AIKEN --- Portraying a Civil War field nurse, Beverly Pelcher held up a fake severed arm, explaining to a crowd of students how a surgeon 144 years ago would have conducted a battlefield amputation.
Tyler Faughnder, a 10-year-old pupil from Evans Elementary School, watched as Ms. Pelcher demonstrated the last step of the amputation, his eyes widening as she used a tonglike instrument to grasp a flap of skin and pull it across the exposed bones and muscle.
"The children can see how the medical instruments were used to do an amputation," said Robert Urban, a Civil War field surgeon re-enactor. "Instead of a static display of medical equipment, we show you how they were used."
About 4,000 students from Georgia and South Carolina attended the first day of the Battle of Aiken re-enactment Friday. The annual event is one of the largest educational field trips in the state.
"It's a chance for them to see history as it was," said Wayne Jones, one of the organizers. "We want to see that our heritage is preserved and that true history is taught to our children."
Dressed in period garb, re-enactors -- soldiers, nurses, merchants -- mingled with spectators, describing in detail the living conditions of the time.
Each year, more than 1,000 re-enactors huddle together in humble, wooden winter quarters. Bringing a couple of blankets, between five and 10 men sleep per shelter as small campfires blaze.
"People get to see what the soldiers had to endure," Mr. Jones said.
Other re-enactors, such as Chris Kane from Pennsylvania, recreate a sutlery -- a kind of traveling department store that would follow the troops around supplying items that the military didn't, such as tobacco, pen and paper, books and some clothing.
Others demonstrate how to make items such as candles and brooms.
David Chaltas, who portrays Gen. Robert E. Lee, said the re-enactments provide a valuable opportunity for children.
"We can't try to understand who we are until we understand our ancestors," he said. "It's a window from the past speaking to the voices of tomorrow."
The re-enactment of the Battle of Aiken is in its 15th year.
The event commemorates the defeat of Union soldiers commanded by Brig. Gen. Hugh Kilpatrick by Confederate soldiers on Feb. 11, 1865. The Union troops were marching toward Augusta, where the Confederacy's gunpowder mills were located.
The two sides met in downtown Aiken as Confederate Maj. Gen. Joe Wheeler drove the enemy back toward Montmorenci.
Two days after the battle began, the Union troops moved out to rejoin Gen. William Sherman in the march toward Columbia.
"We've got to ensure that we give back, and we teach what really happened," Mr. Jones said.
"We want to, as accurately as possible, portray what really happened."
Reach Michelle Guffey at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or firstname.lastname@example.org
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Battle of Aiken 144th anniversary re-enactment
WHERE: 1210 Powell Pond Road, off Highway 19 in Aiken
WHEN: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and Sunday; battle at 2 p.m. both days; period church service 11 a.m. Sunday only
COST: $12 for adults, $6 for students (ages 6-18), children 5 and younger get in free; free parking