published Sunday, April 10th, 2011

Shots sound at Sumter


by Andy Johns

FORT SUMTER, S.C.—Before they could remind ferry loads of visitors to Fort Sumter what a Civil War soldier’s life was like, a dozen re-enactors from the Chattanooga area got a vivid dose of camp life for themselves.

Woken by bugles as the sun inched above the palms Saturday, the men were brought out for inspection and drills before they even got their breakfast rations.

“The sand fleas are biting all of us equally, but every extra movement attracts attention,” barked Louis Varnell, of Sale Creek, who portrayed a Union artillery senior first sergeant.

As the tiny insects made constellations of red bite marks across the men’s arms and legs, Varnell reminded the actors that the men they represented were highly trained, combat-hardened professionals in the U.S. Army, not their less-trained adversaries in makeshift gray uniforms.

The smell of campfires hung in the ocean air and notes of “Danny Boy” and “Camptown Races” echoed around the walls of Fort Moultrie, the staging area for the actors before they shipped out to the island fort.

It was at Moultrie and some of the other batteries around Charleston Harbor where Confederate commanders ordered the first barrage of the Civil War.

In April of 1861, Fort Sumter, a federal outpost on a manmade island in the harbor, was running low on supplies. After negotiations between Union and Confederate commanders for the fort’s surrender broke down, Confederate guns bombarded the fort beginning at 4:30 a.m. on April 12.

The fort officially surrendered 34 hours later. No one died in the battle, but one Union soldier was killed when his rifle misfired and exploded during a surrender ceremony.

The shots fired at Sumter in 1861 triggered the Civil War, just as the dummy rounds fired Saturday opened the nation’s observation of the 150th anniversary.

The actors at Sumter were an important part of the fanfare going on all over Charleston this weekend, which opens four years of anniversary commemorations from Mobile Bay to Gettysburg.

“The eyes of the nation are upon you,” Rick Hatcher, a historian with the National Park Service, reminded the re-enactors early Saturday.

Many of the men from Chattanooga talked about the 150th commemoration at Sumter being a once-in-a-lifetime event, but after some quick math Chattanooga resident Tony DiMaiolo decided that might not be the case.

“During the 200th [anniversary] I’ll be 78,” he said during a break from the drills. “If I can make it, I’ll be here.”

“You’ll be pushing me in a chair,” interjected Varnell.

Silas Tackitt, who portrayed Union commander Maj. Robert Anderson at the fort Saturday, didn’t doubt their dedication. As one of the event’s organizers, he selected Varnell’s Chattanooga-based group to make up about half of the 35 men who stood guard around the fort.

Tackitt, who lives in Seattle, said he chose the unit, which portrayed Company E in the 1st U.S. Heavy Artillery Regiment, because he had seen it in action at re-enactments in Perryville and Mill Springs, Ky., as well as Chickamauga.

“These guys showed everybody else what to do,” Tackitt said while he supervised his men digging a fire pit Friday.

He said the group members’ commitment to detail and authenticity is part of why he likes them.

Some of the group members even paid attention to the hair color of the men they portrayed.

Chattanoogan Dave Thomas, who portrays Capt. Abner Doubleday, read a book written by the captain and decided to conceal his salt and pepper to match his character.

“Somebody pointed out that Doubleday didn’t have gray hair so I took care of that for the weekend,” he said, doffing his black plumed hat to reveal a head of brown hair.

History up close

In the 1860s, a good infantryman could pop off three rounds in a minute. While re-enactors couldn’t quite keep up with that pace, they put on a show for a few thousand tourists who took ferries out to see them.

The crack of 10 replica 1842 Springfield muskets echoed around the fort more than a dozen times Saturday.

“Load quickly!” shouted Thomas, channeling Doubleday between volleys. “A slow soldier is a dead soldier.”

At times the thunder from cannon fire at other Charleston-area events rumbled out to Sumter, lending an authentic sounding bass foundation to the laughing gulls, shouting commanders and crackling musket fire.

In front of dozens of school groups, the re-enactors weren’t afraid to ham it up at times.

“If you see Gen. Beauregard, tell him he’s rabble!” Tackitt instructed a group of early teens who encircled him as he badmouthed the Confederate commander.

In his Union blues, Keith West, of Calhoun, Ga., said he enjoyed getting questions from the children.

“I want to make sure the kids see history is more than just textbooks,” he said.

Twelve-year-old Grace Mackert, from Williamsburg, Va., got Thomas to bend down so she could touch the epaulettes on his shoulders.

When asked what she thought it would be like to wear one of the uniforms, Grace said “hot, because it’s all made of wool.”

Her father, George Mackert, said they had been to Appomattox two weeks ago to see where the war ended in preparation for seeing where it started.

“I try to get them to understand what happened in the past and see the ramifications it can have on the future,” he said of his daughters.

Varnell, Thomas and others fielded questions from curious visitors about everything from uniforms and equipment to command structure.

Varnell got into a deep discussion with an Australian couple about how Civil War tactics and technology related to World War I and the Anglo-Zulu War between the British Army and native Africans in 1879.

“Honestly, as a history guy, you live for those kinds of questions,” said Varnell, a former teacher. “It reminds you this is why I’m standing here sweltering in this uniform.”

But all of the men considered it an honor to swelter in such a historic location.

Cleveland, Tenn., resident Mike McCormick, who turns 56 later this month, said he considered retiring from re-enacting over the winter, but decided that the 150th anniversary period over the next four years is not time to quit. He plans to stay on for “a few big ones” before hanging up his musket. Standing guard on top of some of Sumter’s ramparts, he said this weekend’s events certainly qualify.

“This is THE big one,” he said sweating in the noon sun. “This is a class within itself.”

SHUTDOWN THREAT

The cloud of a potential government shutdown hung heavily over the re-enactors Friday, but despite frustration, several said there’s no place they’d rather be.

“All I know is it’s the 150th anniversary and we’re here, so we’re going to make the best of it,” said Dennis Melville, of Calhoun, Ga., who helps coordinate the Resaca re-enactment.

Some noted that the political fractures that nearly led to a government shutdown are alarmingly similar to the sentiments expressed in antebellum politics.

“There’s some of me that feels we’re in a similar divide,” Curtis said.

Bob Barr, who visited Sumter from Trevor City, Mich., noted the divisions not only in North and South but between black and white.

“The whole thing is fascinating,” he said. “That’s still an issue we’re wrestling with 150 years later.”

about Andy Johns...

Andy began working at the Times Free Press in July 2008 as a general assignment reporter before focusing on Northwest Georgia and Georgia politics in May of 2009. Before coming to the Times Free Press, Andy worked for the Anniston Star, the Rome News Tribune and the Campus Carrier at Berry College, where he graduated with a communications degree in 2006. He is pursuing a master’s degree in business administration at the University of Tennessee ...

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