By Jenna Bagcal
Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in Bayside has been bringing the Civil War to life for their students for more than a decade.
Last week, the high school brought back the interactive history war lesson for hundreds of juniors as a supplement to what they’re learning in the classroom.
Hundreds of students got the opportunity to see, hear and even taste the experience of Civil War-era soldiers on Jan 4. Outdoor activities were led by Cardozo history teacher Dr. Peter Ridout, an active member of the 124th New York State Volunteers Civil War re-enactment unit.
Joining Ridout for his 12th year was his son William Ridout — currently a cargo specialist in the U.S. Army — and fellow social studies teacher and war re-enactor Stanton Mitrano.
According to the school’s assistant principal, Peter Georgatos, Dr. Ridout and his crew began setting up the demonstration near the sports field at 6 a.m. The day consisted of showing each class the experience of an average soldier including camp life, food, the tents they lived in and the types of weapons they used.
William Ridout brought in his army uniform and other supplies for a side-by-side comparison between a 21st century army uniform and a 19th century uniform. Ridout and Mitrano also demonstrated the nine steps to shoot a rifle and fired blank bullets to end the presentation with a literal bang.
“I think it kind of brings it to life because it’s hard for somebody in the 21st century to really [imagine it.] You can tell them what it was like and they can read about a dog tent and they can read about the food, but [they get] to actually see it, to smell it [and] if they want to, taste it,” said Dr. Ridout.
“In textbooks, it’s always about the generals and the major battles but you don’t know about the average soldiers — the average soldiers were 18 [or] 19 years old. So we try to show them how the average person was,” Mitrano added.
This “bottom-up” way of teaching history is something that Ridout and Mitrano want to instill in the students to reiterate the fact that the soldiers lost their lives in these battles to fight for freedom.
“At Cold Harbor, there were 7,000 dead in 20 minutes. At Gettysburg, there were 53,000 total casualties in three days. These are casualty rates that are unfathomable in today’s standards and [we want] for them to kind of understand that this was the cost of freedom in this country,” said Ridout.
Ridout started doing war re-enactments in upstate New York when he watched members of his current unit do a demonstration at the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown. As lifelong history and Civil War enthusiast, joining the reenactment unit appealed to him.
“It sounded interesting and it encompassed history and the Civil War and camping, so I said ‘oh, perfect!’” Ridout said.
Both he and Mitrano travel up and down the East Coast to help reenact famous battles, including the Battle of Gettysburg, the First and Second Battles of Manassas and the Battle of Fredericksburg. He recalls the celebration of the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg when 15,000 to 20,000 re-enactors participated in the event.
“We get together, we travel around the country, mostly upstate or Pennsylvania, Virginia, and recreate different battles from the Civil War. I’ve recreated medical scenes because my unit was also part of a medical unit,” said Mitrano.
Georgatos has seen the interactive lesson during the seven years he’s been at Cardozo and hopes that it’s something students will get to experience for years to come.
“I love tradition. The thing that I love about it is that it’s ours,” said Georgatos. “I want us to be a family. The kids, they’re our kids [and] we want this tradition in the school. We’re gonna keep going, I’m saying 30 or 40 years. Hopefully, the person who takes over will have their kids doing the reenactment. It’s just something that I really believe in.”