During the Civil War, the red-brick building that now houses the Gaston County Museum in Dallas, N.C., served as a hotel. Now, 150 years later, 15 boys are milling in the lobby of the historic building, helping each other guess the famous names taped on their backs — names like Stonewall Jackson.
The guessing game is the first lesson of “Civil War Soldier Camp,” a one-day program the museum has offered for 8- to 12-year olds for the past several years.
Will Ruark, an adult in a blue Union uniform, is teaching the kids about soldiers’ training and 1860s-era guns. The campers go through the motions, aiming, firing and reloading with fake wooden rifles that are taller than they are.
The museum’s program coordinator, Jason Luker, who leads the camp, shows a slideshow about Civil War generals and teaches the kids about the divisions that led to the war.
For 9-year-old Ben Villamore, there’s only one issue that matters: “They shouldn’t have slaves, because this is a free country,” he says.
Luker thanks Ben for bringing that up. Slavery was at the heart of the Civil War, he says. He asks the boys to define slavery.
“Someone who works for other people for no money and are beaten if they’re not doing their work,” says one. “It’s someone who’s [held] against their will, and to work,” offers another.
Pretty close, Luker says, but the word they’re missing is “property.” Slaves, he says, were people who were black and who had no rights — white people owned them.
After learning more about slave states and free states, the kids pick sides. Villamore chooses the Union. “Because I think, since they say it’s a free country, even the slaves should be free,” he says.
Luke Richardson chooses the Confederacy. “I just like fighting for my state,” he says. Richardson also has family members who fought for the Confederacy.
That’s a common reason kids choose the South, says Kelly Mason, the museum’s outreach coordinator. “I found that a lot of people from the South love their heritage, their ancestors, the stories that get passed down.”
Kids who choose the Union “love the ideas of the North: ‘We want to fight for freedom, this is a country for free people,’ ” she says. For the Southern kids, she says, it’s “more about their family history, where the Northern people are more talking about the big ideas.”
At the end of the day, Union and Confederacy square off — with water balloons. There’s no clear winner here; everyone gets soaked.
On this day, like most at the camp, the group is all boys and there are no African-Americans.
Stacey Malker Duff, the first African-American woman elected to this small town’s Board of Aldermen, still appreciates the camp. It’s important for kids to learn this history, she says.
“Our children need to see from whence we came, and the growth we’ve made. And we still have a ways to go,” she says.
That’s why Tim Richardson brought his sons, Luke, who chose the Confederacy, and Levi. “It’s so hard for them to conceptualize slavery and what that means,” Richardson says. “Luke kind of gets it, but Levi really doesn’t. I have to constantly re-explain what that was and why.”
Luke, 12, puts it simply: “I don’t approve of slavery. It’s just an evil thing,” he says.
If every kid leaves with a desire to learn more about the Civil War, says camp leader Luker, that’s his dream for the camp.
“We want to be able to show them, where did you get those ideas?” he says. “And it came from this major, bloody moment in our history.”