What began as a school assignment for a local middle school student ended in a national award, a reception in New York and the chance to meet Steven Spielberg.

What began as a school assignment for a local middle school student ended in a national award, a reception in New York and the chance to meet Steven Spielberg.

Reynoldsburg resident Yeats McDonald, 13, an eighth-grader this fall at Grace Christian School in Blacklick, placed second in the United States for her Civil War essay, Man's Best Friend Goes to War.

Yeats won second place and a cash prize of $200 in the middle school division of the Civil War Essay Contest conducted by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which also honored Spielberg this year for his movie Lincoln.

Her teacher, Patrick Phillips, from Bexley, said Yeats' essay was one of 15,000 submissions from 3,000 schools across the country.

"Everyone who read Yeats' essay was impressed by its uniqueness," he said. "It is about the role that dogs played in the Civil War. It sounds very simplistic, but reading several accounts of how dogs served in various ways in the war turned a simple-sounding topic into a relatively complex one.

"From her introductory paragraph through the entire essay, there was a nice flow that kept the reader's attention," he said.

Yeats, her family and Phillips attended the Lincoln Prize banquet in late April, where the essay winners and Spielberg were honored, along with other prize-winners, including Miami University Professor Martin P. Johnson, for his book, Writing the Gettysburg Address.

The banquet was broadcast nationally in late May on C-SPAN.

"Yeats' essay was so unique that I really understood her doing well in the competition," Phillips said. "It was, as they say, 'out of the box.'

"However, when you consider that the award is presented in New York City at the Lincoln Prize Dinner and that famous historians, college professors of history and college presidents are in attendance, along with Steven Spielberg, and that the award ceremony is shown on C-SPAN, it leaves you a little awestruck."

Yeats was less awestruck, but still shocked to learn she was a winner.

"When Mrs. Phillips (Principal Cindy Phillips) announced the results at the assembly, I was shocked," she said. "Frankly, my goal had been to get a good grade on my paper."

Yeats said Cindy Phillips and middle school teacher Dawn Naylor gave her flowers and candy. She received the $200 cash award at the banquet. She said the money will go to help purchase a Macbook computer.

Patrick Phillips said the Gilder Lehrman Institute houses one of the largest privately held collections of historic documents. He said Grace Christian School was the first middle school in central Ohio to become an affiliate school for the institute. There are now more than 5,000 middle school and high school Gilder Lehrman Affiliate Schools.

"For the essay contest, the top 10 essays were selected, then the top five were identified and submitted," he said. "The essays have to cite at least five primary source documents. ... This requires extensive research and an advanced level of composition."

Yeats' essay describes how dogs looked for food and water for their soldier buddies, crossed enemy lines to carry messages, worked as prison guards and were overall companions that improved soldiers' morale during the Civil War.

She said the prison dogs at Andersonville Prison in Georgia were called the "Hounds of Hell," guarding prisoners and seriously injuring those who tried to escape.

Most of the time, however, dogs became close companions for soldiers who were far from home, Yeats wrote in her essay. She described how difficult it was for widows of fallen soldiers to claim their husbands' bodies because thousands were buried in unmarked graves.

"The widow (Mrs. Louis Pfeiff) traveled from Chicago to Tennessee to find her husband's remains," Yeats wrote in the essay. "When she arrived at the battlefield, she spent hours looking at the thousands of markers marking soldier's graves. A dog ran up to her and she recognized her husband's dog. He led Mrs. Pfeiff to an unmarked grave. The dog had been by her husband's side when he died and for 12 days stayed at his burial site keeping watch."

Yeats said she wanted to "give the Civil War dogs the attention they deserved."

"We all got the opportunity to meet Mr. Spielberg," she said. "He was really nice and took the time to ask each one of us about our paper."

Writing research papers isn't really one of her favorite things.

"I do like to write, but mostly on my own terms," she said. "I don't like writing papers for school, but after all this, I guess it has its perks."