The Question I Could Not Answer

She stood there, staring at the minie ball in her tiny hand and feeling the weight of that original bullet. I was busy talking to the other children and adults at the medical display table and keeping an eye on the “touch and explore” box. I’d handed this little girl – maybe age five or six – the bullet to let her examine the projectile that would’ve been loaded into and shot from the soldier’s rifle she’d seen a few minutes earlier at the School of the Soldier educational station. (And to hopefully distract her from the amputation saw.)

Insistently, she got my attention, interrupting my conversation with the others at the table. Looking up at me with confusion in her sweet brown eyes, this little girl asked a question I didn’t know how to answer.

“How did this kill people?”

Sarah Kay Bierle getting ready for a day of living history teaching in an empty “field hospital ward.”

When I’m teaching in a living history setting, I meet people of all ages, ethnic groups, and belief systems. My goal is to share accurate information about the Civil War or aspects of the conflict while maintaining sensitivity for my listeners. It wasn’t the first time a child had asked me about death during the war, but on this day, I couldn’t find her parents in the crowd. Usually, when a small child asks me a question like that, I’ll look to the parents to see if they want to answer or if they want me to go ahead.

This time I was stuck. No parents in sight. What should I say? I had no idea if her parents had ever talked to her about death. I wanted to be honest, but I didn’t want to scare her either. If I had a child of my own who asked me a question like that, I’d probably have talked with her about death and my religious beliefs connected to the end of life; I fully understand that those talks have to happen. But was I suppose to have to do that with a stranger’s child in the middle of a very busy day and situation?

So, I paused, trying to decide how to answer. And – being an inquisitive child – she asked again, holding up that minie ball. The shaped lump of lead was harmless in her hands. “Well,” I replied carefully, “those bullets came out of the guns really fast. So fast that they could get inside a soldier’s body. That would hurt a lot, and there might be a lot of blood coming out of his body. So the bullet inside or the loss of blood might cause the soldier to die.”

Please, let that be a good enough answer. It wasn’t. Taking the bullet in one hand, she pressed it hard against her skin and shook her head. In her mind, I must’ve been crazy. That bullet wasn’t going into her body, so… The next question/statement: “Oh, so it went in his mouth, and he swallowed it. And choked. Is that how this killed people?”

Oh…please. What do I say? Either let this conversation end or please let her parents appear and help me out. I don’t want to say the wrong thing. But I won’t lie to her either. “Well,” I answered, hoping to end the conversation, “people can die by choking on things.” There, that’s true. But I didn’t say the soldiers choked on bullets and died…

The conversation wasn’t over. Wriggling out of this talk was harder than escaping from a tight-fitted 1860’s dress. “What would happen if the bullet flew out of the gun and into the soldier’s mouth? He would choke and die? How did it get down into him?”

Shattered jaw. Head blown off. Brain pierced. Either instant death or agonizing pain, depending on how a bullet hit a soldier in the mouth. Awful accounts of such wounds or aftermath battle sights flashed through my mind. I put out my hand for the bullet. She dropped it in my palm, and I closed my fingers over the old lead. “Yes. A soldier could die if a bullet went in his mouth,” I said firmly. She still stared at me with those big brown eyes. I turned away. Someone else had a question.

The dead along the Hagerstown Pike at Antietam.

When the crowd had moved on, I fingered the minie ball. “How did this kill someone?” It was rammed into a rifle barrel. A few other steps before firing. Then the soldier aimed at a target – if he could still see through battle smoke. He squeezed the trigger. The rifle recoiled. The minie ball, compressed against the grooved barrel of the rifle, exited the gun at high velocity, spinning. It sped on its straight course. It hit the enemy soldier…in the mouth, perhaps. Blood spattered. That piece of lead ended physical life, slowly or quickly. Or it maimed a man. Or it simply buried itself in a tree or the soil.

Without a rifle, the bullet was harmless. Even in a rifle, it was harmless – until someone squeezed the trigger. Even then, it still might be harmless – unless aimed at another human being. The bullet was harmless until there was a motive to kill.

I shivered. I knew the factual answer. I could’ve told an adult about primary source accounts. I could’ve talked medically about causes of death and even the point of physical death. Still, the question rattled me. I replaced the minie ball in the display case and wiped my fingers on my apron.

Have you had difficulty answering a historical question from a young child? Do you have suggestions for answering hard questions in a situation like this when no parent is around to “help”?

