Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Pickett's Mill 'real time' maneuvers, skirmishes to mark 150th anniv. of Atlanta Campaign

Marching at Pickett's Mill (Armory Guards)

Herb Coats has participated in events at Pickett’s Mill Battlefield Historic Site for nearly half his life.

He’s noticed some changes over the years during his drive to the Civil War venue in Paulding County, Ga.: Subdivisions now surround the park.

But once inside state land, Coats, 35, slips back in time. No campsites or boat ramps. Rather, history.

“There are no monuments out there,” he says. “It was left to how it was in the 19th century.”

Hundreds of soldiers, mostly Union, spilled their blood during a one-sided clash on this 765-acre plot of land during Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign.

The Confederate victory northwest of Atlanta is being remembered on May 31 during a living history weekend and “semi-immersive event” co-sponsored by the Armory Guards, a living history and re-enactment group that portrays the common soldier in the Western Theater.

(Armory Guards)

In conjunction with the state park, the Armory Guards will demonstrate to the public “in real time” the engagement of Confederate and Federal units 150 years ago.

On May 31, spectators will witness an 11 a.m. encounter, a 3 p.m. wheat field skirmish and cornfield fighting at about 6 p.m. They also can witness artillery demonstrations.

“We are going to be re-creating military life to the best of our ability,” says Coats, a former Armory Guards president serving as event coordinator. “We want everyone to stay in the moment, in the first person, from leadership down.”

He expects nearly 250 “campaigners” to take part. That includes about 40 cavalry, 115 Confederate and about 70 Union re-enactors.

Unlike “mainstreamers,” who camp in place and generally stage battles and maneuvers in a large field, “campaigners” are expected to do thorough historical research and wear uniforms and gear that are appropriate for a specific theater of the Civil War. They take part in marches and do activities known to have occurred in a specific battle.

“We encourage everyone to immerse themselves within the time period, to try to get into mindset of being a soldier in 1864,” says Coats.

Sherman learned some tough lessons when he tried to flank and push back the enemy at Pickett’s Mill on May 27, 1864. Troops under Union Maj. Gen. O.O. Howard clashed with those of Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne.

"The Confederates were ready for the attack, which did not unfold as planned because supporting troops never appeared," says the National Park Service battle summary.

The Federals charged down ravines and uphill against the Confederates, fighting at extremely close quarters. At least 700 of the men in blue died and the advance on Atlanta was delayed a week. The Union suffered about 1,600 total casualties, compared to the foe's 500. Sherman continued maneuvering and attacked Confederate lines at Kennesaw Mountain about a month later.

Re-enactors from across the country are coming to Pickett’s Mill, considered among the best-preserved Civil War sites in the nation. They will represent the consolidated 8th and 19th Arkansas of Govan’s Brigade and the U.S. 5th Kentucky, Hazen’s Brigade, and U.S. 9th Kentucky, Knefler’s Brigade.

James Wooten, interpretive ranger at Pickett’s Mill, says the site, including the historic cornfield and wheat field, looks good for the events. Bridges lost to a major flood a few years ago have been replaced.

At most “mainstream” events, battles take place on a large field.

That won’t be the case of Pickett’s Mill, because public interpretation will be done at only a couple spots. This will free up the re-enactors from distractions and allow them to be more “in the moment.”

Defensive barrier at Pickett's Mill (Armory Guards)

“Participants will be moving throughout the park following the footsteps of the Federal and Confederate commands,” says an event website. “The actual movements will be followed as closely as possible throughout the day, and into the evening on Saturday.” Much of the time, they will be out of public view.

Sunday’s scenario will consist of the post-battle Confederate probes that occurred in the area.

Coats stresses Pickett’s Mill did not have a “grand battle.” Instead, smaller skirmishes were common in the Western Theater.

“We hope the public will get a better grasp of Civil War combat and tactics and not the big circusy presentation at larger mainstream events.”

Re-enactors will maneuver and build breastworks with branches and debris (they are not allowed to dig into soil). “They will camp wherever they stop,” says Wooten. “They don’t have a static camp like at Resaca.”

With late May heat and humidity, marching with up to 40 pounds of gear will be a challenge for participants.

(Armory Guards)

“It is understood that is where you put your big boy pants and we go in the way they did it,” says Coats. “There is a lot of self-policing going on.”

The group will not attempt a night charge in the big ravine. “Guys will be tired and there is the safety issue. It is very uneven terrain…. and I don’t want guys getting hurt at night. I have done candlelight tours and I have tripped over logs," says Coats.

Coats says he hopes the event will raise awareness of Pickett’s Mill, which is open only three days a week (Thursday-Saturday) since budgetary cutbacks almost five years ago. Any registration or other funds left over will go the site, he says.

Wooten says the state concentrates on maintaining several trails. He would like to see the fields opened up to better approximate their wartime appearance.

The Friends of Pickett’s Mill Battlefield, established in March 2013 and made up of volunteers, will assist during the event.

“We will have civilian activities around the cabin to demonstrate cooking, children's activities and other aspect of life on the home front,” says John Nash of the group. “Behind the museum, we will have at least two re-enactors displaying what soldiers carried and wore during the Atlanta Campaign.”

Nash says the Friends have cleaned and reorganized the park library, “making it now a useful space to research both military information and family history for the area. We are hoping to have new shelving and bookcases built in the near future to help preserve some of the books in our possession.”

A June 21 genealogy day will allow visitors to share family histories and artifacts relevant to the state site. “We plan to have recording equipment to preserve what shows up. Plans also include possibly changing out exhibits on a more frequent schedule, keeping information and education fresh and renewed.”

(Friends of Pickett's Mill)
The 150th anniversary of Pickett’s Mill will provide the public an opportunity to see living “weekend warriors” who know their stuff.

“The biggest misconception is that campaigners are jerks,” says Coats. “But we want guys to stick around … It is a hobby. We have got to be fun.”

“We take the drill and culture seriously. We try not to take ourselves seriously.”

Participants will do guard duty, set up camps and barricades, go on patrol and fight the enemy in rugged terrain.

Like the soldiers they portray, Coats expects the re-enactors to be exhausted at night.

“They are tired and (just) want to go to sleep.”

The park encourages patrons to be on site around 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 31. Bring good shoes, bug repellent and water. Admission per person is $5.50 adults, $3.50 for those age 62 and older; $3 for ages 6-18, free for 5 and under. Parking is limited on the grounds so a shuttle service is being organized. Call 770-443-7850 for more information.

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