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Students digging up past

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    Eighth-grade students from Seneca East participate in a hands-on history lesson by digging at a former Civil War military prison.

    The Blade/Amy E. Voigt
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  • Students-digging-up-past

    Seneca East eighth-graders Brittney Holdcraft, left, Kayla Zellmer, and Erika Swartz listen as David Bush explains how to identify discoveries they dug from the Johnson Island Civil War prison site.

    The Blade/Amy E. Voigt
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MARBLEHEAD, Ohio - A Confederate soldier, held as a prisoner on Johnson Island during the Civil War, lost a button in the 1860s.

Yesterday, nearly 150 years later, Sierra Hunter found it.

Crusty after spending decades in the dirt, the button is one of hundreds of artifacts unearthed this week by Sierra and other students as part of an experiential learning program at the Johnson Island Civil War Military Prison.

Since April, about 600 students from districts in Ohio and Michigan have taken part in the hands-on American history lesson on the island in Sandusky Bay near Marblehead.

The program, coordinated by David Bush, director of the Center for Historic and Military Archaeology at Heidelberg University, wraps up next week.

It's a popular program, and yesterday, eighth-grade students from the Seneca East Local Schools district in Attica were digging it.

In grids, precisely marked to record the location of artifacts and soil characteristics, students scraped soil with trowels and collected excavated soil in buckets. Others screened the soil, carefully dusting off shards of glass, flint, and other pieces of the past from land where the prison compound's hospital was located.


Eighth-grade students from Seneca East participate in a hands-on history lesson by digging at a former Civil War military prison.

The Blade/Amy E. Voigt
Enlarge | Buy This Image

Certain finds, called field specimens, are considered of special interest, and students who unearth field specimens get their names permanently associated with the artifact in the site catalogue.

Several students yesterday found field specimens. Brittany Holdcraft found a piece of an Adams & Fay medicine bottle made in New York, Kayla Zellner discovered a chunk from a stove, and Erika Swartz spied, while screening soil, a rim fragment from yellowware.

Mr. Bush, who used water, toothbrushes, and dental instruments to clean the treasures, polished off the history lesson with tidbits he has unearthed. He has conducted archaeological work on the island for 21 years.

The item found by Kayla might have been part of a stove blown to bits by one of the prison guards, he told the students.

Prisoners who failed to follow rules faced tough consequences, and guards could shoot at them for any violation, such as leaving oil lamps burning late into the night, Mr. Bush said. And some of the guards, he said, were a little overzealous.

Sierra said she found it interesting to learn why buttons are common items found at the site (buttons, not zippers, were used as closures on clothing, Mr. Bush explained).

She and other students said the hands-on adventure seemed "unreal" because it was so real. There they were, holding stuff - real stuff used by real people during a real war. The hands-on lesson, they agreed, beat hands down any lesson learned from a textbook.

"It is pretty cool. I never thought we actually would find anything," Kayla said.

Brittany added: "We get to find stuff they used and get to learn how they used the stuff and how they would lose it."

Kindar Miller, an American history teacher at Seneca East, said 86 students participated this week in the program. Since the program was begun in 1999, she's been here about 50 times on field trips.

Students leave the site with a better understanding of the Civil War, that it wasn't something just in a textbook or movie, she said.

Darin Baldosser, 14, said he learned a lot about the war as he found "a bunch of pieces of glass, some nails, and some building materials."

He had a precise system. "You put dirt in the screen, shake it up, and take your hand to break up the big pieces to see if you find any artifacts," he said. He found several chicken bones that way.

Chicken, Mr. Bush said, "was one of the main foods fed to prisoners."

Seated on benches near a wooded area where drifts of Virginia Bluebells are in bloom, students listened after lunch as Mr. Bush and his staff read prisoners' letters and diaries. Written records from occupants of the prison provide insights into what life was like during the war, the staff said.

From 1862 to 1865, about 10,000 Confederates passed through the nearly 17-acre Johnson Island Civil War Military Prison. In 1990, Johnson Island was designated as a National Historic Landmark. The Confederate Cemetery, with its rows of white marble headstones, is the only part of the prison open to the public.

Contact Janet Romaker at:

or 419-724-6006.

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