12 Responses to The Question I Could Not Answer

  1. A story.
    When pest controlling I met a family as I was loading up the trunk with 20 plus rabbits.
    All field dressed (gutted).
    The two youngsters were intrigued but the mother turned away in horror. (one down).
    “How did you catch them”, asked the young girl. Probably eight years old.
    So following a nod from ‘dad’ I said “Some I shot, the others are trapped”.
    Can I pick one up? asks the girl.
    Dad nods but looks a bit worried.
    So on went a pair of nitrile blue gloves and the little girl picked one up.
    The boy shied away. That’s 2 out of the four turning a bit green.
    “It’s light” says the girl.
    “That’s because it has been cleaned out”, says I.
    The girl flips the rabbit upside down and says “No tummy, it hasn’t got a tummy!
    Dad’s eyes are averted. 3 out of 4 now not looking too good.
    So I said, “They are ready to be cooked”.
    “Aw silly you, they are all hairy”, laughs the girl.
    Puts the rabbit down, and I help her to take off the gloves.
    “Thank you”, says the now happy girl and all four walk off.
    3 now very green and uncomfortable.

    The point of the story?
    A child learns aversion, fear, and horror from it’s parents or peers in the main.
    So I didn’t lie, or hide the truth, and said it as it was, letting the child set the level of the conversation. They do that. Kids I mean. questions without guile, with reaction that is true to what they hear or can understand.

    Ultimately in your case, I’m thinking your knowledge worried you not the girl.
    Think on that. The aversion, the fear, was yours not hers.
    I use the acronym KISS a lot when talking to people who don’t know, child or adult.
    It stands for keep it stupidly simple.
    If ‘they’ want to know more generally they will ask. The secret of good lecturing is to pitch your comments to their level NOT what you think it should be.

    1. My daughter decided she hates veal and won’t eat it despite living in a family that hunts and raises and butchers their own animals for meat. She has cuddled a bunny one day, and eaten it with BBQ sauce the next.

      So, why won’t she eat veal? Because her school teacher went on an emotional tangent about how veal comes from poor, tortured, motherless baby cows. I explained to my daughter that on a dairy farm, heifers are needed, not bulls. So, what can one do with bull calves born? There aren’t nearly enough buyers for them all. So, traditionally, dairy bull calves were milk fed and butchered at weaning for their veal.

      Nope. She won’t listen to reason. Emotion wins out over fact.

  2. Sarah, I’ve been in that situation with students before, in classrooms and when they are on field trips to the Springfield Armory National Historic Site. Quite a minie ball collection there! Questions like the one you got from younger children can be difficult and challenging to most of us. Five or six years of age is really tough. While I think a question like hers provides an opportunity to offer a realistic depiction of a battlefield wound (and de-glorify violence by talking about its realities and outcome), obviously its important to dial it down with the younger ones like that. Sounds like you were being appropriately sensitive to her age. I agree with the first commenter to your article, that you should see how a child responds and let him or her set the pace. Dial it up gradually from where you start or gracefully change the subject if you sense that a better course.

    I’m all for exploratory learning, as you were doing with the little girl with the “touch and learn” box. A ranger leading a field trip at the Tredgar Iron Works at the Richmond National Battlefield Park that I observed masterfully combined a presentation to 6th graders with those kinds of exploratory hands-on activities. She even used a series of photos taken in military hospitals during and after the Civil War of various kinds of wounds. (She had checked in with the teachers in preparation, to make sure they thought the students would be OK with the information she shared, and she told the students what she was going to show them first, so they wouldn’t be shocked.)

    It sounds over the top as I describe it, but in the context of the day and all the other activities, the presentation worked and the kids responded well, I thought. Sad thing is, many of the young people you and I work with are probably getting a lot more graphic imagery on the internet, in video games etc. There, all they have to do is hit re-set and start a game over. Your presentation in the medical tent reminds them there is no reset button on a battlefield, or for that matter in their neighborhood school yard and streets.

    Keep up the good work. Living history rocks!

  3. I was teaching a school group at an 18th century site in Maryland. A young African-American girl asked me if the enslaved people were slaves because they were black. When I told her that was indeed the case, she stared at me with her mouth agape for sometime.

  4. I’m very sorry you are put in that position. You did better than I ever could have and you did the best you could so as awkward as it was hold your head up high although you’re a teacher there are some things kids need to learn from their parents. You did a great job Sarah as always have a happy New Year!

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