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Grant helps Belle Vernon teacher build collection of Civil War artifacts

| Saturday, April 19, 2014, 5:00 p.m.
Jacob Jones holds grapeshot found at Spotsylvania, Va.
Belle Vernon Middle School student Victoria Sholtis (left) holds a Confederate shell from Vicksburg, Miss., and classmate Seth Jurczak holds an 8-pound cannonball from Drewrey's Bluff near Richmond, Va.
Belle Vernon Middle School student Samantha Richard holds a canteen found at Petersburg, Va.

Artillery shells, a cannonball, grapeshot and a 150-year-old canteen aren't the usual exhibits for students in a history class, but Belle Vernon Area Middle School students have the opportunity to get a feel for a real slice of history when they study the Civil War.

Students in Ross Farmer's history class at the middle school can put their hands on the historical artifacts that Farmer purchased last year, thanks to a $750 Impact Grant from the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit Foundation.

“I want to teach the everyday life of a soldier. I wanted them (students) see what it was like” for the soldiers, Farmer said. The Civil War between the Northern and Southern states began in April 1861 at Fort Sumter, S.C., and did not end until Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. U.S. Grant in April 1865.

Farmer, who has taught for 21 years, requires students to write journals about the life of Civil War soldiers, according to his application for the Impact Grant. About 125 students, including 25 to 50 special-needs students, will benefit from having the artifacts in the classroom, Farmer stated in his application.

“By having the opportunity to hold, examine, and compare items used in battle and in everyday camp life, students will have a much deeper understanding of the life of a soldier and the horrors of war,” Farmer wrote in his application.

Farmer purchased the items from a collector in Martry, La.

“I wanted to get stuff that was durable. I wanted hands-on (items) rather than things that would be in a case,” where the students could only look at them, Farmer said.

The primary sources that Farmer acquired are the raw materials of history — original documents and objects which were created at the time under study, according to the U.S. Library of Congress, which awards grants to schools through its Teaching With Primary Sources regional program.

Examining primary sources gives students a powerful sense of history and the complexity of the past, as well as guiding them toward better critical thinking and analysis skills, according to the Library of Congress.

The artifacts Farmer purchased came from four different battlefields in the South, as well as the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg. The grapeshot, which are small balls fired from a cannon, was found at Spotsylvania, Va. The Confederate shell was found in Vicksburg, Miss., which surrendered to Union forces in July 1863. The 8-pound cannonball came from Drewrey's Bluff near Richmond, Va., the Confederate capital that was captured in April 1865.

The canteen and Confederate ration dish were found in Petersburg, Va., which was under siege by Union troops for nine months.

A “pain bullet” — used by soldiers to bite down upon during surgery — came from Gettysburg, Farmer said. The use of the bullet in surgeries where anesthesia was not available, spawned the phrase “bite the bullet,” Farmer said.

Farmer said he was “100 percent confident” the artifacts are authentic. The authenticity of uniforms and autographs from those involved in the Civil War is harder to determine, he said.

Farmer said he previously purchased some minie balls — muzzle-loading bullets — and cannon shrapnel for his own collection. He had wanted to build a collection of Civil War artifacts for the school district, but the district's budget constraints had made that difficult. Some of the Civil War-era artifacts, such as battle flags, can cost between $20,000 and $30,000, Farmer said.

“I'd love to have them, but I don't have a million dollars,” Farmer said.

To ensure their safekeeping, the artifacts are kept under lock in the middle school, Farmer said.

“It's here in perpetuity,” Farmer said.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or