Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Battle of Aiken

Last Saturday we drove to Aiken Country to watch the Battle of Aiken. The event is scheduled every year and is a re-enactment of a minor civil war battle. It was a pleasant 2 hour drive through green fields and small towns. I particularly liked the town of Clinton and Aiken. Both seem to be quaint affluent towns, more like resort towns for the rich and famous. We drove through the back roads, avoiding the major highways that would have brought us to Columbia, the state capital. Aiken County is more like a satellite town to the bigger city of Augusta across the Georgia border. In fact the true target of Union forces was Augusta’s gun powder industry and industrial facilities like Graniteville mills. Luckily the true target of General William Sherman was Columbia so the Battle of Aiken never escalated into a bigger fight. It was more a side show in the Civil War; it’s true value being the last battle won by Confederate forces before the surrender of General Robert E. Lee.

The mock battle was staged in the outskirts of Aiken city possibly near White Pond. But the actual fight occurred in the city itself where the Confederate General Joe Hooker planned to surprise the cocky Union General Kilpatrick. Hooker laid a trap by hiding his soldiers behind town buildings but a trigger happy soldier from Alabama fired a shot that alerted the Union soldiers to the trap. Eventually the Union soldiers escaped and retreated back to their defensive positions outside the town. The mock battle is the initial skirmish that occurred outside the city prior to the eventual battle within the Aiken city limits itself. Casualties ranged from 40 to 400 soldiers depending on the reporter. A minor battle for sure but that saved Aiken and Augusta from the destruction of Sherman’s March to the Sea campaign that had already seen the burning of Atlanta and Savannah.

The event was staged in a sloping hill. Various white tents dotted the landscape selling food and Civil War trivia like uniforms, hats, belts, insignia, books, currency and pictures, toy guns, swords and so on. There were a few tents set-up by the military with actual guns and other weaponry, uniforms and other military paraphernalia of the different periods of their history: World War I and II, Vietnam and Korea and the Revolutionary War. These tents where manned by war veterans who explained some trivia such as Japanese pistols (that looked like the iconic German Luger) and American pistols like the 45 caliber. I liked this section of the exhibit which had real guns unlike the general stores that sold Civil War trivia. The tents laid out along the sloping hill gave the impression of an army in camp, waiting for battle. Some re-enactors walked about in period costumes usually Confederate and Union soldiers, ladies and gentlemen of that period with their billowing skirts, hats and long coats.

The people in period costumes plus tents that looked like general stores of the period all contributed to the atmosphere. We had barbecue sandwiches, French fries and coke for lunch. We also bought pork rinds for the ride home. I enjoyed going into these tents looking at the merchandise being sold especially the currency, books and pictures and war gear like blankets, uniforms, hats, pipes, swords, ‘fake’ pistols and rifles. It was like a traveling museum. According to the website the whole event costs about $ 25,000 with a lot of Civil War enactors probably contributing their time for free. It was a fun time and seemed like a state fair with many young adults, families with young children and a band playing revolutionary music. Before the mock battle, the Star Spangled banner and Dixie was played including the haunting song ‘The Way Home’ which was featured in the movie ‘Gods and Generals.’

The battle was actually exciting. There were cavalry running around the field with elegant officers in their horses, shooting pistols and brandishing swords. Artillery canons firing away like large drums, shaking the ground and pulsing air like concussion, the air filled with smoke and the smell of sulfur. About 500 pounds of gunpowder where used in the battle. After the initial skirmish, cavalry charge and artillery barrage, the infantry in both sides advanced into the field and exchange volleys. After an initial success by the Confederate forces, the Union soldiers repulsed them and chased the rebels back into their lines. A few ‘dead’ soldiers lay in the ground. The crowd where encouraged to give their best rebel yells and Yankee hurrahs during the fight. It was a loud and stimulating round with the emcee explaining the tactics and background music providing drama to the scene. We sat in the ground near the battlefield and watched the officers in their horses ride by, having sword fights and shooting their pistols. We left after the first act as we had to get back by 6 pm.

I enjoyed the day and plan to watch more reenactments in the future. It’s the best way to learn rather than reading history books or watching movies. I wished we could have stayed overnight to see the dance and the other activities scheduled in the evening. One needs to stay at least the weekend to enjoy the whole spectacle. It’s like history coming alive with historical personages jumping out from the pages of old books. My cynicism and jaded outlook had cracked a little bit, deriving some enjoyment from such tourist shows. But in fact it was not for tourist but an act of passion by the hobbyist to keep their history alive. A kind of ‘otaku’ as the Japanese would say of these nerds who live in their own world. Being a Civil War aficionado requires one to enter into this rarefied world in order to enjoy a sort of specialized pleasure where only the initiated can understand. It’s like being a geek.  

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