By Marci Watson:
The Civil War began at 2 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, the first canon shot was fired by the Union soldiers at Tunnel Hill, GA. Walking up and down the spectator line, Jere McConnell, Event Provost for the 19th Annual Civil War Reenactment of the battle of Tunnel Hill answered questions and sweltered in his period attire.
McConnell, a Fannin County resident, is a “reenactor” in the battles that took place at Tunnel Hill between the Confederate and Union armies during the Civil War. As Event Provost, or Marshall, McConnell sported a pair of antique handcuffs attached to his belt and from the glint in his eye, he wasn’t afraid to use them either. McConnell’s kept a sharp eye out for spectators, especially children excited by the battle, who may have wanted to “join the action on the field.”
According to history, it took the Union troops three attempts to capture Tunnel Hill–from September 1863 to January 1864, the fourth being Sherman’s March to the Sea in February 1864 that the Yankees were successful in their campaign.
Although many periods are reenacted around the world, Civil War reenactment is, by far, the most popular activity in the US. A typical Civil War Reenactment takes place over a weekend with the reenactors arriving on Thursday or Friday and camping on site while spectators view the event on Saturday and Sunday. Usually each reenactment is centered around a Saturday battle and Sunday battle.
Reasons given for participating in such activities vary. Some participants are interested in getting a historical perspective on the unsettled times that gripped the nation, particularly if they can trace their ancestry back to those who fought in the war. For others as history buffs, the labor of love brings past to life with them in the thick of it.
In talking with McConnell about his participation in reenactment, it becomes clear that the historical implications and his Southern roots are secondary to the camaraderie and friendships he has cultivated through the years. During the battle, McConnell shouted out to this reporter, “Now you see why I do this!”
Indeed, this is McConnell’s 19th year as a reenactor, he’s participated all these years–as a volunteer– to recreate the battles at Tunnel Hill, Resaca, Helen and Chickamauga to name a few. The outfits, tents, weapons and everything needed to sustain a person for the weekend are ‘period pieces’ used to create an impression of authenticity. Every reenactor spends their own money to achieve the look.
This is not a fad that began in the last few decades either–reenacting the American Civil War began even before the real fighting had ended. Civil War veterans recreated battles as a way to remember their fallen comrades and to teach others what the war was all about. Today, the reenactors give elementary students a lesson on the Friday before the weekend and bring the Civil War to life for the children.
Tunnel Hill is not only known for its existence in the Civil War. The tunnel that runs through Chetoogeta Mountain was completed in 1850 and was the first railroad tunnel built south of the Mason-Dixon line. It was also the last section of track to be laid on the Western and Atlantic Railway’s mainline which ran from what is now known as Atlanta, GA, to the Tennessee River, near Ross’ Landing in an area now known as Chattanooga, TN.
Today, the old track is gone and a smooth layer of asphalt allows visitors to walk through the 1,477 foot long tunnel. Thanks to motion sensors lighting, the tunnel is lit from end to end–illuminating the shallow ‘alcoves’ worker would duck into when a train came through only leaving inches of available space. The sounds from a nearby modern day rail line and train can startle a visitor, especially if in the middle of the tunnel creating an illusion the train is coming up behind them.
Back on the battlefield, infantry troops, soldiers on horses and personnel manning the canons created a haze of white smoke with gunfire and canon rounds. The ground would shake with every blast of a cannon from either side of the battlefield. The crowd would cheer, giving their best Rebel Yell, to spur on the troops. The battle was over at 3:30 p.m. with the reenactors who died during the fight being magically resurrected.
Shortly thereafter a Canon Tribute fired the ashes of two departed Reenactors in a salute to their honor. When McConnell explained what the Canon Tribute was about to a small group of spectators, the tears glistened in his eyes.
That evening the reenactors has a Period Ball at 7:30 p.m. that evening. All wore period attire and the 8th Georgia Regimental Band played period music such as the ‘Virginia Reel’ while they danced, transporting them back to the 19th century during those turbulent times.
From 1861 to 1865, the American union was broken as brother fought brother in a Civil War that remains a defining moment in our nation’s history. This year begins the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and runs through November of 2013. There are several sites on the Internet to visit and gain further information: www.gacivilwar.org/ and www.civilwar150th.org/ are just a few places to start. Type in American Civil War into your favorite search engine and see where it takes you.