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Keizer teachers get lay of Civil War land

Re-created breastworks in St. Petersburg, Va. The structures protected soldiers while engaged in battle. (submitted)
Re-created breastworks in St. Petersburg, Va. The structures protected soldiers while engaged in battle. (submitted)

Of the Keizertimes

Geography, for most people, is often considered in simple terms: a place, the name of that place and maybe some important land formations in that place.

When Matt Faatz and Alan Town returned from a whirlwind trip through Civil War battle sites last month it was impossible to think of geography as anything so mundane. The change probably occurred sometime around the umpteenth occasion they were told to look at a fence.

“The reason we did that is because the fences were made out of the materials that were available in that region. There were different fences in different regions,” said Town.

The type and construction of something as commonplace as a fence, they learned, also told a story about the areas they visited.

“The fences fit the geography and climate of the area. They were made to specific heights and in specific ways as adaptations to the materials they had available, how it was going to be used and what type of climate they were in,” said Faatz. “Some of them looked woven like a basket and didn’t even appear to have nails.”

Town and Faatz traveled to the Civil War sites as part of a trip for educators offered by Portland State University and sponsored by the Gray Family Foundation. The goal of the program is to take teachers to the places they teach about and make them better educators through firsthand experience. Faatz, who teaches at Whiteaker Middle School, and Town, who lives in Keizer and teaches at Waldo Middle School, were part of a cohort charged with investigating Civil War sites and returning with more effective lesson plans for conveying the importance of geography to the events of the time period.

“What was hard was going to the battle sites and seeing such beauty and rectifying that with the pictures and the drawings and the writings which were brutal and horrible,” Faatz said.

Tactics as expression of geography

Geogrpahy as a tool of study has five themes: location (including longitude and latitude and connections to other areas), place (the physical characteristics), human-environment interaction, movement and region (the unifying characteristics of the location with others in the same area).

Town and Faatz got a crash course in all of them as they related to the Civil War. Some of the most intriguing aspects were how the geography of the mid-Atlantic states influenced movement and battles.

“In Chancellorsville, the Confederate troops made use of a long farm, which is basically a clearcut swath of forest in a thickly-wooded area that opens into a wide, clear space. The Southern troops drove the Union through the gap and aimed all the cannons on the opening,” said Town.

Troops on both sides of the battles dug up crescent-shaped mounds of dirt that acted as protection for troops and artillery, many of the formations, called lunettes, were still visible in photos the paired returned to Keizer with.

“It wasn’t big mountains, it was small inclines that made a huge difference. You could hide behind 18 inches of dirt,” Town said. “In Fredericksburg, a Southern battalion of 1,000 troops held off 45,000 Union troops by hiding behind a low wall.”

The Shenandoah Valley became a hotbed of military activity late in the war and became a point of interest for Faatz for its early uses, and for what it became.

“The Confederate Army used the Shenandoah Valley as a freeway to move troops and supplies, but it wasn’t until it was used to attack Washington that the Union moved on it and basically burned the whole thing down,” Faatz said. “Until that happened, the South knew the terrain well enough to shoot the gaps and sneak up on Union troops from the coastal side of Virginia. Once they retreated the Union soldiers didn’t know where to look.”

The strategy of the Union generals changed gradually over the course of the four-year war that claimed the lives of more than 600,000 soldiers. It was an effect of the resources the Northern Army could tap.

“When the war started, both sides were battling for places and territory, but the North switched their goal to attacking the troops themselves and wearing down the Confederate Army,” Town said.

“By the end of the war, the North had entire battalions that did nothing but build things like pontoon bridges and railroad trestles, They had the resources to rebuild a bridge as many times as it was blown up, all in an effort to extend the infrastructure into the Southern territory,” Faatz added.

That infrastructure was absolutely key to gaining an advantage for either side, said Town.

“You have 100,000 men that you have to feed and clothe and provide for their horses. How do you do that? What you do is have 30-mile long wagon trains following the troops with provisions,” he said.

All of the movement and scorched-earth policies on the parts of both military forces decimated large areas in the region. When a battalion set down in a new space, one of the first things troops did was cut down every tree for 250 feet around them, Town said.

In White Oak, Va., which the Union Army used for a camp three successive winters, 140,000 men and 80,000 horses caused such environmental devastation that it took the area a century to recover.

When retreat was called for, most structures were burned and the earth salted to prevent crop production that might fuel enemy efforts.

“Neither army did anything halfway. We got to these extremes of warfare when nothing was sacred. We fought in cities, through cites, burned through people’s homes and farms, killed their livestock and we did it 100 percent,” Faatz said. “It took 15 years for the economy to reach pre-war production levels after all was said and done.”

Beyond topography

In one museum Faatz and Town visited, the curators had amassed a collection of thousands of miniballs, the rifle bullets common to the era and still found throughout the area.

“They would go out and dig a garden and turn up miniballs anywhere they dug a hole,” said Town. “They had one on display that was two miniballs that had collided in mid air. How many shots had to be fired for the chance of that happening?”

While geography lessons were the primary goal of the trip, the sheer volume of information offered at every site and museum was overwhelming. And touched on nearly every aspect of folklife at the time.

When the war began, it was fought according to strategies and codes from Napoleonic times.

“It meant that the troops were lined up side-by-side in long lines and the death toll was massive,” Faatz said. As a result, troops began attacking in large roundish clusters that provided more protection, which prompted another change to phalanx tactics.

“At Spotsylvania Courthouse, the North attacked in a narrow line, like the tip of a spear that broke up large gatherings of troops. Once they made it inside the cluster, they began fighting outward. It was a frontal assault in narrow lines of soldiers. It was an adaptation on site that they eventually used with entire battalions,” Faatz said.

Even as the death toll escalated, dying in combat was considered a noble act and lessened psychological barriers to rushing headlong into a bayonet. One testament to the honor death held was encountered at The Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., where Town and Faatz came across the plaster death mask of General Robert E. Lee.

“They had a Victorian concept of death and going to death in a dignified manner,” Faatz said.

The Chimborazo Hospital near Richmond was a source of fascination for Town.

“They had about 20 beds to a cabin and its where a lot of modern techniques were first developed, simple things like washing hands before a medical procedure,” he said.

Town also struck up an interest in the geographic symbolism of cemeteries at the time.

“It was segregated, of course, but the specific areas where different soldiers were buried said things about the class status of the deceased. I think I’m going to do a study specifically on that,” Town said.

Making it relevant

Having returned from the trip, Faatz and Town are now charged with finding ways to include what they’ve learned in their respective classrooms. The entire experience appears to have left them able and eager to do so.

For Faatz, who had one student this past year build a scale model of the Ford Theatre for extra credit, lessons are going to include a lot more comprehensive and tactile interactions.

“One of the things I want to do is getting the kids to draw maps, even of areas around the school, so we can bring meaning to the geography in the immediate area. I want to get them thinking about how that area might be used, and get them thinking about farming and warfare and other human pursuits. I want to get them sketching and drawing and writing about that,” Faatz said.

Town, who teaches world history, said he wants to take each of the geographic themes and incorporate them into the how the students learn about the specific events he covers.

“I can cover little bits because we have to get the subject of geography back into our lessons,” he said. “We usually do a lot with maps, but it’s given me new ways to think about what maps don’t tell us.”

That was perhaps the most enduring lesson for the two educators: one can teach geography without history, but history cannot be taught without geography.

“You can look at a map and see it and that’s one level of learning, but you go there and you see the  terrain and you see the treeline and you see how thick the forest is and how hot it is and you feel it three-dimensionally. It’s going to help me be cognizant of geography as an important part of teaching history,” Faatz said.