Monday, August 31, 2009

My Top 10 Civil War battlefields/sites

With malice toward none, and a confession that I have not been to all, here are my favorite Civil War battlefields.

10. Fort Moultrie (S.C.): I like Fort Sumter, but its sister on nearby Sullivan Island does a little more for me. Maj. Robert Anderson evacuated his troops from here to Sumter, which was shelled by Confederates to begin the war. You can spend more time at Moultrie and not feel the crush of visitors. Moultrie also is an important American Revolutionary War site, withstanding shelling by the British fleet.

9. Fort Pulaski (Ga): Confederate forces surrendered this fort between Savannah and Tybee Island after a withering bombardment in 1862. Visitors get a good idea of fort life and can see damaged sections of the outer wall. Huge freighters sail close by.

8. Harpers Ferry (W Va.): Stonewall Jackson seized this Union garrison at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers in 1862. I’ll admit to listing this one principally for the picturesque setting. Harpers Ferry also was the site of John Brown’s 1859 raid.

7. Manassas (Va.): Scene of two battles, this park outside Washington, D.C., has a good museum. There’s nothing quite like walking up to Stonewall Jackson’s statue and imagining the chaos nearby in 1861 and 1862.

6. Chickamauga (Ga.): Confederates won a rare, but costly, Western theater battle here in 1863. Union George Thomas saved the Union from being routed and earned the sobriquet, “The Rock of Chickamauga.” I enjoy the numerous memorials and the museum, which features a compelling exhibit on Civil War guns.

5. Appomattox Courthouse (Va.): This is one of my three kids’ favorites. I have to admit they don’t share my passion for the subject but they, too, enjoyed the bucolic setting in the rolling hills of southern Virginia. This is where Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant in 1865 (photo at top of blog).

4. Antietam/Sharpsburg: (Md.): This momentous battle was the single-bloodiest day in U.S. history, with 23,000 casualties. The hotly disputed Cornfield, Dunker Church, Burnside Bridge are among the highlights. This beautiful farm country, dotted by barns and stone walls, seems so out of synch with the terrific fighting between forces led by Robert E. Lee and George B. McClellan.

3. Pickett’s Mill (Ga.): Union Gen. William T. Sherman tried an unsuccessful flanking movement in Paulding County, Ga., during his 1864 campaign. This is one of the best-preserved Civil War battlefields. I love the trails and the holes left where artillery emplacements were hurriedly thrown up. Author Ambrose Bierce fought on the Union side.

2. Gettysburg (Pa.): First, read “The Killer Angels.” If you never even make a visit, you’ll still learn why Gettysburg is the most well-known Civil War battlefield. These are places enshrined in American history: Devil’s Den, Pickett’s Charge, Little Round Top, Cemetery Ridge and more. Seeing them makes lifelong memories.

1. Shiloh (Tenn.): The South was on the verge of a big victory after the first day of fighting along the Tennessee River. Grant (left) and Sherman regrouped and unleashed a crushing Union attack on the second, pushing Confederates off the field. A few years ago, I walked about 8 miles of the battlefield, stopping by the cemetery, Hornet’s Nest, Bloody Pond, Indian mounds and the site of Confederate Gen. Albert Sydney Johnston’s fatal wounding. Its size and remote location allow visitors to spread out and soak it in. Shiloh is overpowering.

Which battlefields would you put near the top of your list?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

When that gun barrel is a litte too close

The line between fact and fantasy can be as gray as Confederate troops at battle re-enactments.
Earl Zeckman of Dacula, Ga., remembers his own surreal moment at Gettysburg several years agp.
He and a few other members of the 42nd Georgia Volunteer Infantry had briefly broken through the Union line during Pickett’s Charge.
At this moment of brief triumph, Zeckman saw several gun barrels, leveled directly at him at close range.
Fortunately, the Union re-enactors -- determined to hold their position and caught up in their own moment – refrained from pulling the trigger.
Civil War re-enactors, of course, don’t use live ammunition. But the concussion and flash of artillery and rifle fire at close range are intense and can be traumatic.
“The muzzle [of an artillery piece] puts out quite a blast,” says Rick Fallaw of Braselton, Ga., a captain in the 42nd.
And while realism is crucial, safety and proper planning come into play at events like the Battle of Atlanta, which takes place Sept. 4-6 at Nash Farm in Henry County.
Re-enactors have unwritten rules about discharging weapons.
Infantry should be at least 50 yards, ideally farther, from artillery fire. And while proximity to the enemy pumps up the adrenalin, most don’t want muskets leveled at them at too close a range (20-30 yards), Fallaw said.
“Safety is stressed,” he says. “We don’t compromise on it.”
Zeckman (left), president of Atlanta Campaign Inc., which is sponsoring the Atlanta event, says organizers will be especially careful at one battle, which calls for the mixing of up to 100 horses and infantry.
Re-enactors are a pretty congenial bunch and most want to stress historical accuracy. Only a few refuse to switch uniforms to reflect actual troops numbers in battle, Zeckman says.
Commanders meet before re-enactments to talk about logistics and how the battle will be conducted. And while the outcome is known, real-life drama can share the stage with re-enacting.
Both Fallaw and Leigh Ann Hardy, of Marietta, Ga., of the 125th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, recall how Union and Confederate re-enactors did not want to stop fighting at an event in Resaca, Ga., a few years ago.
There are some no-nos.
For example, unless an agreement has been worked out beforehand, re-enactors are not supposed to seize the colors of a surrendering unit.
“I’ve seen more people get into scuffles,” over the yielding of a flag, Fallaw says.
Casualties are, of course, reflected in the re-enactments. Participants are not given “dead tickets” at Atlanta, Zeckman says, but know they will be called upon to portray a dead or wounded soldier.
With some exceptions, Zeckman quipped.
“Re-enactors who travel long distances don’t die.”

