Ellis Middle School seventh-grader Kholton Miller fires a water balloon as the Union forces unleash their first barrage during a Civil War battle reenactment Tuesday. The exercise gave students a fresh perspective on American History. -- Photos by Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com
Ellis Middle School seventh-grader Kholton Miller fires a water balloon as the Union forces unleash their first barrage during a Civil War battle reenactment Tuesday. The exercise gave students a fresh perspective on American History. -- Photos by Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

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The Battle of Ellis Field; Students learn about Civil War tactics under a hail of balloonfire

Published 11:01am Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Ellis Middle School Students became American Civil War soldiers Tuesday. They carried invisible weaponry, followed the orders of their generals, learned a few basic drills, and marched around the school yard before descending into battle — with biodegradable water balloons.

Social studies teacher Tom Compton initiated the battle to teach students about why the Civil War was the most deadly American War. Compton wanted students to fully understand what made this the first modern war and how the soldiers paired modern weaponry, like guns, with ancient battle tactics like marching in columns.

Noah Pehrson waves the Union flag as Ellis Middle Schoolers reenact a Civil War battle.
Noah Pehrson waves the Union flag as Ellis Middle Schoolers reenact a Civil War battle.

“Our goal is to kind of let students understand and apply how the American Civil War [worked], why it was the most deadly,” Compton said.

Compton aimed to create a learning environment that’s entertaining and full of excitement, plus it gave students a chance to actually participate in the war they are learning about. He believes when the students participate, it gives them more of an opportunity to learn.

Tuesday saw multiple battles with different classes every hour. The battle at 2 p.m. was Compton’s class versus Eric Vaughn’s class, both seventh-grade. Teachers who had a free period were able to come outside and join in the battle from the sidelines, launching water balloons with giant slingshots.

But Compton and Vaughn were in the middle of the action, with Compton’s class representing the Union side, and Vaughn’s class representing the Confederates.

“We’re actually [on] the front-lines with our kids,” Compton said.

Ellis Middle School seventh-graders, portraying Confederates, are pelted by water balloons as they try to hold the line.
Ellis Middle School seventh-graders, portraying Confederates, are pelted by water balloons as they try to hold the line.

Thirteen-year-old Samantha Sheldon was excited about the battle. A student in Vaughn’s class, she represented a Confederate soldier, but this didn’t slow her down any.

“I feel more confident, because I think we can change history by beating the Union side,” Samantha said. “Red’s a better color too.”

But as the battle raged on, the Union side pulled ahead. The battles were not staged for historical accuracy, but at the end of the day, the Union side had won three battles to the Confederates two, meaning history remained unchanged.

Regardless of the outcome, 12-year-old Jordan Deyo, also a student in Vaughn’s class, was not too disappointed. He wasn’t too sure about being on the Confederate side at first, but when he learned that they had also won battles, he started to gain more confidence.

“I feel like we won, even though we all died,” Deyo joked. “We won in spirit.”

He enjoyed learning about the different techniques of battle that the soldiers had used, and he said he had a lot of fun.

Compton brought the idea for the battle reenactment with him when he moved from the Austin High School to the middle school. When he told middle school students he used to do the water balloon battle with his high school students, they wanted in on the action. He recreated this battle for six years in the high school, and this was the first time at Ellis. The battle has always left an impression with students, Compton said.

Ellis Middle School seventh-graders reenact a bayonet charge with water balloons Tuesday afternoon. Teachers Tom Compton and Eric Vaughn use the water balloons to demonstrate Civil War tactics to bring the history to life.
Ellis Middle School seventh-graders reenact a bayonet charge with water balloons Tuesday afternoon. Teachers Tom Compton and Eric Vaughn use the water balloons to demonstrate Civil War tactics to bring the history to life.

“The reason that I like to do these reenactment type events, over the years of teaching I’ve kind of realized it’s more of an art than a science,” Compton said. “I have to sell American History to the kids.”

Compton’s only requirements were that the students were able to explain to him what they learned and why they were “fighting the war,” and that the student’s had all of their assignments in. Compton said about 90 percent of the students were able to get all of their assignments in by the time the battle came around, which he called a good number.

Although the main purpose of this lesson was to teach, it wasn’t the only thing the students get from the battle.

“Obviously, it’s nice to throw water balloons at each other and have fun at the end of the year,” Compton said.


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