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The Civil War in Idaho: Idaho Civil War volunteers

Posted on Friday, July 17, 2015 at 8:16 am

Morning Session on “The Hill.”

Morning Session on “The Hill.”

Hey, it really happened.  It was in Franklin County Idaho near what is now the Utah – Idaho border.  The date was January 29, 1863.  It was a battle between the Union and Native Americans, specifically a group of Shoshoni tribal members.  It turned out to be a complete massacre of the Indians and is known as the Massacre at Boa Ogoi.  The confrontation with the Shoshonis is also known as the Bear River Massacre.   Betcha didn’t know that.  If you did, it was most likely filed in the not-so-major battles category fought during the Civil War.  All that said, I’m certain you’ll agree that people today need to know what happened during the war that changed America forever and whose impact is still being felt today.

Enter the Idaho Civil War Volunteers (ICWV).  “We are a non-profit educational corporation dedicated to the preservation and presentation of the life of ordinary Americans during the extraordinary times of the Civil War of 1861 through 1865.”  That means we educate, yes…entertain, and have a little fun.  A result is that we created an event that is called “Eagle Island.”

Eagle Island State Park is a 525 acre facility situated between the North and the South forks of the Boise River and in fact is an island.  The state park is situated in the city of Eagle Idaho, although it borders Boise, Meridian and is not far from Caldwell. It’s part of what we call the Treasure Valley.  As I noted, the Civil War never reached Idaho per se, although there was that massacre mentioned earlier.  It was also Abraham Lincoln who had a great deal to do with the establishment of our Idaho territory during his presidency. That means that Civil War history is important to Idaho because, contrary to what some believe, Idaho is part of America.  By the way, it’s not Iowa, Ohio, or anything else; it’s Idaho.  Couple Idaho history with the Civil War curriculum taught in 5th grade and later in high school, and you have a natural fit for a Civil War Days event tailored for the students in the schools.  To that end, for the past 15 years, the ICWV have been hosting several thousand fifth graders annually from all over the Treasure Valley as well as neighboring Oregon and Utah.  The event gets larger each year.  This year, for example, we had 3,100 youngsters.  We’ve made that our limit because we simply can’t physically get more 5th graders through our event.  The result is that we turn away schools each year.

The Eagle Island event is held during the first week in May.  This year the dates were April 30   through May 3.  Similar to operations in years past, the ICWV scattered living history stations throughout a 250 acre operating area.  It takes 50 to 75 club members with help from a group in Utah to put the program for the schools together.  The planning begins just after the previous year’s event.  In fact it’s already started for next year.   Set-up began on Wednesday and as usual it took all day and most of the evening to put everything together.  Several members took the opportunity to camp each evening of the event while at the park.  Schools began to arrive by the bus load on Thursday at 9 a.m.  Their start times were staggered to accommodate the high volume of students scheduled for the day and to allow for bus parking without having a traffic jam.  The events for the schools takes an entire school day.  Our last students left at 2:45.

As the buses drove down the roads to our operating location, large notice boards akin to oversized Burmashave Signs were positioned to allow students to regress into the 19th century.  The signs showed what is not available at various years approaching the time of the Civil War.   You must appreciate the universal moan from the buses as they discover the time when cell phones didn’t exist.

When the busses stopped, they were greeted by a sergeant with a disposition matching his apparent disgust of the condition of the new recruits for the day.  He quickly formed them into columns of two and marched them to their first station.  They actually kept in step; the sergeant would tolerate nothing less.  It’s kind of neat to hear them tramping over the wooden bridge crossing a canal leading to our area.  When a train horn sounds indicating when to change stations, the presentations began.
The telegraph is station number one and my personal favorite because it’s mine.  There the students found a working telegraph including period batteries and other equipment.  In the short time they had at the station, they heard about the telegraph, the significance of the telegraph during the Civil War, and heard a few of their names being sent using Morse code.  After the horn blew, they were off.  Next they were greeted by our blacksmith using a period forge, making iron pieces for a customer.  The smith took a break in his activity to explain what is involved in blacksmithing and showed them how he makes troop items for use by the army.  The horn sounded again, and it was off to the next station.

