Striking At The Heart Of Georgia

Stories old and new pay tribute to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War across the state.
Leading the Charge: Earl Zeckman|!!| co-chairman of Atlanta Campaign Inc.|!!| will be playing the part of a Federal commander in the upcoming Battle of Atlanta re-enactment.

I’ve walked in the footsteps of George Pickett’s doomed division and stood my ground on Little Round Top at Gettysburg, driven miles out of my way to hear the ticking clock that marked Stonewall Jackson’s last breath, walked along the Bloody Lane at haunted Antietam, hiked all over the sprawling battlefields of Chickamauga and Kennesaw Mountain several times and inhaled the heavy, somber air of Andersonville, where 20,000 gravestones stand like a phantom army at attention – if you ever want to see grown men cry, go to Andersonville. 

I’m a heritage tourist, and there’s a bunch more like me, fanning out across Georgia for the continuing commemoration of the Civil War sesquicentennial, especially this year. The war between North and South lasted from April 1861 to April 1865, and there have been 150th anniversary events across the country, battle reenactments and exhibits and conferences and more.

But this year marks 150 years since the war struck the heart of Georgia – the opening of Camp Sumter, the military prison at Andersonville; the grueling Atlanta Campaign, including the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (which happened 150 years ago this month); and, after Atlanta was burned (mostly by evacuating Confederate troops), Sherman’s infamous March to the Sea and subsequent capture of Savannah.

“This is the big sesquicentennial year for Georgia, and a lot of communities are trying to tell their stories,” says Brian Wills, director of the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era and professor of history at Kennesaw State University (KSU). “This is where the world will be looking.”

Or at least that portion of the world interested in the most critical four years of American history.

The past few years have seen large numbers of tourists and Civil War enthusiasts flooding 150th anniversary events across the country. Last summer, roughly 250,000 people visited Gettysburg, Pa., for a 10-day commemoration of the three-day battle that turned the tide of the war in the Union’s favor.

In September, about 5,000 people in uniform re-enacted the Battle of Chickamauga in front of 6,500 spectators for the 150th anniversary of that critical two-day clash in Northwest Georgia, and thousands more visited the battlefield park for historian-guided tours.

So far, Georgia hasn’t experienced a significant invasion of Civil War tourists, but that could change this year with the anniversary of so many battles. Only Virginia experienced more Civil War battles than Georgia. But there’s more than battlefields for the history-minded traveler.

“Georgia’s story is a very complicated one,” says Eric Leonard, chief of interpretation and education at the Andersonville National Historic Site (which includes the National Prisoner of War Museum and the Andersonville National Cemetery). “It involves Sherman and some major battles, like Kennesaw Mountain, and the march to Savannah that fall, and it involves tens of thousands of POWs.”

It also involves more than 460,000 slaves, about 44 percent of Georgia’s population in the 1860s, a swath of humanity whose war stories have not routinely been told. That’s changing.

“We’re beginning to tell a story that African Americans have been waiting a long time to tell, or to hear,” says Hermina Glass, an independent consulting historian and former associate director of KSU’s Civil War Center. “Slavery was the cause of the war, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. The war changed the direction of where our country was headed, it freed four million people in the South and 200,000 African-American men put on uniforms to fight for their country.

“The Civil War is the watershed moment for America,” she says. “It’s the beginning of the movement for civil and human rights.”

Accordingly, there will be events, plenty of opportunities across the state to commemorate historic military and cultural moments that Wills says, “help explain why we are, where we are and who we are.”

And we’re all invited.

Taking the Hill

It rained almost non-stop, heavily, for a couple of weeks before Sherman’s artillery started bombarding the Confederate stronghold on Kennesaw Mountain the morning of June 27, 1864, in punishing humidity and heat.

“Think of what the humidity must have been like, the insects, the smell,” says historian Michael Shaffer, assistant director at the KSU center. “It’s easy to get caught up in the dramatization of the Civil War, paintings of soldiers in nice, clean uniforms, dashing heroically across an open field. It just didn’t play out like that.

“These guys were dirty and ragged and hungry and tired and hot. Battlefields were not pleasant places to be around.”

The hope this time around, 150 years later, is to make the battlefield a pleasant experience for the 60,000 to 75,000 visitors expected for the commemoration events in and around Kennesaw, June 26-29.

“We’re expecting something bigger than this park has ever seen,” says Nancy Walther, superintendent of the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park. “We know that people who are passionate about the Civil War are going to be here.

“But we want to bring in folks who may not have been interested in history, who may not have experienced this kind of national park before,” she says. “There’s a message to impart about what happened here, why this is sacred ground.”