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Why did Sherman make Georgia 'howl'?

Have you ever seen similarities between the burning of Atlanta and the bombing of Hiroshima? Two new books examine the taking of Atlanta, a turning point of the Civil War. Winston Groom, author of “Forrest Gump,” uses his reviews of “The Bonfire” and “War Like the Thunderbolt” to examine the legacy of the scorched-earth policy of Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. Groom says this about the destruction of Atlanta: “What Sherman finally decided on was the annihilation of the city — itself — an instructive example, as it were, for other Southern cities; or if you will, an act of terrorism.” • More about the two books.

Friday, August 28, 2009

She's just one of the guys

Not so long ago Leigh Ann Hardy did the laundry at Civil War events.
Dressed in a hoop skirt, she’d labor over a wash tub and scrub board, giving spectators a glimpse of camp life.
These days Hardy wears trousers and lugs a 10-pound rifle and a cartridge box across smoke-filled fields.
As Pvt. Leon Hardy of the 125th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, “I’m one of the guys,” says the Marietta resident.
The retired Army sergeant and dirt bike enthusiast became interested in re-enacting when she and her son, Kevin (left), saw an exhibition at Stone Mountain.
“This is so cool,” she thought.
Hardy, an account manager, eventually found the 125th, and has been a participant in events across the South for 11 years.
Acceptance wasn’t easy at first. As you might guess, Civil War re-enacting is an overwhelmingly male activity.
“It took me a long time to gain the trust of the group,” Hardy, 55, says.
To do so, she had to fit in and “take it like a man."
Female re-enactors are urged to keep their hair short and apply black powder to roughen their chins. They should even be careful about which restroom they use, according to Miss Ellie’s Emporium Web site.
Hardy is accustomed to “guy behavior” and good-natured ribbing.
“I spent 20 years in the U.S. Army,” says Hardy. “I can give it back.”
Historians say at least 400 women disguised themselves as men during the Civil War so that they could fight at the front. Incentives included high pay and newfound independence at a time when most women were second-class citizens.
Hardy loves camp life: reveille, campfires, coffee and roll call.
She’s among the 1,800 blue and gray re-enactors who will relive four Atlanta-area battles over the Labor Day weekend. The three-day event takes place at Nash Farm in Henry County. Hardy also will give a talk on the role of women in the Civil War.
"I've had some of the best times of my life with the 125th OVI. They are a great group of a family."
The 125th, of course, re-enacts in enemy country.
“The crowds boo us, and I love it,” says Hardy. “I like being with the bad guys.”

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Check out Atlanta Daily Intelligencer

Bill Hendrick, a colleague of mine, is a fine journalist and has researched and written extensively about the Civil War. • See his site.

5 things you may not know about re-enacting

Charlie Rice, 68, of McDonough, Ga., talked with me last night about the upcoming Battle of Atlanta re-enactment at Nash Farm in Henry County. Rice, who will demonstrate wartime blacksmithing, is bringing his traveling forge and battery wagon. His home unit, the 9th Georgia Artillery, will employ two guns he owns --an 1841 smoothbore six-pounder and a 3-inch ordnance rifle.
Rice had these observations:
1. Tent city: Yes, re-enactors spend the night at camps and eat food common during the Civil War -- be it stew or hard tack. Some substitute Pop Tarts for the brick-hard hard tack.
2. Gear: Please don't call the uniforms they wear "costumes." Some will take offense.
3. Versatility: Re-enactors commonly "galvanize." They change tunic colors and hats from Federal to Confederate, and vice-versa, when needed, so that the battle will reflect the ratio of blue-gray forces.
4. Realism: There are times you get lost in the moment. Rice recalls an Antietam event when the intense gunfire, smoke and shouting made him "stop and think where we really were."
5. Continuing education: Re-enactors get some schooling on their event weekends. "You meet a lot of people and learn a lot of history," Rice said.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Wal-Mart wins battle to build

Officials in central Virginia have approved plans to build a Wal-Mart Supercenter near the Wilderness, one of the nation's most historic Civil War battlefields. The plan has caused quite a stir in the surrounding community and across the nation. Wal-Mart says the store won't be on the actual battlefield, but Civil War buffs said medical teams and reinforcements moved through the area.
Click for details.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Preparing for four Atlanta area battles

Photo Album from re-enactment preparations at Nash Farm in Henry County

Sights and sounds of war

Click photo: Check out this comprehensive interactive graphic on the Atlanta Campaign of 1864. I helped conceptualize it when I worked at the AJC. Pardon the ads superimposed on the right side of the graphic.

Huzzah! Atlanta re-enactments Labor Day

Hundreds of re-enactors descend on Henry County (just south of Atlanta) over the Labor Day weekend. Atlanta Campaign Inc. is sponsoring the three-day event, which will include battles, sutlers and historic interpretation. Click for details.