Smart’s Mill Middle School students bring history to life

Virginia Miller wrote her first diary entries in fall 1861, at the house where she lived on North King Street in Leesburg. The teenage daughter of a prominent doctor, she wrote about her family, a young soldier she liked and events unfolding in the world around her. The Civil War drew closer to her doorstep each day, close enough that she could hear cannon fire from the nearby Battle of Ball’s Bluff that October.

On Tuesday night, before a standing-room-only crowd in the board room of the Loudoun County Government Center, Virginia Miller and the events of 150 years ago came to life again in a documentary-style film created by students at Smart’s Mill Middle School in Leesburg.

One of six films premiered at the event, it was created by 133 Smart’s Mill seventh-graders as part of the multi-state Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership’s “Of the Student, by the Student, for the Student” program. The goal of the program is to connect students to the history of their communities by giving them access to multimedia technology and expert guidance so they can create, produce and direct documentary films about what they have learned.

“When students go to a historic site, they can often see things that we adults miss, and they can often find parts of history that inform us all,” said Cate Magennis Wyatt, founder and president of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership.

The students were given access to primary-source documents from the period, including letters, articles and diaries like Virginia Miller’s.

Seventh-grader Sophie Frey portrays Miller in the film. She dressed in period clothing and sat at a desk, pretending to write in a journal that wouldn’t be found for more than a century. The footage was shot at the Harrison House in Leesburg, where Miller lived during the war.

“I spent much of my time offering my house as a respite for the soldiers of Ball’s Bluff,” Sophie says in her narration.

Kimberly Wright, a communications teacher at Smart’s Mill who worked with the students throughout the four-month process, said Miller’s story was a perfect example of how learning about their community’s history can captivate students.

“This is a house they drove by a million times, and never knew what went on there,” Wright said. “They got to film in the house where her diary was found. They were speaking the words of the characters as they were acting in the location where they lived. I don’t know how much more you can bring history alive than that.”

The program is the result of a 2008 request by the President’s Advisory Panel on Historic Preservation, asking that the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership bring its service-learning programs into classrooms, Wyatt said. The nonprofit organization had already created similar programs for summer camps in the area, including one in Loudoun, in which students assume the identities of people who lived during the Civil War, reenact pivotal moments in history and “decide for themselves what they would do in those situations,” Wyatt said. With the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the partnership launched the first school program in January 2009.

Students at four schools — including Smart’s Mill and schools in Harper’s Ferry, Charlottesville and Manassas — have participated in the project in the past several years, Wyatt said. The organization will partner with eight more schools over the next two years as part of the ongoing commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

At the event Tuesday night, Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (I-At Large) addressed the students, families and community members who filled the aisles and stood along the back walls of the boardroom, telling them that he “fell in love with the very rich, historic parts of the community” when he moved to Loudoun in 1987.

The students’ project “will help us preserve the rich history in our country for many, many years to come,” he said.

Wyatt said that the partnership is working to raise additional funds with the goal of expanding the program and hopes to continue working with Smart’s Mill students, a feeling that was mutual among the seventh-graders who participated in the project this year.

“I would love to do this again,” said Austin Martinez, who is in one of the films as Col. Edward D. Baker, the only sitting senator killed in the Civil War.

Austin said that assuming Baker’s character and reenacting his actions during the Battle of Ball’s Bluff created a powerful connection to the man’s history.

“I was honored to play Baker,” he said. “He was a very brave and noble man. He was in front of his soldiers, and he didn’t cower in the back. That’s one of the reasons why he died, because he was in the front most of the time.”

Fellow actor Rachael Palmer used the diary of one of her ancestors, a Civil War soldier named Milton Smith, to help write the script for her group’s film.

“It was really cool, because you get to see something on paper and make it come to life,” Rachael said. “You get to see how he saw it himself.”

Abby Wright, Kimberly Wright’s daughter, also participated in the program and said that by taking on the character of Mary Todd Lincoln, she learned details about the first lady’s style and personality that she might otherwise have missed.

“This is actually something that really helped me learn about what they went through back then,” Abby said. “It’s so much fun, you don’t even realize how much you’re learning.”

Caitlin Gibson is a local news and features writer for The Washington Post.
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