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McLEMORE'S COVE, Ga. - Jeff McIntire walked over to hang his damp blanket out to dry at the Union camp's treeline Saturday night. As he did, he heard the rumble of distant artillery and counted the seconds between the flashes and booms to figure out how far away the fight was.
"It's little moments like that," he said. "You think, 'Wow, this is the sort of thing a solider would have seen.'"
McIntire and longtime friend Robert Muehleisen drove from Ohio for the four days of events surrounding the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Chickamauga that ended Sunday.
Self-named "hardcore authentics," the pair strives to re-create as much of the Civil War experience as they can, even keeping several sets of gear and weapons for different reenactments -- a soldier at the start of the war would dress differently, act differently and carry a different weapon than a soldier at the end of the war. So throwing on the same jacket for every reenactment just isn't good enough.
The goal, they said, is to connect with history.
"In one battle, my unit was retreating and I was jumping over bodies and tearing through the corn to get away," McIntire said. "In another, I was inhaling so much smoke and sweat and my hay fever allergies were so bad that I actually threw up in the battle line. You get bits and pieces. You'll never know the whole experience."
The Battle of Chickamauga was one of the bloodiest in the war, with 34,000 soldiers killed, wounded or missing, and was the South's last major victory. But the Confederates' hesitation to finish off the retreating Union forces basically rendered the victory a tactical failure. Union troops regrouped and added reinforcements in Chattanooga, then made a successful push south in November 1863.
Muehleisen said his great-great-grandfather and great-great-uncle fought at Chickamauga. Tying the actual on-the-ground experience to reading and research brings that family history alive, he said, even two 'greats' later.
The conditions of the actual battle were dusty and dry, but 150 years later Saturday's rain kept crowds to a few thousand and made life muddy, messy and wet for reenactors.
"Sometimes it's just miserable, but sometimes they were miserable and that's what we're trying to connect with," Muehleisen said.
On Sunday, there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Temperatures hovered around 75. Organizers estimated that the crowd was twice as large as the 6,500 spectators who attended on Saturday, which would put as many as 18,000 reenactors and spectators at Sunday's remembrance.
"It's the largest crowd of the event today," said Lt. Don Stultz with Georgia State Patrol. "The good weather has drawn many more folks."
Cars backed up from West Cove Road all the way to Highway 193, said Richard Barclift, Chickamauga tourism director. When the main battle ended, Georgia State Patrol restricted late-comers in order to keep the road open for people leaving the reenactment.
However, one would-be attendee said he and many other people lined up on West Cove Road waiting before the battle to get in were turned away. Stultz and Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson said nobody was turned away, though some drivers in the three-mile traffic jam made U-turns and left.
Inside the event, traffic flowed more smoothly than on Saturday. Law enforcement and event organizers roped off roadside parking to keep the road open enough for two lanes and kept pedestrians out of the flow of traffic.
Local mailman and spectator William Howard said the reenactment site is on his normal route and he was happy to see so many people turn out to experience the historic day.
"It's crazy to see this many people here," he said. "I'm a big history buff and it's really cool to see the community come together like this."
By the 2 p.m. battle, the hill overlooking the battlefield was packed with bright lawn chairs, blankets and strollers as people used the higher vantage point to get a bird's-eye view of the sprawling battle in the valley below. Customers stood in lines at food vendors who on Saturday never saw a wait.
Kids wandered through tent shops, pausing to taste homemade root beer or pose for a photo with a reenactor. One tall, bearded soldier handed his rifle to a young boy.
"It's heavy," the boy said, surprised.
"I know," the soldier replied. "Why don't you hold it for a picture?"
Chattanoogan Donna Fleming brought her 5- and 10-year-old grandkids to Sunday's reenactment to try to get them interested in local history.
"I think there is too much TV and video games and computers and nobody knows what's happened in the past to get where they are today," she said. "There's not enough time spent on local history in schools."
She hopes to use reenactments to embed a love for local history in the next generation, starting with her own grandkids. But does it work?
"Not at first," she said. "But they get into it. When the cannons start going off."
And the cannons did go off. Volley after volley after volley sent smoke rings spiraling. Men waved flags and screamed and fired shots. Leaders rode horses up and down the line, shouting orders and urging men on.
Spectators up close flinched and jumped as the cannon blasts rattled off the mountainsides.
But this time, no cannonballs went violently crashing through wood and dirt and flesh.
Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or firstname.lastname@example.org.