Three and a half days of events will be heavy on the living history, with Confederate and Union encampments, re-enactments and artillery demonstrations, as well as guided hikes, children’s programs, live music and lectures.

“It’s also the 100th anniversary of the Illinois Monument, on the site of the ‘Dead Angle’ assault, a pivotal point in the battle,” Walther says.

So they’re rededicating the massive, marble monument that honors the Illinois soldiers who died trying to take a Confederate stronghold, and they’re even inviting the Illinois governor to attend and read the speech of his century-old predecessor.

Meanwhile, a few miles away in Marietta, they are digging in for a month of events, including a Gone with the Wind Weekend (June 6-8, because it’s the 75th anniversary of the movie’s release), a re-enactor camp in Glover Park, a variety of demonstrations and walking tours, live music on the square and in The Strand, which will feature performances of the Tony Award-nominated musical, The Civil War (June 21-22), and plenty of opportunities to learn about the Union occupation of the city – and Confederate defiance.

Marietta also will host two national meetings: In August, the Yankees will be back in force as the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) holds its national convention at the Marietta Hilton (built on the site of the old Georgia Military Institute, burned down by Sherman’s troops in 1864). Also at the Hilton, in October, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine will have its 22nd annual conference.

“It’s the first time they’re doing this outside the Northeast,” says Katie Peterson, executive director of the Marietta Visitors Bureau. “This is a great opportunity to showcase our city to people from outside the area who didn’t realize the rich Civil War history we have here.”

They’re expecting about 300,000 visitors to the area for the next few months of events. The highlight has to be the 150th anniversary commemoration of Sherman’s burning of Marietta in November, when they will actually set the town aflame.

“Hollywood pyrotechnics,” Peterson says quickly. “But I love the reactions when I tell people we’re setting Marietta on fire. It’s entertaining.”

Into the Act

When the Yankees took Atlanta in 1864, they were following Gen. William T. Sherman. When they try again this year, they’ll be following Earl Zeckman.

“I’ll be playing the part of the Federal commander,” says Zeckman, a veteran Civil War re-enactor and co-chairman of Atlanta Campaign Inc., a 501 (c)(3) corporation owned by local re-enactors who have been doing battle re-enactments for more than a decade, including school programs for about 16,500 kids through the years.

“To me, that’s been the most important aspect of what we do, the education component,” says Zeckman, who is heading up the organization’s big plans for the Battle of Atlanta sesquicentennial. About 3,000 people will re-enact four different skirmishes in three days, Sept. 19-21, at the Nash Farm Battlefield site in Henry County.

“We’ve been working on this one for two years,” says Zeckman, who was previously in a Confederate re-enactor regiment (42nd Georgian) but is now a colonel in the 125th Ohio (and a member of the local James B. McPherson Camp of the SUVCW). “It takes a lot of time and is a real logistical challenge. You’re dealing with re-enactors from all over the country. You’re getting emails and phone calls daily, people wondering if this or that is still viable, or if artillery registration is still open.

“Then you’ve got to deal with county governments, the permitting process, the fire department, and on top of that, my group has to prepare the land and make sure it’s all clear.”

See, one of the many advantages Sherman had over Zeckman and today’s faux Federal commanders is, Sherman didn’t have to ask for permission.

After the burning of Atlanta on Nov. 15, 1864, he turned his army (in separate columns) for Savannah, infamously living off (or taking from) the fat of the land – and the local citizenry – destroying property and hundreds of miles of railroad along the way. He timed the capture of Savannah perfectly, presenting the city to President Lincoln as a Christmas present.

Thousands of former slaves followed Sherman to Savannah. It’s stories like theirs, the African Americans at the center of the nation’s greatest struggle, that Hermina Glass is interested in telling, stories like George “Union” Wilder’s.

“This was a man who was a slave, who became free, and who, as a member of the United States Colored Troops, could wear the uniform of his country and actually be an agent in his own liberation,” says Glass. “He was an old man in 1906 when he was killed protecting his property during the Atlanta Race Riot.”

Glass has worked with the Georgia Historical Society to develop historical markers that tell a more complete, multi-cultural story of the Civil War and has collaborated with other researchers to uncover stories about the Civil War, including the role of slave women who worked as spies for the Union.

It’s part of a program that Glass says will be unveiled next year, the 150th anniversary of the last year of the war, and it will include a parade of U.S. Colored Troop re-enactors, honoring the nearly 200,000 black men who fought on the Federal side. When the war ended and the victorious Federal troops marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., the African-American troops were excluded – by Sherman.

“They weren’t allowed to march, so we want to help give them their due homage,” Glass says. “We’re not trying to be part of a revisionist history trend. But let’s unpack what’s been buried for so long.”

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