Visitors experience Frontier Army life at Fort Sill
October 20, 2011
FORT SILL, Okla., Oct. 20, 2011 -- "EEWWWWW!!"
Such was the reaction of many of the 620 school children who visited Fort Sill's Old Post Quadrangle Oct. 14 and learned about 19th century medical and dental treatments.
This was one of 10 stations history buffs brought to life during the Fort Sill Museum's annual three-day Frontier Army Days event.
In addition to paid employees from the Oklahoma History Society, men and women volunteers set up camp at the quadrangle and acquainted school children with infantry, artillery and cavalry Soldiering duties, laundry and domestic necessities, and education during the Victorian Era.
Naturally, on the Army's home of field artillery, periodic blasts from a 6-pounder Napoleon, a gun from the Civil War, punctuated the event. Cpl. Harry Shappell spoke for the men of the Field Artillery Museum Gun Detachment and told the students about the different projectiles the gun fired and the duties of crew members.
At the gun's loud report, young and old would whip around to watch the smoke plume disperse into the faded blue autumn sky. Cleon Plunk called students near his station back to matters at hand as he told them his riflemen would soon make their own noise.
Portraying a first sergeant with the 77th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Plunk drilled four Soldiers through marching maneuvers and a load and fire sequence. Though his hair had turned to gray, he's a trim gentleman with round, wire eyeglasses and a neatly trimmed goatee with about two inches of growth below his chin.
"I tell people I'm not a reformed hippie but a historical re-enactor," said Plunk. His regiment does many events in Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri and goes to national events back east at least once per year. Next year, the unit plans to attend the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh at Shiloh, Tenn.
As the Soldiers went through their paces, Plunk pointed out the careful loading procedures Soldiers followed so they didn't lose part of a hand should a rifle fire accidentally. Once loaded the Soldiers returned their firearms to their shoulders letting Plunk know they were ready to fire.
Even as they plugged their ears, the students yelled, "ready, aim, fire!" The four Soldiers squeezed their triggers and their black powder rifles responded with an explosive volley.
"We do this to give students a little taste of what life was all about as a Soldier nearly 150 years ago," said Plunk, whose excitement for the hobby he found in 2003 showed by the huge white-toothed smile that filled his face. "I wish I would have learned of this when I was their age, and that's why I try to encourage them to come be a part of this, because it's a lot of fun."
Jamie Mitchell, superintendent of Cyril Public Schools, kept an eye on his charges while listening in at various stations. He said Fort Sill's program is a great opportunity for his teachers and students alike.
"This is living history and gives kids a chance to see the conditions our military had to work in many years ago. It teaches them that those abstract things in their textbooks really happened and gives them a true representation of how people performed these daily tasks," he said.
Nearby, Sarah Dumas and Tabby Toney, from the Oklahoma History Society, showed students how people did common household tasks. Whether it was making soap out of pig fat and lye, pressing clothes with a 8-pound iron or taking advantage of Oklahoma's fall breeze to dry clothes, these duties took up quite a bit of time for women and their children.The students learned firsthand that ground in dirt or stains could be removed with a little elbow grease as they scrubbed clothes on washboards.
Fortunately their light-weight clothes helped them stay cool during the manual labor, the women however, were decked out in the latest 19th century fashions in cotton, linen or wool garments. Because of the multiple layers of clothes, most work during the summer was done either early in the morning or late in the day. It most likely was expected Victorian women took a while to get dressed as several layers were worn.
First they put on Pantaloons, chap-like leggings and a chemise. Next, they donned waist-slimming corsets. Then, a petticoat with ruffles was added over the legs; it held out their long skirt and help them keep from tripping on it. Outer layers consisted of a blouse, skirt and apron. The apron was either one worn at waist level or included a bib that was pinned to the blouse. Finally, should autumn bring chilly temperatures women would wear a wool cape or their gentleman's jacket, said Dumas, with a hint of a smile. At all times women covered their hair either in a bonnet or some type of woven hairnet.
Nearby, Omar Reed, depicted a chaplain's assistant during the years immediately after the Civil War. Although Reed, an African American addressed opportunities for blacks in the Army of the
1860s and 70s, he said immediately after the war jobs were hard for anyone to come by.
"The Army offered steady pay, free medical coverage, a chance for an education and plenty of adventure," he said.
Following the Civil War, Congress required men enlisting in the Army to go to school. Enlistees had to have at least an elementary school education. Reed said military chaplains taught many of the men already in the Army. Initially curricula were severely limited in as much as a Bible, newspapers, prayer books and hymnals formed the available "textbooks."
The Army began training up assistants, either junior enlisted men or noncommissioned officers who had some education themselves. These assistants and some officers' wives helped teach classes. Some Army posts gained access to McGuffey Readers, a textbook used into the 20th century, and other books to aid in the teaching.
Reed said his job as a chaplain's assistant provided some extra benefits such as getting out of dirty details like latrine duty or marching. By 1889, the Army was even paying Soldiers who taught others. All this was set in place to help the Army escape the waste of manpower and material it experienced during the Civil War. Also, the Army was a stabilizing force on frontier Oklahoma.
Soldiers dug wells, built buildings such as the quadrangle barracks, and built bridges and roads. He added the Army provided escorts to commerce flowing up and down the Chisholm and Great Western Cattle trails, and to overland stage and mail carriers.
"I always like to take my students to re-enactments, because the experiences they get here can't be duplicated just from reading a book," said Bill Berry, a history teacher at Fletcher High School. "Our students just started learning about the Civil War so this fits perfectly with the material I'm presenting in class."