Student produces Civil War podcasts

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Colchester High School senior Sawyer Loftus poses with his senior seminar podcast project last Thursday. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Amid a sea of tri-fold posters and stapled research papers filling the Colchester High School cafeteria on Thursday evening, senior Sawyer Loftus stood out.

Community members lined up to try on a headset at his station, listening intently as a brief audio clip introduced the podcast series he produced for his senior seminar assignment.

“If you’re not a fan of history and haven’t already shut off my annoying voice, I suggest you do so now,” Loftus jokes in the introductory episode, the sound of twanging strings fading in. “I’ve stumbled into some pretty interesting stories.”

His semester-long “action research project,” which focused on Vermont’s contributions to the Civil War and the historical preservation efforts occurring today, took Loftus to monuments, battlefields and notable structures around the state and beyond.

Many of the trips were completed with his grandfather, a fellow Civil War buff, by his side. It was he who inspired Loftus’ love of history, frequently gifting him figurines and books throughout his childhood.

With his high school career coming to a close, Loftus said he’d never had the chance to delve deeply into Civil War studies. He saw the senior seminar project as an opportunity to learn more alongside the man who sparked the obsession.

“I couldn’t think of a better person to do it with,” Loftus said. “It was a learning process for both of us.”

The duo headed south at one point to tour historic war sites in Virginia and Maryland, all the while searching for a Vermont connection. They found just that in Virginia, Loftus said, where a marble marker heralded the contributions of the 8th Vermont Infantry during the Battle of Cedar Creek in 1864.

Closer to home, Loftus interviewed Vermont state archaeologist Jess Robinson about preservation efforts in the region and was shocked to learn just how arduous it was.

“When I asked them to explain the process of how something gets preserved, it was difficult for even them to explain because it’s so complicated,” Loftus said. “There’s not a specific set of rules; a lot of it is on a case-by-case basis.”

That ongoing struggle was illustrated in the local effort to save the historic Milton home of Civil War Gen. George Stannard, built in the 1840s. A volunteer committee has long worked to secure permits for a restoration of the site – an aim that became the central focus of one podcast installment.

Several members of the General Stannard House Committee beamed at Loftus’ presentation on Thursday.

Loftus said all CHS seniors are required to produce a similar research paper and presentation centered on a civics topic of their choice, usually tied to a piece of legislation or government action. This semester, reports covered everything from solar energy to safe cosmetics.

One of Loftus’ podcasts even examined his own assignment’s parameters, discussing the trend toward personalized learning in area school districts and reflecting on the technical process of cutting audio clips and recording voiceovers for the unique presentation medium.

“It’s a different way to do things,” Loftus said in one podcast. “I did all the research that I would for a research paper. In fact, I think I’ve done more research.”

And although the school’s presentation deadline has come and gone, Loftus said he’s not ready to stop making the historical podcasts just yet.

Colchester High School student Sawyer Loftus visited the Milton home of Civil War veteran Gen. George Stannard during his senior seminar project. The senior created a series of podcasts explaining Vermont’s connection to the war and the historical preservation efforts occurring today. (Courtesy photo)

An interview with Vermont Civil War historian and author Howard Coffin pointed him toward a mysterious and oft-discussed telegram from President Abraham Lincoln to Vermont’s then-Gov. Erastus Fairbanks.

“Vermont will do its full duty,” Fairbanks allegedly told the president when pressed for a prediction on the small state’s contribution to the war effort.

The quote inspired the title of a Coffin book, but Loftus said the validity of the telegram is still questioned by many historians. It’s a subject, he mused, that could make for a fascinating future installment.

In the meantime, Loftus is prepping for studies at Suffolk University next year where he’ll double major in history and government.

A link to all of Loftus’ podcasts can be found at http://obscurehistory.podbean.com.