Award-winning teacher's students to publish book

March 08, 1999

John PriestBy BRUCE HAMILTON / Staff Writer

photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer

A dead soldier's story is in the hands of South Hagerstown High School students and they plan to publish it.

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Almost 50 years after the Civil War's end, a Union soldier wrote a history of his regiment, which was captured in Plymouth, N.C. The writer, William Relyea, was one of the few survivors.

It is his tale that South High students are trying to tell.

Social Studies teacher Michael Priest, who has written 12 books, got a copy of the manuscript from a Connecticut historical society.


Beginning in March 1998, his students photocopied the pages, transcribed the words and typed them into a computer.

"They're doing all the hard work. I'm just supervising," Priest said. He has already secured a contract with White Mane publishing in Shippensburg, Pa.

It will be the third book Priest's students have published. Royalties from the books are used to buy textbooks and fund further research.

Priest, who has taught at South High 18 years, understands the value of a good yarn. "I do a lot of story telling," he said. "I'm kind of like a bottomless pit of trivia and stories."

Since the age of 10, he has been interested in the Civil War, but he is generally interested in military history. Of the 980 books in his personal collection, 200 are about the Civil War, he said.

"I really take an active interest in history," he said. "The kids say I don't have a life, but it's what I do."

He enjoys visiting the Library of Congress, the National Archives and bookstores. "I know that's strange. I'm a bookworm," he joked.

During a research trip to Duke University, he found a 137-year-old letter in a library. A Civil War soldier had written to his wife to let her know he was well.

The letter was blood-stained, Priest said. It was the kind of ironic detail he couldn't resist. He photocopied the page.

Relyea's manuscript was "a gold mine of telling observations," he said. "I never expected a find like that."

The sergeant criticized officers mercilessly, Priest said. His account bears witness to the sometimes unpleasant reality of history, such as less-than-heroic soldiers.

Relyea's frank words brought history to life for the students. "They got to see the way people really were," Priest said. "They enjoyed it because they were discovering things."

Priest's hands-on approach to history has earned him state and regional recognition. In October, he won the "Programs of Excellence" award from the Maryland Council of Social Studies.

In January, Priest learned the Middle States Council for the Social Studies awarded him its Outstanding Secondary Social Studies Teacher certificate. He will accept it Friday at a banquet in Annapolis.

Of the award, he said, "I was kind of surprised. This is the kind of job where you don't get much feedback."

"The History of the 16th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry" may not be printed until 2001. It must still be edited and researched further for publication, Priest said.

He plans to verify the spelling of each name, add photographs, maps and footnotes to flesh out the book. "It's going to take us another year and a half," he said.

For him, the book is a labor of love. "If we forget what has happened in the past, we lose our critical ability. We'll never question what's going on right now," he said.

"I also don't think people should ever be forgotten. They're the richest natural resource we have."

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