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?”
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.
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”?