Today I visited Lowell’s Sullivan Middle School to speak with the eighth graders about Lowell and the Civil War. They had just started that covering that conflict in history class, so my presentation which includes the many Lowell connections to the start of the war such as Lowell resident Gustavus Fox leading the unsuccessful relief expedition to Fort Sumter that prompted the Confederate forces in Charleston to open fire on the fort and start the war. Then there was the involvement of the Lowell-based Sixth Regiment in the Pratt Street Riot in Baltimore that cost mill workers Luther Ladd and Addison Whitney their lives; and finally there was Ben Butler’s bold moves in the aftermath of the riot to find a way to by-pass hostile Baltimore and open the path through Annapolis for thousands of Northern troops to get to Washington.
Besides this regular historical narrative, to keep a young audience’s attention, I try to toss in a couple of odd facts that provoke some startled reactions. One that worked particularly well today was stating the medical requirement for induction into the Union Army that the recruit have a minimum of six teeth in the front of his mouth, evenly divided between top and bottom. In two classes, students thought that had something to do with dog tags (I explained the later practice of placing one of the dog tags of a deceased soldier in his mouth so that after the body had deteriorated, the ID tag would still remain within the skull). When I told them that the teeth were needed to fire their rifles, the students looked completely befuddled.
So thanks to the students and staff at the Sullivan School for being a great audience and for teaching me something new about the Civil War.
I explained that the cartridge used to load a Civil War musket was a small paper package that included the bullet and loose gunpowder. To load, the soldier, while holding his rifle in one hand, reached into his ammo pouch with the other hand and pulled out one of these paper cartridges. He would then use his teeth to tear open the end of this paper cartridge and then pour the gun powder within it down the barrel of the rifle. Next he would insert the bullet still wrapped in the paper and use the rifle’s ramrod to tamp down the bullet and powder. Next, he would raise up the rifle and, reaching into a smaller pouch, extract a small percussion cap which works much like the cap of a cap pistol. This fit on a small protrusion under the gun’s hammer. Once the hammer was fully cocked and the trigger pulled, the hammer would smash forward, set off the percussion cap which in turn would ignite the powder in the gun barrel. The resulting explosion would sent the bullet hurtling out the end of the rifle and on to its target. Without these teeth, the soldier would be unable to properly load his rifle.
While I shared many other facts, I also learned a very interesting one. At the close of my presentation, the history teacher asked each student to name his or her favorite candy. Skittles and Reese’s seemed most popular. The teacher then told them that none of the candies named existed during the Civil War and invited the students to guess what kind of candy did exist. After a number of unsuccessful guesses, the teacher extracted from his desk drawer the genuine artifact – a roll of NECCO wafers. I confess to being struck incredibly nostalgic. NECCO wafers, made by the New England Confectionery Company, were a big part of my childhood. The wafers are still made today and their marketing campaign touts their all natural ingredients: sugar, corn syrup, gelatin, gums, colorings and eight flavorings – orange, lemon, lime, clove, chocolate, cinnamon, licorice, and wintergreen. So if you want to relate to the experience of a Civil War soldier, grab a roll of NECCO wafers.