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Area students scrub their way through Antietam history lesson

April 25, 2006|by TIFFANY ARNOLD

SHARPSBURG

Two rows away from where three seventh-grade girls were hunched, scrubbing a marble tombstone at Antietam National Cemetery, was a curious grave with the name of Henry Struble on it.

But Henry Struble's body isn't buried there, the girls explained as they pointed to the tombstone.

When the body was buried, military officials believed the man was Henry Struble because that was the name etched on his canteen. The dead man was a Union soldier who had fought in the Battle of South Mountain in 1862, days before the Battle of Antietam.

"(Struble) actually survived," said Brittan Altomari, a 13-year-old who attends Middletown Middle School. "But he gave his canteen to a Union soldier standing next to him. That guy died."

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And that man is buried in the grave marked with Struble's name.

The scrubbing of thousands of tombstones Monday was a service-learning activity for 320 seventh-graders from Middletown Middle. The students were also getting the park ready for Memorial Day, said Gordie Thorpe, park ranger and education coordinator for the National Park Service.

But it was also a unique history lesson, Thorpe said.

Brush- and pail-toting students circulated the stories of the tombstones, like the one about the lady who disguised herself as a Union soldier in order to fight. Or the one about Struble, and how he discovered his marked grave in 1867 and placed flowers on the site every Memorial Day until he died in 1912.

"There's a story for every tombstone here," Thorpe said. "It's such an honor because students don't get to do this very often."

The tombstones are cleaned every eight years, Thorpe said, because the soft marble can't sustain anything more.

"We don't want to lose the writing and the numbers," she said.

After eight years, a different school scrubs the graves. Boonsboro Middle School students were there last, Thorpe said.

Fifth-graders from Sharpsburg Elementary School will place flags at the cemetery just before Memorial Day, Thorpe said.

Middletown Assistant Principal Steve Welty said the students would incorporate the day's activity into history lessons back in the classroom.

"Middletown's just over the mountain," Welty said. "A lot of people don't realize how close we are."

During the Civil War, Middletown was "very Union," said Thorpe, who used to teach at Middletown Middle. "Many of these students had relatives, great-grandfathers who fought in the war," Thorpe said.

Brittan and classmates, Kelly McLister, 12, and Taylor Greene, 13, said they weren't thrilled when their teacher announced that they'd be scrubbing tombstones.

"We thought it was going to be disgusting," Kelly said. "We thought we'd be on our hands and knees scrubbing."

But in less than an hour, the girls had scrubbed 20 graves.

"Really, I think it's interesting," Kelly said.

Special Education teacher Paula Lingg said her students were excited about going to the cemetery. She said the mass grave cleanings made her think about what it must have been like for soldiers during the Battle of Antietam.

About 23,000 soldiers were killed or wounded in that battle, Thorpe said.

"To imagine 23,000 people fighting for our country and dying all at the same time, that's really moving," Lingg said.

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