Ridge Grandel, 11, seemed a little uncertain as he drew the full-size Union officer's saber in the hallway of the Dr. Joyanne D. Miller Elementary School. The weapon and scabbard itself came up to the middle of his chest.

"We think it was an officer's sword," he explained, holding the saber at length and pointing to the stamped patterns on the unsharpened blade.

"The soldiers would use it for close fighting," he said, and with help, slid the saber back into the metal scabbard.

A few moments later, other fifth-grade students walked by. "Hey Ridge, where'd you get the sword?"

The sword, and the host of other programs around the Egg Harbor Township school, were just a small part of the Civil War-themed programs organized earlier this month by teacher Kelly Hunt. Students dressed and talked about Civil War-period clothes, showing how people lived, ate and fought during this seminal time in American history.

Using props such as the sword - an authentic reproduction that Hunt said she bought at Cold Spring Village - Hunt and students worked to make the history real and tangible for students.

About 150 students presented to around 450 student, on topics as varied as the toys of the 19th century, the telegraph, submarines, hand grenades, the use of hot air balloons and clothing fashion.

The idea is to "bring history to life for our students, because so many of the students didn't know the history," Hunt said. It was originally for the students in the gifted-and-talented program but expanded to other classes. "It's a great experience for the kids."

Hunt said the demonstrations helped explain science, technology, engineering and mathematics - a key area of learning.

Hunt, herself, wore an example of the layered fashions of the day. She explained to about 30 students her layers of clothes, including a hoop skirt made of whalebones, the corset and the all-but-mandatory fan. She said, "I carry my fan because, trust me, this is very, very hot."

Other students in one classroom were similarly attired, including Mya Pomatto, 11, in a purple ball gown accented with lace; Isabella Leak, 11, who explained how women and men carried cameo pins; and Grace Baumgartel, 11, who talked about the hairstyles. Mohini Gulati, 10, said women frequently wore hats with 3- to 4-inch brims, while Layla McIntosh, 10, said many girls' outfits were made of a blend of cotton and wool, and were hemmed as the girl grew, and Lauren Ebner, 10, explained the heavy corsets that many women wore.

Samia Alam, 11, portrayed Mary Boykin Chesnut, whose harrowing diary on life during wartime in South Carolina was later published. Nina Kaderabek, 11, went as Mary Virginia Wade, the only civilian casualty during the Battle of Gettysburg.

Pomatto explained that what she wore was like a ball gown. "I really like this dress," she said, even as she admitted, "It's kinda difficult to move in it."

Learning about the Civil War like this was fun, she said, and educational. Her eyes lit up when she talked about taking part in some of Hunt's earlier projects, including dissecting owl droppings for clues about its eating habits and setting up race cars powered by mousetraps that they later ran down a hallway.

In another classroom, Joey Lisa, 11, and Dan Nguyen, 11, explained their replica cannon, which fired ping-pong balls. The class taught them just how effective the cannons were and how much they cost, Nguyen said. A target for the demonstration was posted to a wall opposite, and teachers filing in with their students told them not to sit anywhere near it.

More than just educational, Lisa and Nguyen said they were caught up in the program, and wanted to learn as much as they could about these weapons. Why?

Said Lisa, "We thought it would be cool to show the other kids."

Contact Derek Harper:

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