A few weeks ago, Bobby Sitton’s eighth grade class brought the Civil War to Cortez, both in the classroom and at the local cemetery.
It’s an annual tradition for Sitton, a world studies teacher at Montezuma-Cortez Middle School, who hopes to contextualize his Civil War history unit with a life-action reenactment and grave search. While the Civil War may seem irrelevant and hundreds of miles away, he said, showing students the physical gravestones of former soldiers helps bring it closer to home.
“It affected our town,” Sitton said at the cemetery on May 17.
A week before the grave search, local CPA and Civil War buff Chuck Forth visited Sitton’s classroom as Union Army Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. This was the fourth year that Forth has done so, sharing with students his collection of Civil War artifacts and explaining the war through the eyes of Sherman.
The following Friday, the crew visited the Cortez Cemetery for a sort of Civil War grave scavenger hunt. Sitton started out the lesson by reading aloud some passages from the Cortez Journal, which ran a series in 2011 in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
According to the series, Colorado saw rapid growth in the 1870s, partly due to the war’s end along with the development of agriculture and stock-raising in the area.
“Major E.H. Cooper, a Union veteran, erected a house for his home and real estate office that opened for business on Jan. 15, 1887,” local historian June Head wrote in another article in the series. “This was the beginning of Cortez, and many men who had served in the Union forces were the first businessmen in the new town.”
According to the article, there are about 20 Union veterans buried in the Cortez Cemetery, identifiable by the government-issued shield engraved in the marker with the soldier’s name, grade, rank, and unit.
The Cortez Cemetery currently has four identified Confederate soldiers, who were not granted the same shield engraving. According to Head, only Thomas Shultz, an early blacksmith and wheelwright in Cortez, has a marker with his Confederate status.
After Sitton delivered the reading to his class, the students dispersed in groups around the cemetery to find the gravestones of particular veterans, using the cemetery directory as a guide. The specific sought-after soldiers included Alfred Cushman, Davis Hanson Sayler, Thomas Shultz, John Maness and Stephen Winbourn.
“It encompasses all we’ve been learning,” said eighth grader Willa Rice, whose great-grandparents are also buried in the southwest corner of the cemetery.
“I think it’s cool that they were buried here,” said Jayden Thomason. “Even though the battles were fought far away.”
To close out the lesson, students placed flags, donated by Slavens True Value Hardware, on veterans’ graves in honor of the coming Memorial Day.