"Form lines!" commanded Mina Jeffery, who runs the Civil War Boot Camp at the Manassas Museum, and the kids responded diligently by forming . . . a big blob. It took a few more shouts from Jeffery for the troops to find their rows.
They were being evaluated Friday after a week's worth of sunbaked activities. Equipped with wooden rifles, haversacks and tin cups, they experienced the daily grind of a Civil War soldier, from sending messages via signal flags to cleaning out a cannon barrel with a "worm."
This was the third time in four years that the Manassas Museum has offered the camp, which reserves 40 spaces for children in grades 2 through 5. As in previous years, the camp was slotted for the week leading up to the anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas, a celebration where grown men decked out in Civil War fineries offer demonstrations with an almost possessed commitment to authenticity.
Dave Meisky of the Fairfax Rifles Living History Society is one of those reenactors. As the camp's paymaster, he handed out the kids' play wages on their final day while giving a history lesson on Confederate money. When asked whether the kids' performance could give Meisky and his ilk a run for their money, the Alexandria resident was gracious.
"Quite possibly," Meisky said. "They are about 10 years too young to portray the soldiers accurately. Then again, we reenactors are about 30 years too old. And 30 pounds too heavy."
Jeffery likes to keep professional reenactors such as Meisky around to "put the kids in awe," which is better for the kids, she said, than "hearing me yell at them."
Being an reenactor takes a special talent, Jeffery said, adding that one of her kids, Robert Ross, 10, might be the greatest hope in the bunch. "Whenever we play with the rifles, he always pretends to get hit and falls over. This may not be a phase," she said.
"I think they're a pretty green troop, but they were green troops in 1861, too," said museum director Melinda Herzog, who smiled when she saw several boys getting fired up over a troop of ants they discovered on the sidewalk. The boys started to poke sticks and pour water on the ants, breaking their enemy's lines.
"Ah," Herzog sighed. "The only battle they're sure to win."
Last Wednesday, during a snack break, the staffers gave the kids a taste of how Civil War troops kept up their strength by forcing down a durable, unforgiving wheat cracker called hardtack, which would often travel for months before reaching a soldier's mouth.
"Back during the war, the soldiers would eat it in the dark so that they didn't have to see it -- because maggots would infest the hardtack," said Jessica Farquhar, a George Mason University junior interning at the museum this summer. "But these are freshly baked."
As Farquhar was passing out the hardtack to the unwitting, Jeffery appeared anxious. "I used a new recipe this year," she said, turning her head briefly to check up on the children off in the distance. "Last year, they liked it, so I thought I must have cooked them the wrong way. They're supposed to hate it."
Young Robert Ross, who is from Harrisonburg, had to use his molars to get a good grip.
"It doesn't have a taste," he said, his jaws finally relenting. "I'm just going to suck on it."
From all the uneaten hardtack, it appeared this year's batch served its purpose. And the camp as a whole, Herzog said, serves a larger purpose.
"They really can't get this knowledge outside of enrichment programs like this one," said Herzog, who this summer had to turn down more than twice the number of kids who attended because of limited space. At a time when test preparation is paramount for school administrators, Herzog said, most school curricula no longer have the time to add depth and hands-on demonstrations to classroom lessons.
Nine-year-old Garrett Humberson said he learned a lot during the week. But with his face flushed from the day's heat and his hardtack barely eaten, it looked as if he had enough.
"In the Civil War," he said, looking down at his shoes, "I don't think it would be very fun."