SMS teacher organizes Civil War Day for students

For one day, Alex Bell wore a dark blue wool coat with light blue trousers and a dark cap.

That’s not usually what he wears to teach social studies to seventh- and eighth-graders at Seymour Middle School.

On Friday, though, he stepped outside the classroom and portrayed a Union infantry officer for Civil War Day.

Of the five stations set up in the yard next to the football stadium and track, he manned the one where eighth-graders learned about the life of a soldier.

First, he talked about a dog tent in which soldiers used for shelter. Then he had various items the soldiers used or carried, including a rifle, a knapsack, a forage cap, a wool blanket, a mucket, an officer sword and a bayonet.

Every 15 minutes, the students rotated to the other stations, including women of the era with Bev Marsh of Columbus, Dr. Gatling and the weapons of war with Mike Marsh of Columbus, life of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia Grant, portrayed by Charles and Katrina Michael of Bloomfield, and a Civil War roundtable discussion with Dennis Jorgensen of Madison.

“I hope that they get to see a visual. It’s history coming to life,” Bell said. “It’s not just looking at and reading something in a textbook that is like ‘Oh, this is boring.’ They are actually getting to see it. It makes it more personable of ‘These were real people.'”

While the Civil War ended 156 years ago, Bell said the goals of the re-enactment are to bring that era to life and give students an appreciation of history.

“If you spark an interest in a kid at this age, it would be cool if some of these kids end up being teachers or just a lover of history in general,” he said. “And not just Civil War history because there are other time periods which people re-enact. Just trying to get the kids excited about history.”

Bell is part of the 11th Indiana Civil War re-enactment unit, which he said has been around for about 20 years.

The original 11th Indiana Infantry Regiment was organized in Indianapolis on April 25, 1861, for a three-month term of service. Then it reorganized and mustered Aug. 31 for three years of service with Col. Lewis Wallace as its commander.

The 11th was recognized as a Zouave regiment similar to famous regiments of the same name that fought in the French armies. Zouaves wore distinctly colorful uniforms that clearly set them apart from their counterparts.

At the war’s start, Wallace was appointed by Gov. Oliver P. Morton as the adjutant general of Indiana. The son of a former Indiana governor, Wallace was a lawyer, a veteran and a statesman, all of this long before he would be known as the author of “Ben Hur.” He resigned his post to command the 11th Indiana Infantry Regiment that was one of the first six regiments raised by the state for the war.

Bell became involved in the re-enactment group in 2014 through a friend in college.

“Ironically, I have this random class with this guy and he was telling me he was from Scottsburg, and I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m from Jennings County, so not far away,’ and he’s like, ‘Really? My girlfriend is from Jennings County,'” Bell said.

It turned out that Bell graduated with that girl, and his friend told him he was participating in a re-enactment at the Sassafras Tea Festival in Jennings County, which recreates historical events that took place during the Civil War era.

“I was like, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ He’s like, ‘I’m going to dress up as a Civil War guy,’ and I was like, ‘Oh man, I would love to do that,’ so that’s how I got started,” Bell said.

Bell became interested in history through having some good teachers growing up and a father and grandfather who liked that subject.

Bell earned his bachelor’s degree in social studies education from Indiana State University in 2016. He spent his first year teaching at Scottsburg High School and then moved on to Scottsburg Middle School, where he taught for four years. This is his first school year at SMS.

Besides being a teacher, Bell has served as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserve for two years.

“The kids are all excited to see me dressed up (for the re-enactment). It’s kind of the same thing with being in the actual Army. The kids think that’s pretty fascinating, too,” he said.

“It gives me a unique perspective because I’m only 27, but I have quite a bit of experience bringing in with just a different outlook on things,” he said. “The kids, they do like that, and I can speak to the kid that doesn’t want to go to college and be like, ‘Hey, the military is a good option for you’ and get them excited about history and all of that.”

Bell said the 11th Indiana participates in eight to 12 events a year, including school days in nearby Columbus and Carroll County, Kentucky. He also sometimes attends an event in Hartford City, where the largest re-enactment in Indiana occurs.

There are about 15 active members of the Indiana 11th who volunteer their time, and they also participate with other re-enactment groups.

“Unfortunately, the kind of heyday of re-enacting was the ’90s,” Bell said. “A lot of the people have gotten older and have retired from doing this because it’s just what people do as a hobby and fun and history.”

The group also does one national event a year. This year’s event is in October at Stones River in Tennessee.

“A few years ago, we went to Gettysburg and I did the 155th anniversary of Shiloh. I did the 150th of Perryville in Kentucky,” Bell said. “It’s honestly great because I’ve been to the battlefields, so when I teach the Civil War, I’ve been there, I’ve seen it.”

Eighth-grader Nev Cockerham said she has spent the past two weeks learning about the Civil War in Bell’s class, so it was neat to see him participate in the re-enactment.

“He looked really different,” she said, smiling. “It probably feels more normal for him because he usually does it a lot and he knows a lot about it, so I think it was cool to see him talk to us about what they are. It was really cool to see what they actually used and how they lived when they were fighting in a war.”

Katie Cottrill is in Mindy Clay’s social studies class and enjoyed seeing Bell and the other re-enactors.

“It’s just really important to learn about our country and our past experiences, and it was just really cool because I love learning about history and Civil War stuff,” she said. “It’s really important to learn about our U.S. history and how we came to be and how our amazing country is and how it was.”