As a culmination of their study of the Civil War, all 7th Grade students hiked to 77th Street and Central Park West on January 17 to visit the New-York Historical Society’s unique collection of artifacts from that era. Actual period weaponry, flags, and paintings gave new meaning to the term “primary sources,” and tour guides challenged students to answer factual questions about the conflict and to consider what each item teaches us about life 150 years ago.
Student responses demonstrated an impressively detailed and accurate understanding of what they had learned in Mr. Eric Tull’s U. S. History course as well as a thoughtful analysis of each piece on display. Asked what we learn from an American flag with 34 stars representing both the northern and southern states, which was displayed next to a long, sharp pike used by John Brown’s followers in their anti-slavery raid on Harper’s Ferry, Olivia replied, “The flag tried to accept the South, but the pike ripped apart the North from the South.”
Among the benefits of having access to the Historical Society is the fact that the museum staff works closely with the teacher to generate an experience that draws directly from the students’ curriculum. In this way, a recognizable context makes the hands-on event all the more meaningful. Later in the school year, a member of the Society’s education staff will pay us a visit with artifacts from World War II.
A perfect example of a one-of-a-kind artifact in the Society’s exhibit is a wooden crank-handled drum from 1863 that contained cards with the handwritten names and occupations of all draft eligible young men. (The students actually got to handle and read inpidual cards.) Before each card was picked in the lottery deciding which New York citizens would be forced to serve in the war, the “draft wheel” was rotated with the crank to give the appearance of randomness and fairness. However, when the working class men learned that wealthy parents had the option of paying a hefty fee to keep their sons out of the army, they rioted in protest of the draft for three days, causing untold damage and killing over a hundred people. Why is the Historical Society lucky to own the only extant draft wheel? Because all of the others were smashed during the riot.
It’s what we like to call “History you can reach out and touch.”