Thursday, December 11, 2014

At Fort McAllister 150th anniv. muster and battle, it's all about the authenticity

Saturday’s re-enactment of the Union’s capture of Fort McAllister near Savannah, Ga., is focused on being true to history – with a little luck and a whole lot of preparation going into the effort.

Because of the way the calendar falls this year, re-enactors will be in action at 5 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 13, the exact time, day and date as 150 years ago, when about 3,000 Federals overwhelmed 230 defenders in about 15 minutes.

The victory opened up vital sea supply lines for Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, who then laid siege to nearby Savannah.

Between 280 and 300 registered re-enactors, about 70 portraying Confederates, are coming from all over the country – with nine traveling from Germany – to drill, muster, camp and re-enact at and near of the earthen fortifications, which were restored in the 1930s.

They are so-called hard-core, campaigner and progressive living historians, meaning the projected 1,000-2,000 visitors from Thursday through Sunday will see soldiers dressed very much like the men they will portray.

“This is the biggest event this park has ever had,” said Shirley Rowe, a park ranger at Fort McAllister State Park. “We are very excited about it. We have gone all out to make this as historically authentic as possible.”

“At 6 p.m. Friday, we are turning off all the lights and we are going to be in 1864,” said Clint Stanley, who will portray Confederate garrison commander Maj. George W. Anderson.

For the invitation-only re-enactors, this will be what is termed a semi-immersive event, one in which they will be in character and come as close as possible – short of firing live fire, obviously – to reliving the real thing.

While many events, including skirmishes and the main attack are open to the public, other activities will occur in hours when the state park in Bryan County is closed.

Union soldiers remove ammunition (Library of Congress)

“The fort is one of the rare locations where there are not a lot of modern intrusions, so it is easy to get 'into the moment,’” Herb Coats of the Georgia-based Armory Guards told the Picket. “The park staff and park's friend's group has always been very friendly and gracious with re-enactor volunteers assisting with the (annual) December program.”

The Armory Guard will have personnel portraying each side.

During 1862 and 1863, Fort McAllister, situated on the Ogechee River, repelled seven Union naval attacks by elements of the blockading forces offshore and in nearby Ossabaw Sound, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia.

But an attack by land would be its undoing. Sherman’s March to the Sea spelled doom for Fort McAllister and, soon after, Savannah.

Brig. Gen. William B. Hazen of the 15th Corps commanded the attacking Federals, who closed in on three sides. The attack was delayed to nearly dusk because one brigade got lost and mired in the marsh.

Defending the post were elements of the Emmett Rifles, the Clinch Mounted Rifles and other small units.

“The two infantry companies were home guard and militia -- the young men and the old boys who hadn’t been drafted or got out of,” said Stanley. “It was basically overwhelming numbers. Anderson did not think they would attack. He thought it would probably be the next day.”

There were about 200 total casualties for both sides. Attackers had to make their way through obstacles, including torpedoes, or crude land mines.

Following Anderson’s surrender, Sherman landed at the fort by boat and made contact with naval forces in Ossabaw Sound.

Re-enactors often have to portray a Union soldier at one event, or a Confederate at another -- whatever the scenario demands. In the Deep South, it is tough to get a huge number to portray Yankees. But this week’s event is coming closer than most. Federals will outnumber Confederates about 3-1.

The Rebels will camp and drill at the fort, along the earthworks and many spending night in re-created bombproofs. No digging is allowed and re-enactors will take care in protecting the site.

“We will have fires in only certain places, said Stanley, who lives in Ludowici, Ga., and is part of a group called the Widow Makers Mess. “There are fire pits in the battery. Everyone is very conscious of where we are at. There is no climbing on the walls.”

The fort after it fell (Library of Congress)

The Federal contingent will camp outside the fort.

Among the re-enacting units taking part are the 48th New York based in Florida, the 30th Ohio, SCAR, Liberty Guards, the 39th Georgia and 47th Georgia.

Joe Blunt, of Orlando, Fla., will portray Hazen.

“A lot of fellows are getting psyched up,” he said, given it’s the last major 150th event in Georgia and marks the end of Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign and March to the Sea.

The next big event for many is at Bentonville, in North Carolina, in March 2015.

The three-day commemoration begins Thursday, December 11, as Union re-enactors set up camp at the Richmond Hill Museum a few miles away and answer visitors’ questions about the upcoming battle.

On Friday, about two dozen Federal soldiers will march from the intersection of Highway 144 and Fort McAllister Road to the park, setting up camp when they arrive. The 4-mile march begins about 11 a.m.

“They are going to have their gear and everything. It will be authentic-looking,” said park ranger Rowe.

The site will be available to the public at 9 a.m. Saturday. Throughout the day, visitors can watch skirmishes between Union and Confederate troop as they fire muskets and cannons. Guests can also walk among the earthworks and tour a Civil War museum.

The park will be emptied at 4 p.m. for an hour as staff prepares for the assault re-enactment and breaching of the fort at 5 p.m.

You’d better be there on time. The battle was over in 15 minutes.

Coats said unlike a large-scale event, the site is away from parking, vendors and is in a wooded area. That’s a plus for re-enactors such as he.

You get close to the time period at the park.”

Admission for the Fort McAllister Winter Muster is $6 per person, with those under 6 free. Visitors also can tour the site’s museum. Call the park at 912-727-2339 for more information. See also this link.

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