Teachers of American history have a particular fascination with the Civil War.
It is such a pivotal period in history that a number of teachers and professors have broken it down by particular battles or individuals and devoted an entire semester to just that subject.
There have been history courses that focused on President Abraham Lincoln; his contemporary to the South, Jefferson Davis; Union Commanding General Ulysses Grant; and the Confederacy’s Gen. Robert E. Lee, just to mention a few.
This spring another Civil War hero will be added to the roster of noteworthy figures who have an entire class devoted to a study of them and/or their actions — Barton Mitchell.
I would hope that Barton Mitchell would be pretty familiar to most folks around these parts.
He had better be in Hartsville, where a rather large historical marker dedicated to him sits in the town square.
Most of Mitchell’s life was spent in obscurity, in particular the last three years when he lived out his last days in the small Bartholomew County community.
But there was one moment in his life when he went down into history, at least what he found went down in history. On the afternoon of Sept. 13, 1862, he and a fellow Union soldier in Indiana’s 27th Regiment stopped for a rest alongside a road in Maryland.
Before he dozed off, Mitchell looked around and saw an unusual package: a handful of cigars wrapped in paper.
Upon opening the paper he discovered a treasure ... not the cigars, but a precisely written document which outlined the battle plan for an engagement that would later be known simply as “Antietam.” The battle plans had been drawn up for Gen. Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederate forces.
Mitchell had the presence of mind to take the orders to his superiors, who in turn passed them up the line to Gen. George McClellan, commander of Union forces.
Armed with that information, the Union leaders were able to revise their own strategies and the result was a bloody stalemate that claimed more than 3,000 lives. Actually, it was considered a victory for the North, one that turned the tide of the war. Lee’s forces were stymied on their march into the north and had to withdraw. It was a tie from which the South never recovered.
Given that Mitchell lived out his last three years in Hartsville, it would be understandable had a teacher in Bartholomew County chosen to devote a class to what he did.
However, this particular course is being led by Chris Lese, a teacher at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee.
Beginning on Memorial Day, Lese and 10 of his “volunteer” students will embark on a trip retracing the steps of Mitchell from his joining the 27th Indiana in Indianapolis, finding the lost orders at Antietam, fighting at Harper’s Ferry and Gettysburg and eventually settling and dying in Hartsville.
“I want them (the students) to walk where he walked,” Lese said this week from the private Roman Catholic school. “You get an entirely different perspective by being where an important moment in history transpired.”
Lese specializes in teaching the history of the Civil War at the school, which is operated by the Jesuit order. He does cover it from the traditional perspective of names, dates, battle plans, etc., but also puts individual battles in a different perspective.
“The thing about Antietam, especially, is that the battle didn’t have to end the way it did,” he said. “Had Barton Mitchell not found those orders, it’s likely that the outcome would have been far different. Lee would likely have been able to advance into the North, and there’s no telling how that would have affected morale in the North.”
In the mind of the Milwaukee teacher, Barton Mitchell — along with a lot of other unsung and anonymous individuals who through their singular actions brought about events that changed what should have happened — deserves
Surprisingly, a number of his students agreed.
He teaches the Civil War to two classes, each with 30 students.
“Barton’s story just resonates with these kids,” he said. “Perhaps it’s because he’s an unlikely hero, but I found that these teenagers were hooked by it.”
Lese has been hooked on the Civil War since the age of 9.
“We’d go on vacation to Florida and along the way my parents stopped at Civil War battlefields. I think I’ve been to every one of them, and I’m still fascinated by being able to walk where these battles were fought.”
His idea to retrace Mitchell’s wartime and postwar history began as a personal mission, but when he began telling his students about it he found others who shared his feelings. Ten of his 60 students volunteered to go on the nine-day “vacation.”
“We’re going to split up in two vans,” he said. “We’ll start out at the site in Indianapolis where he mustered into the 27th at Camp Morton. Then we’ll come south to Hartsville to see the marker and his grave site. From there we’ll head east to some of the battlefields where the 27th fought. We’ve already made arrangements with the officials at Antietam, and they’re going to let us pitch tents and spend the night on the battlefield.”
Admittedly, Mitchell is the unlikely subject for a class in American history.
However, when considering what likely would have happened had he not found the famous lost orders and how that would have changed the world, even today ... well, maybe more students need to know about the man who’s buried in Hartsville.
Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.