By Shelley Grieshop
ST. MARYS -- Cannons and muskets were exploding and fifth-graders were marching like soldiers Friday afternoon at St. Marys East Elementary School.
Civil War Re-enactment Day was going on behind the school.
"We feel really passionate about doing this because we wanted the children to know the real history of our country," said retired fifth-grade teacher, Linda Johnson, who returned to help coordinate the annual event.
More than a dozen professional Civil War re-enactors from all around the state came to the school and led students on a learning spree of their country's heritage. The men, women and even one young child who portrayed the soldiers and their families at nine different stations volunteered their time for the day. Grant monies from McDonald's and the Veterans of Foreign War post of St. Marys and a donation by the city's Kiwanis group paid their mileage, said fifth-grade history teacher Sue Nuss.
"The re-enactors are great, the kids just love 'em," Nuss added. The majority of students said they loved the miniature cannon best. In previous years, the Lima Historical Society donated a real Civil War-era cannon, but it was not available this year, Nuss said. However, the students got to operate a Cohorn mortar, a 90-pound mini version of one used by soldiers in the war, said re-enactor Will Vickell of Brown County.
"The mortarmen would take their place behind the infantrymen and fire over the top of the men," Vockell told the students who were in awe.
Before firing the old weapon, Vockell and partner Mike Bailey of Wapakoneta moved the students safely away, then gave the signal for fifth-grader Matthew Freewalt to commence firing.
And he did. And it was very, very loud, even though it only fired grass that was stuffed into the chamber.
"I didn't expect it to be that loud," said Grant Broski, 11.
Student Courtney Hiser said she liked the cannon best, too. Her second best station was the one where old games like elbow tag were being taught.
Eleven-year-old Tyler Albert said he thought it was awful when he heard how other soldiers would have to push an injured comrade out of the way to make sure someone remained firing the cannon at the enemy.
"I guess that's the way it had to be though," Albert said.
At one of the stations, a re-enactor told the students about female spies who helped win the war in their own way since they weren't allowed to fight like soldiers. Re-enactor Jennifer Averesch let the boys and girls dress up in pantaloons, corsets and other female attire of the era.
And if you looked around, you could even find Robert E. Lee strolling the grounds.
It was a learning experience, 10-year-old Hiser admitted.
"I think this helps us have a greater appreciation for our freedom, learning just how hard it was for soldiers and their families," she said.