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SUNY Plattsburgh Teaching Candidate Brings History to Life Through Civil War Reenactment Camp

Matt Hewson doesn’t just teach history, he lives it.

He was around six years old and on a family vacation in Gettysburg when he discovered the art of reenactment. Immediately hooked, he’s been traveling around the country ever since — spending weekends in clothes from the Civil War and other eras, eating their food and learning what he could about what life was like way back when.

Through these trips, the past came to life for him, and now, the SUNY Plattsburgh student has already begun to make it come to life for children.

Straight from the 1861 Manual

Three years ago, Hewson, a student in the college’s combined Bachelor of Arts and Master of Science for Teachers program, joined forces with the Clinton County Historical Association. Together they gained grant funding and created a summer Civil War camp for students.

For a small $10 fee — far less than it takes to run the camp — area children can now spend four days at the association’s museum. There, they get to wear Union uniforms — exact replications, minus the wool, which would be hard to bear in the summer heat. They eat hardtack and drill the way soldiers did in the 1800s. They even get to fire toy Civil War gun replicas that use real powder but fire blanks instead of bullets.

“Everything is straight out of the 1861 manual for the Union Army,” Hewson said.

He teaches them what they need to know, and then they take a non-commissioned officers test — the actual one that was used in the Civil War.

“It’s a great way to keep them focused,” he said, “because there is an end goal. There is kind of this reward for actually doing well.”

The reward: the chance to play the part of a non-commissioned officer.

His students form two squads, and each elects a sergeant from the pool of those who qualify under the test. Then, they work on maneuvers, learning how to march, handle weapons and move in columns using Napoleonic tactics.

“They learn to move as a unit,” Hewson said. “It’s not one man who matters.”

Finally, the squads get to face off.

“We had to come onto the field, and then we fought with toy guns,” said 12-year-old camper Liam Sayward, who explained how the students would point and say “bang,” and Hewson would announce the causalities in each squad, doing things once again the way the Union army really did with soldiers in training.

“I liked it because I really like reenacting,” Sayward said, adding that he’d like to come back to the camp next year.

In fact, so many students have wanted to come back that, over the past three years, the camp has grown from a one-week effort to a two-week one. And this year, Hewson said, they actually had enough students for a third week.

Creating Experiences Students Will Remember

As for Hewson’s future, he’s looking forward to someday having his own social studies classroom where he hopes to be “that strange teacher everyone still likes because it is fun to come to class,” he said.

He plans to have at least one day in every unit where he comes in historical dress and where his students take part in a living-history experience.

 “If we try the foods; hold the clothing; feel how heavy the backpack was that they carried in the Revolutionary War or the Civil War; smell what the clothing smells like after its been worn and been around campfires — those are the experiences that you remember, and that association will hopefully keep the actual lessons and the curriculum in the forefront of their minds, at least long enough to be valuable,” he said.

Then he smiled.

“If nothing else, they will at least have something to talk about around the coffee table when they are old.”

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