Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Hell's broke loose in Georgia: March to the Sea meets 'Apocalypse Now'

Not too many years ago, movie audiences clung to a powerful scene from “Gone With the Wind” as their image of Gen. William T. Sherman’s marauding Yankees.

A soldier comes to Tara to loot the premises, sees Scarlett O’Hara and moves up the stairs toward her, a leer across his bearded face.

Scarlett calmly shoots him dead, takes his money and, with the help of Melanie, buries him outside.

To many, the soldier portrayed the worst side of the Union troops who made life miserable for Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina during the 1864 March to the Sea.

Whether he was a deserter or a forager is unclear. True foragers, nicknamed “Bummers,” were used to secure food for the vast army.

A forager was faced with many scenarios and moral dilemmas as he approached a farm or plantation: Are there crops and livestock for the taking? Should the home be burned and the family put out? Are there armed militia lurking in the shadows, ready to pick him off?

Or, should a home, instead, be bypassed?

Such choices will be posed to more than 600 people taking part in an “authentic immersion event experience” next month, 145 years to the day that Sherman’s army began the March to the Sea.

The Georgia-based Armory Guards and Mess No. 1, their Union counterpart in Ohio, are sponsoring “Bummers: All Hell Has Broke Loose in Georgia,” at Molena, Ga., about an hour south of Atlanta.

“Bummers” will take place Nov. 13-15 at the Boy Scouts’ 1,600-acre Camp Thunder, which the authentic campaigners/living historians are renting.

“It’s a way to learn the history by doing it,” says Eric Tipton, a member of Mess No. 1 and one of the organizers.

Tipton (left) likens the event, which is not open to the public, as a version of “Apocalypse Now.”

Rather than traversing rivers in Southeast Asia, Union foragers, as individuals or members of small teams, will head down trails.

Danger could come at any bend. And like the GIs in “Apocalypse Now,” participants may see scenarios and resulting decisions in shades of gray.

Many Southerners saw them as little more than criminals, destroying or seizing private property. But for Sherman, they were an instrument to wear down the South and take food away from the Confederacy’s breadbasket.

Tipton, who lives in West Chester, Ohio, just north of Cincinnati, likens the scenario to a “scavenger hunt,” with the foragers searching for food. Civilians, militia and Wheeler’s cavalry will attempt to parry these moves.

There will be burnings, prisoners, encounters with civilians and gunfire, says Tipton, who is hesitant about giving away too much of the story line, which “is more like play” than a re-enactment.

“Our goal is to pose moral dilemmas,” for foragers, says Tipton. “Human nature hasn’t changed over the years.”

He says keeping the event private will keep it realistic and free from distractions that come with public events.

While Tipton, 39, and other participants often re-enact in public, they tend to think of themselves as “living historians” or “campaigners,” as opposed to the larger group of “mainstreamers” who are not quite as concerned about authenticity.

The hobbyists coming to Molena adhere to strict rules, doing research on each event, outfitting themselves in authentic gear (from the tip of their Hardee hats to their leather-clad toes) and camping with no modern gear. They cope with weather, insects and conditions common to the everyday Civil War soldier.

“We go out in the field carrying only what these guys carried,” says Tipton, a real estate developer whose home unit is the 6th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

Participants in “Bummers” pay a $35 registration fee. Tipton says 350 hobbyists will portray Federals while about 150 are members of the Confederate militia. Another 30 or so will be in the Confederate cavalry, and 50 will portray civilians.

Tipton hopes the event and other fund-raising will garner nearly $10,000 to help the Atlanta History Center buy the George W. Wray Jr. Civil War Collection, which contains 1,000 objects.

I asked Tipton whether Camp Thunder sits in land covered by Sherman’s foragers.

Not quite. But the Union 15th Corps, on the right of Sherman’s 62,000-strong force, did operate in the area beforehand.

These guys do their research.

Read more about the event

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