This activity continued throughout the day where the students stopped at 18 stations in sequence.  During the rotation, the students met Mr. Lincoln, and saw a display of period cannons and mortars.  Along the way, they met an engineer.  He told them how to construct bridges and other structures, and how to use specialized tools including a really big ax.  He had a few interesting construction items on display.  Moving onward, they met and talked with some Union infantry people, followed by some Union artillery, and eventually a camp doctor.  The doctor had a complete array of instruments, and even offered to help the students with their medical ills.  Oddly enough, there were no takers.  Close by the doctor was a vivandiere.  In this case it was Marie Brose Tere or better known as French Mary.  As you may recall, those are the folks (ladies mainly) that were attached to the military as sutlers or canteen keepers.  After seeing the vivandiere, the students were off to see the Confederacy.  Again they saw and talked with, first, some infantry folks, then artillery people.  Also along the way the students encountered the Navy.  A seaman there described the details of those who did their duty on water.  Admiral Farragut would be proud.   One encounter in the circuit was a really interesting station with a couple of 19th century weapons salesman.  There the students found the latest technological advances in weaponry including things like the Henry, the Sharps, and a Battery, or Gatling Gun.   Got a few bucks?  If so you too can order a Gatling Gun.

About half way through the circuit, everyone was called to the “hill.”  The hill overlooks an assembly of one original Napoleon cannon, a reproduction cannon, and a reproduction mortar.  Artillery folks told the crowd about the history of the pieces and how they are loaded and fired.  Then BOOM, both cannons fired.  There were many students who were surprised to say the least.  It was at this point that the availability of the laundry station became useful.   Once the echo died down, the artillery sergeant addressed the crowd and explained the operation of a mortar.  Once again, BOOM, and a tennis ball was launched into the lake just across from the cannons and mortar.  Finally, our weapons salesmen fired the Gatling Gun which was impressive because it was as close to automatic fire as you can get during the Civil War.

At one station the youngsters quickly got immersed into the Sanitary Commission.  It was chock full of items that the commission provided.  The speaker detailed what they did during the war and why it was the forerunner to the Red Cross.  Then it was off to meet the only female officer in the Civil War, a captain who was a nurse.  After a discussion about her duties during the war and nursing in general the groups were off to the laundry station where the washer women showed how 19th century people kept their clothing clean.  Got lice?  She offered to clean their clothing for a small charge, but had no takers.  Next, the students got to see the cavalry where they discovered a couple of horses, some interesting weapons, and several soldiers telling them of the amazing activities of that arm of the military services.   Somewhere in all that, many schools took a lunch break on the hill. There is nothing like the sound of a thousand youngsters munching on sack lunches all at once.

During the rotation, the students got to be soldiers for a while.  They lined up, were presented with wooden rifles and a drill sergeant ran them through a manual of arms.  He hasn’t made anyone cry yet so he really isn’t that bad.  In fact, there were more giggles than anything else.  The most entertaining part was when the sergeant had the youngsters stand at attention and do a particular manual of arms.  Have you ever tried to get 50 fifth graders to stand straight and move together?  It’s like herding cats —no offense to the cats.

Then it was over for the students.  It was almost 2:30 p.m. and the students needed to load up and get back to their respective schools for dismissal.  The whole thing was repeated the next day until over 3,100 youngsters were able to experience the Civil War up close and personal.  But wait, there’s more.

Later on the second day, right after the dinner hour, the ICWV gathered together and formed the Sanitary Fair Theatre.  It was there that members got up on a stage and provided the entertainment.  One member, who also is the Sanitary Commission presenter, acted as MC.  After a few minutes, it’s clear that the ICWV has some real talent in the ranks.  But wait, there’s more.
On Saturday, our group opened the stations for the public.  During the day over 1,000 people filtered through and were able to take some time at the stations.  Also during the day there was a couple of narrated skirmishes followed by several vollies of cannon fire.  When it was all said and done we exposed over 4,500 people to the Civil War and in the process had a great time. But wait, there’s — you know.

On Sunday, we held church services then had breakfast.  The preacher man in this case was the blacksmith.  After that we disassembled the camp and got ready for the next event which happened to be in two weeks and is an event where 3,000 fourth graders filter through our three stations during a part of their “Rendezvous” better known by most as a field day for the largest school district in Idaho.

The whole thing is a lot of work, and a lot of fun.  The lady in charge of the event has once again pulled off a minor miracle.  Her name is Carolyn Hunt.  She managed to coordinate our event, organize the stations, and choreograph the arrival and departure of over 32 schools and even more home-school people while moving over 3,100 kids through a state park in South Western Idaho in two days.

Everyone went home after the event very tired and quite happy.  While it doesn’t compare to the mega events in the East and South, it’s a big deal to us and our communities.

So, the next time someone questions the Civil War in Idaho, you can say, well yeah.

-By Richard Dees

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