[Editor’s Note: At the 2018 American Battlefield Trust Teacher Institute, ECW Editor in Chief Chris Mackowski met the Trust’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Phil Caskey, who told him about a class project intended to capture the full scale of the loss of life in the Civil War. ECW correspondent Meghan Hall follows up on that conversation with this report.]
Last year, Phil Caskey spread 24,000 bottlecaps out on his classroom floor. Each bottle cap represented a life lost in the battle of Antietam, the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War.
The bottlecaps scattered on the floor only account for about six percent of Caskey’s collection, though. Caskey, a high school history teacher based in Morgantown, West Virginia, and the American Battlefield Trust’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, is three years into collecting enough bottlecaps to represent every life lost in the Civil War—approximately 720,000. Caskey already has about 400,000 bottlecaps, but he is looking for assistance; he needs approximately 320,000 more bottlecaps to complete his collection.
The project, conducted by Caskey and his students, is meant to symbolize the death toll the Civil War had on our country. “I’m looking to quantify and give a visual representation of what the actual toll of the American Civil War was,” Caskey said. “Numbers are just numbers. . . . I wanted to be able to quantify the loss.”
Caskey drew inspiration from the Community Day School in Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh. The Pennsylvania community collected more than six million tabs from pop cans, with each tab representing a life lost in the Holocaust. The pop tabs were eventually crafted into a structure that shows the staggering death toll of the Holocaust. The structure still stands in Squirrel Hill as a permanent remembrance of the horror of the Holocaust.
Caskey said that though his inspiration came from the Community Day School’s project, he did not want to undermine their hard work or their important cause. Thus, he decided on bottlecaps—different enough from the Day School’s idea of pop tabs, yet still a household item that he could collect with ease.
The 400,000 bottlecaps Caskey already has on hand have come from, “Members of the Morgantown community . . . students, their parents, anybody who wants to donate,” he said. Caskey noted that people have also been sending them to him from all around the country as his project began to gain more traction.
Caskey said that the project is, “not going as fast as [he] would like it to, but [he’s] getting there.” He noted that when storage got tight, he began to wonder if it would be worth it to see the project through all the way to 720,000 caps. He said that he thought about using one cap to symbolize several lost lives. With some encouragement from those invested in the project, though, Caskey decided to persist. He said that he believes the project would not have as strong of an impact if he did not go one-for-one.
Collecting, sorting, counting and storing 400,000 bottlecaps has proven difficult, though. Caskey and his students only accept plastic bottlecaps, and all the bottlecaps have to be counted by hand. Caskey said that, at present, he has about 80,000 bottlecaps in boxes around the edges of his classroom. About 270,000 others are stored on school grounds, as Caskey could no longer accommodate the high number of bottlecaps he’d collected in his classroom. He said, “Storage is more and more concerning. . . . There’s not a lot of space left in my room so we’re running into some trouble there.”
There has been some historical controversy surrounding the number of lives lost in the Civil War. Some historians report that the death toll is around 650,000. Caskey chose to collect 720,000 based on more recent research that suggests the death count is higher than previous studies found. Caskey said that he chose to use 720,000 as his goal because of civilian casualties. He explained, “I figured those casualties are a lot more than what’s reported so far. I wanted to err on the side of being safe, so I went with the higher number.”
Once Caskey reaches his goal of 720,000 caps, which he estimates is about two years away, he intends to create something to display the caps. The idea is that one cap is equal to one life, so he wants to create a visual that will allow the scope of that statistic to sink in. He has not yet decided what the end result will be, but said, “Melting them all down has been thrown around, and so has making part of it into a mural. I certainly want to get members of our community involved. I want to open it up to people. Community-based ownership is what I’m looking for.”
Caskey’s students are an integral part of this project. Caskey said that his students often bring in caps, help him count them, and become invested in the project themselves. He also joked that, “The sorting can be really gross. The kids always want to wash their hands, and I don’t blame them!”
While the logistics and behind-the-scenes work aren’t glamorous, Caskey said, “I think it will be rewarding and meaningful for the students. . . . Several who have already graduated are bummed that they won’t see it until it comes to fruition.”
Caskey often brings hands-on learning into his classes. His intent, he said, is to give ownership to his students, which he does through field trips and interactive lessons. He believes this project has the same potential to give that sense of ownership to his students, while simultaneously bringing it to the holistic Morgantown community.
Aside from the American Battlefield Trust’s Teacher of the Year honors, Caskey’s dynamic, proactive approach has earned him accolades from the Daughters of the American Revolution, which honored him in 2017 as Outstanding Teacher of American History. In 2013, he was named a West Virginia University CDCE Model Scholar.
Caskey is still looking for caps to add to his growing collection. “Water bottle caps, soda bottle caps, milk jug caps, and almond milk jug caps are all great,” he said. “I’m trying to avoid anything larger than those—plastic lids to peanut butter cans, cool whip lids, laundry detergent lids, soap dispensers, etc. Those things are just too large.”
For those who want to participate in the project, plastic bottlecaps can be mailed to Caskey and his students at:
University High School
c/o Phil Caskey
131 Bakers Ridge Road
Morgantown, WV 26508