On Friday, a group of Durham Middle School students and their social studies teacher, Thomas Panter, unveiled a memorial plaque in front of the Pickett’s Mill Battlefield Museum in Dallas.
Their efforts to mark the location began in September as a special after-school project organized by Panter to give some much-needed attention to the park.
The cleanup effort was not an assignment, so Panter said he was stunned when 63 students arrived to help with their families.
The students were hauling out debris, covered in dirt and sweat, with no complaining about the heat or pleas for extra credit, Panter said.
During the service project, Panter, who has taught at Durham Middle School for 13 years and in Cobb for 21 years, was sharing facts about the Battle of Pickett’s Mill that occurred on the site during the Civil War.
On May 27, 1864, after a five-hour march, federal troops attempted to outflank the Confederate position with an assault beginning in the evening and continuing into the night.
By daybreak, the Confederates had caused many more causalities to the federal
troops and still held the field, which delayed the Yankees’ advancement on Atlanta.
As a child growing up in west Cobb, Panter said he was surrounded by remnants of the Civil War, including trenches in backyards.
As a social studies teacher, Panter said he knows teaching is more than repeating words in a text book.
“History is a story, but it is story involving real people,” Panter said.
Although visitors to the park can see earthworks constructed by the men and walk through the ravine where hundreds of soldiers died, Panter’s students were shocked to learn there were no markers for the more than 200 bodies buried on the battlefield.
Panter said he could sense the “outrage” by his students that there was nothing to commemorate the fathers, sons and husbands who never returned home.
But Panter said part of “academic service learning” means the direction must come from the heart of the students, so he made sure not to direct what happened next.
“Then one student said, ‘We should do something for them,’” Panter recounts.
Susan Galante, who has been the principal of Durham Middle School off Mars Hill Road for three years, said what started with one aspect of service evolved into something even larger.
“They are so empathetic,” Galante said. “It is service learning at its finest.”
Panter said the dedicated group of students met in his classroom before school every Monday to formulate and enact a plan.
Galante said the students used grant money to accept bids for a boulder monument and plaque, determining the size and characters needed for what they wanted to say.
“They didn’t have to raise the funds, but they had to stay on a budget and figure it out,” Galante said.
Then the students hit a roadblock. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources informed Panter plaques were not allowed at Georgia state parks.
“And the kids just kept on, not taking no for an answer,” Panter said.
Moments after being told of the policy, Panter’s students drafted a letter and sent it to State Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth), who had visited the class in September to speak about the U.S. Constitution.
Just hours later, Panter said he received a phone call from Larry Blankenship of The Department of Natural Resources to apologize and approve an even larger plaque to be installed.
Galante retired Friday, but not before seeing one of the most important projects her students have ever completed, placed just in time for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Pickett’s Mill festivities on Saturday.
“You try to say to your kids, wherever you go, leave a mark and make a legacy,” she said.