History buffs are expected to descend on Richmond Hill and Fort McAllister State Historic Park beginning Thursday as the fort commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Dec. 13 1864 battle marking the end of Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s famed “March to the Sea” and helping spell the end of the Confederacy less than five months later.
But don’t call the recreated battles set up for this weekend between Union and Southern troops a re-enactment. They’re far more realistic than that, according to guidelines issued by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, which runs the state park system.
“It is a tactical demonstration of Civil War-era events that actually took place on Dec. 12-14, 1864,” said Fort McAllister ranger Shirley Rowe. “There are only two DNR state properties allowed to host this type of event. It is an extremely special occasion.”
Re-enactments “can be held at pretty much any time, but since this is basically at the exact time and exact place with a correct ratio of confederate to federal troops, it is as historically accurate as possible,” said Rowe, and that accuracy includes the date: The battle occurred on Dec. 13, a Saturday, exactly 150 years ago.
No surprise then that the fort is pulling out all the stops, along with help from the Richmond Hill Historical Society. The commemoration starts with re-enactors portraying Union troops encamping from 3-6 p.m. Thursday at the Richmond Hill History Museum on Timber Trail Road at Highway 144.
The public is welcome to stop by and visit and talk to interpretive ranger Talley Kirkland and re-enactors, organizers say.
Thursday’s encampment is followed by what could prove to be one of the most visually striking and unusual parts of the weekend, when re-enactors portraying Union soldiers from the 15th Army Corps march down Spur 144 to Fort McAllister beginning at 11 a.m. Friday.
They’ll start at the BP where Spur 144 meets 144 and march down to Fort McAllister, then encamp in the park in preparation for Saturday’s battle. It’s a march of about four miles and the public is invited to watch that as well.
Rowe said those participating in the event initially wanted to march from Strathy Hall, which would be more historically accurate, but concerns about safety on heavily-travelled Highway 144 outweighed that particular bid for historical accuracy.
Once the Union forces stop outside the fort, which will be manned by re-enactors portraying Confederate troops under the command of Maj. General Robert Anderson, they’ll prepare for Saturday, which from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. will include a number of skirmishes and various living history demonstrations for the public at Fort McAllister.
The actual battle, which lasted only about 15 minutes but is described as fierce and bloody, will begin at 5 p.m., which is roughly when northern troops marched east out of the setting sun to take the fort from the rear 150 years ago.
They outnumbered the fort’s defenders 25-to-1, but by then, younger Confederate soldiers had already been sent home to be with family, Rowe said.
Re-enactors will keep up the demonstration through Sunday, with federals taking prisoners after the battle and keeping them overnight. Observers are welcome to return Sunday to watch.
The weekend and the tactical demonstrations are important, Rowe said, because it gives people a chance to see as close a portrayal of history that is about as close to the real thing as you can get.
It’s also a chance to learn, or relearn, just how important Fort McAllister was to the South. Built in 1861 on plantation land belonging to Lt. Colonel Joseph Longworth McAllister, it “provided protection from the U.S. Navy for the southern flank of Savannah …” according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, while also defending rice plantations along the Ogeechee River and railroad links at Kings Ferry.
In 1862 and 1863, the earthworks fort withstood a number of naval bombardments by Union blockading forces, which included ironclads such as the USS Montauk. A number of the craters left by shells fired at the fort by federal guns remain.
In early December 1864, Sherman’s forces crossed the Ogeechee at Kings Ferry – where present day Highway 17 spans the river – and marched into Bryan Neck, then attacked Fort McAllister 150 years ago this weekend.
Shortly afterward, Sherman took Savannah and gave it to President Lincoln as a Christmas present. On April 90, 1865, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union commander Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to end the war.
Saturday’s battle is expected to draw a crowd – both of re-enactors, who are also called living history actors, and by history buffs who’ve been following Sherman’s devastating push through Georgia from its beginnings. And then there are just the curious, including families who want their kids to get a look at history they won’t get from textbooks.
Rowe estimated as many as 2,000 could attend, which means in addition to its value as a historical event, this weekend’s commemoration of a long-ago battle could fill coffers locally.
Christy Sherman, who heads up both the Richmond Hill Historical Society as president and the Richmond Hill Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, said she didn’t have any data readily on hand to project just how much of an economic shot in the arm the event might prove to be.
But it could be significant.
“Research shows that heritage tourism is a big motivator for travelers to come to Georgia. As evidenced by the large number of requests the state received for its ‘March to the Sea’ brochures this past November, I believe there is a strong market for Saturday’s observance of the 150thanniversary at Fort McAllister,” Sherman said.
National research also shows those “heritage tourists” who do come will “spend more and stay longer,” she added.
“This unique event gives us an excellent opportunity to showcase Richmond Hill. The anticipated number of visitors is expected to generate thousands of dollars in lodging, food and beverage, retail, gas, and recreation,” she noted, but won’t know how much the event generates until afterwards.
“After the event, we will be better equipped with data to measure the economic impact,” Sherman added.
In the meantime, there’s something that can’t be measured in dollars or cents.
“This,” Rowe said. “Is a once in a lifetime event.”