Bringing Civil War vet into the computer age

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At left, Austin Scatena, 16, of Naugatuck looks over historical documents with classmates at Naugatuck High School in Naugatuck Wednesday. A group of about 20 high school students are producing an online museum for the Naugatuck Historical Society. They are photo-documenting and archiving documents from the society's Civil War collection including letters, artifacts, and entries from the Grand Army of the Republic memory book that documented veterans living in Naugatuck in the 1890s.  - Steven Valenti Special to the Citizen's  News
At left, Austin Scatena, 16, of Naugatuck looks over historical documents with classmates at Naugatuck High School in Naugatuck Wednesday. A group of about 20 high school students are producing an online museum for the Naugatuck Historical Society. They are photo-documenting and archiving documents from the society's Civil War collection including letters, artifacts, and entries from the Grand Army of the Republic memory book that documented veterans living in Naugatuck in the 1890s. - Steven Valenti Special to the Citizen's News

NAUGATUCK — Austin Scatena, a tenth-grader at Naugatuck High School, will have spent 40 hours transcribing the journals of a borough Civil War veteran by the time this school year ends.

The 16-year-old knows Sheldon Payne of the Connecticut 23rd Regiment pretty well by now.

“The handwriting varies,” Scatena said. “You can tell when he’s sleepy.”

Scatena is one of about 20 10th-grade United States history students working to digitize the Naugatuck Historical Society’s records of the Civil War, a project tied to a statewide effort to commemorate the sesquicentennial anniversary of the war’s opening shots.

The students are building an online museum with high-resolution photos of veterans’ journals paired with transcription for easier reading. Students are also digitizing and transcribing pages of a memory book of the Grand Army of the Republic, a post-war association of Union veterans. The book documents veterans living in the borough in 1890.

The historical society is digging up old photos and period artifacts, such as an ammunition pouch and an ornamental saber, that the students will photograph for the website. Some students are trying to determine the subjects of the photos or the owners of the artifacts, but the website will allow residents, perhaps those with veteran ancestors, to help.

“We get to share it with absolutely everyone,” said Wendy Murphy, the historical society’s president.

History teacher Matt LaPlaca, a member of a statewide curriculum committee to involve schools in commemorating the anniversary, started the project after a fellow committee member suggested pairing schools up with historical societies.

“I thought it was interesting, and I thought it would be a neat way to entice kids into history,” LaPlaca said.

LaPlaca and his students presented the project last month at a kick-off event at Central Connecticut State University, where LaPlaca was told no other grade schools are undertaking major Civil War commemoration projects. The Naugatuck project will be the first online museum in the state that is associated with a local historical society.

Students who are not purely motivated by history have been able to contribute to the project. Camera lovers have helped with the photo-documentation, web design students are helping build the site and the graphic design class had a contest to design the banner on the home page. One student went to the historical society with his family on a weekend to do research.

“Some of them have become better students for it,” LaPlaca said.

Sophomores Sarah Bourassa, 16, and Taylor Trammell, 15, are also transcribing Payne’s journals. Scatena and Bourassa, both cadets in the Air Force Junior ROTC, said they were fascinated by the military stories. Sophomore Taylor Trammell said she likes drawing parallels between life in the borough then and now.

“At one point, they had to stop because the mule was tired,” Trammell said. “For us, it’s like we have to stop because the car runs out of gas.”

Each student involved in the project is required to work on it for 10 hours each quarter. When they exhaust the Civil War records, they will move on to other historical society artifacts, which the society does not have the staff to document, Murphy said.

“The historical society is just really, really grateful,” Murphy said. “It’s not something that we would be able to pull off.”

LaPlaca said he hopes the high school’s project will become a model for other schools. To Murphy, it represents a whole new model for historical research.

“As a high school student, the ability to work with primary source documents is incredible,” Murphy said. “The things these students are doing is not something that was accessible to me, and my degree is only four years old. … When we were working on our project, we couldn’t go to websites because there weren’t any reliable websites.”

The Parent School Council gave the historical society a $400 grant to pay for hosting and registering the online museum, which should be up and running soon, Murphy said.

“We could have a fire and it will still be around,” Murphy said. “We could have another flood, and it will still be around.”