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Writing letters to the past

For much of this school year fourth graders in David Evenocheck's class at Shannon Park Elementary School have been writing to a man who doesn't exist.

No, not Santa.

The letters, written to a fictitious Civil War soldier named Matthew Adamson, are part handwriting lesson, part history lesson. And they resulted in a unique opportunity for the students. When SPES students visited the Minnesota History Center April 2 they got a private tour of the center's archives, including a Confederate battle flag Pvt. Adamson might have helped capture had he actually been part of the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry.

"It was really special," Evenocheck said. "I think that the students understood that it was a special thing that we got to do."

This isn't the first time Evenocheck has had his students correspond with figments of his imagination. Last year, when he was teaching third grade, his students exchanged letters with a Voyageur. With many of the same students in his class again this year Evenocheck didn't want to repeat himself. That's when he discovered the First Minnesota, a unit that included at least five soldiers from Rosemount and played a vital role in the Battle of Gettysburg.

Students wrote to Adamson once a month with questions about what life was like during the Civil War or what music he liked to listen to. Evenocheck would do some research and write back to the students.

The idea, he said, was to make otherwise boring lessons a little more interesting.

"There were still some students who weren't excited about the writing part of it, but especially when it got near the end they were really into it," Evenocheck said. "I think they really got hooked into the whole story of the First Minnesota."

So did Evenocheck. He didn't know much about the First Minnesota when he started his project, but he took an interest as he did his research. The First Minnesota played an important role in repelling two significant charges, helping preserve a Union victory at Gettysburg.

Many of the stories Evenocheck wrote about as Adamson were things that actually happened to the First Minnesota.

"I kept it pretty authentic," Evenocheck said. "The more I got into it, the more amazed I was to find out how important a role the First Minnesota Played and how few people knew about it."

Treasure trove

When Evenocheck told Minnesota History Center curator Matthew Anderson about the project, Anderson offered to give the students a private tour of the center's archives when they visited. The students got to see Civil War-era guns and clothing. They saw a duster worn by a member of the Jesse James Gang during the gang's robbery of a Northfield Bank. And they saw the Virginia Battle Flag Minnesota soldiers captured at Gettysburg.

"One of the students said she liked seeing the Civil War guns," Evenocheck said. "She said, 'Well, when I look at those guns I think those guns were used to help end slavery.' I thought that was just a great answer. To think about not just the objects we saw but how those objects were used."