Cannons thunder at Battle of Chickamauga reenactment as thousands watch (with video)

Cannons thunder at Battle of Chickamauga reenactment as thousands watch (with video)

September 22nd, 2013 by Tim Omarzu in Local Regional News

McLEMORE'S COVE, Ga. - Choking clouds of dust swallowed up Civil War soldiers 150 years ago at the Battle of Chickamauga.

That wasn't a problem at Saturday's battle reenactment at Mountain Cove Farms, where it rained from the middle of the night until about 2 p.m.

Still, many of the 5,000 reenactors and 6,500 spectators seemed to have a good time, despite torrential rain that made a muddy mess of things.

"I've been to worse. I've been to much worse," said Scott Bloodworth, a Confederate infantryman reenactor from Jackson, Tenn.

Bloodworth spent the night sleeping on a historically accurate rubberized blanket under a "shebang," or lean-to tent, made of cotton impregnated with wax. His wool uniform was soaked through Saturday morning. He was wondering if he'd be able to pull his vehicle out of the parking lot -- a grassy field turned to inches-deep mud where cars and trucks had traveled.

But the hardship is half the fun for Bloodworth.

"It keeps you from getting like this," he said, waggling his finger up and down between his lips.

A 10 a.m. cavalry battle kicked things off Saturday at Mountain Cove Farms, 1,839 acres of state and Walker County land where Lookout and Pigeon mountains meet.

Involving about 60 soldiers on horseback, the skirmish was brief and practically impossible for spectators to see because of mist and a heavy downpour.

Shirley Boswell and Shirley Kolocotronis, two white-haired women from St. Louis, Mo., who've been friends since high school came on a tour bus from Chattanooga where they'd stayed on the Delta Queen. Boswell was disappointed not to see more as they sat on a hilltop at the Mountain Cove Farms show barn.

"Not so much for me," said Boswell, who'd been to a reenactment before. "She's never seen one."

Saturday was the third day in a four-day re-creation of the skirmishes and major battles that comprised the Battle of Chickamauga. It was one of the Civil War's bloodiest battles, in which some 34,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing. Only Gettysburg claimed more casualties.

The Battle of Chickamauga was the South's last major victory of the war. Even so, it was considered a hollow victory because of the failure to deal a death blow to retreating Union forces.

On Saturday, in its sesquicentennial year, the Civil War blazed to life again.

The 4 p.m. battle was the highlight of the day, with thousands of reenactors facing off as spectators sat on a hillside on the west side of Dougherty Gap Road.

The two sides' batteries of cannons fired away, their thunderous blasts echoing in the surrounding hills. Smoke from the dozens of cannons -- which sometimes formed giant smoke rings -- drifted overhead as lines of soldiers marched toward each other through a cornfield.

The battles are meant to portray actual events, people and fighting forces, such as Wilder's Brigade, one of the Battle of Chickamauga's most famous units.

What set Wilder's Brigade apart was the seven-shot Spencer repeating rifles its soldiers carried. It gave them a fearsome advantage over Confederates armed with single-shot rifles. Wilder's men bought the repeating rifles, which cost about $30, themselves through deductions in their pay, which was about $13 a month. They would ride to battle on horseback, and would dismount to fight.

"They felt they could whip anybody with their Spencers," said Wilder's Brigade member Brandon Rollings, of Terre Haute, Ind. "It's about right, too."

Instead of Spencers, Rollings and some of the roughly 40 reenactors in Wilder's Brigade at Mountain Cove Farms were armed with replicas of another make of repeating rifle of the time, Henry rifles.

Despite their success with Wilder's Brigade, the U.S. Army didn't make the repeating rifles standard issue.

"They said soldiers would waste too much ammo," said Ryan Williams of St. Bernice, Ind.

subhed: Bugles call the shots

Commanding officers plan battle scenarios months ahead of time, and the common soldiers don't find out until what to do until they're in battle, reenactors said Saturday.

So how do reenactors know what to do on the battlefield?

"Bugle calls, mostly," said Bill Reagan, a horse-shoer by trade who rides with the 10th Missouri Cavalry, First Federal Division. "That's how they communicated on the battlefield."

Drummers and fifes also direct reenactors' movements -- though they're in short supply, said Union reenactor Mike Eng.

"There's not enough musicians to go around for each unit," said Eng, who came from Jacksonsville, Fla., with his wife, Meredith Eng. They're both lawyers who started attending reenactments three years ago as members of the 107th Ohio Regiment.

Marilyn Eng said battle scenarios rarely come off as planned.

"I would says they're loosely scripted," she said. "Things happen on the field -- like I suppose in a real battle -- and you have to adapt to changes."

The Engs were both sidelined Saturday by injuries from earlier campaigns. He slipped and broke an ankle while volunteering as a reenactor at Fort Clinch near Jacksonville. She sprained her knee while portraying a medical steward at a Gettysburg reenactment.

The Engs have seen a number of injuries befall reenactors, including ankles sprained in gopher holes, powder burns, falls from horseback and dehydration.

Reagan said bees were a problem at Mountain Cove Farms.

"We call them ground bees. They call them yellow jackets out here," he said.

Marc Courteau came from Marietta, Ga., to see the reenactment and was philosophical about having to trek through the muddy parking lot. He said it's nothing compared to what Civil War soldiers had to endure, which he described as "mind-boggling. It's almost even beyond comprehension."

Emily Ehrhard, of St. Louis, Mo., also was unfazed by the mud and rain.

"It's a break from the crazy life of iPad and Internet and a chance to be with family," she said of the reenactment.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.

Confederate and Union forces exchange fire during the Battle of Chickamauga's 150th anniversary reenactment.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.