsboro Elementary School, Hillsboro Library Friends, and community volunteers.