April 9, 2011

Southern cannons aiming at Fort Sumter. Again.

Lancaster County resident Claude Sinclair intends to start a war on Tuesday. At exactly 6:45 a.m., the 61-year-old social worker will order troops to bombard Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor.

Lancaster County resident Claude Sinclair intends to start a war on Tuesday.

At exactly 6:45 a.m., the 61-year-old social worker will order troops to bombard Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor - for the second time in 150 years.

So will begin the nation's sesquicentennial observance of the Civil War, a conflict that claimed the lives of 25,000 Carolinians, altered history and influences both states to this day.

Some 150,000 tourists are expected in Charleston for the recreated battle, including thousands who'll be aboard boats in the harbor to experience the sound and fury of 30 cannons firing simultaneously.

In addition to the battle, Charleston will host a series of "home front" events, such as slave life re-enactments featuring slave interpreter Kitty Wilson-Evans of Lancaster, S.C.

Sinclair, working with the National Park Service, is a key player in the anniversary. He spent 18 months recruiting the 1,000 men who'll portray Union and Confederate soldiers, including a dozen from the Charlotte area who are actually bringing their own cannon and $500 worth of black powder.

So sought-after is the chance to participate, that Sinclair has been pursued by Confederate wannabes from around the world. At least a dozen of the re-enactors will be from other countries, he says, including Great Britain, Germany and Australia.

Countless others have been turned away, because of Sinclair's strict standards for authenticity. This includes a bunch of people who sent him emails saying they planned to show up at Sumter dressed as Union generals, as if there were a dozen officers wandering the fort in 1861, he says.

"No, you're not," he told them.

Sinclair's word is law. Not only is he trying to keep the numbers of men aligned to 1861, but re-enactors are expected to carry period muskets, eat only Civil War era camp food (venison, pork and rice) and wear custom-made uniforms with the correct buckles and buttons.

Under Sinclair's watch, the re-enactors will undergo exacting inspections to make sure they meet uniform guidelines. If they don't, it just so happens Sinclair will have a bunch of extra buttons and buckles on hand.

Anyone seen as totally out of character will be sent packing, no matter what country they're from.

"I'm being called a 'Stitch Nazi'," he says, using a term given re-enactors who expect even buttonholes to look as they did 150 years ago.

"This is living history, not a re-enactment with that county-fair atmosphere and funnel cakes."

Repeating history

That attitude is why the committee in charge of recreating the battle picked Sinclair to be the event's "military commander," says committee chair Jeff Antley.

Many Americans see the war as a personal and destructive affair, Antley says, one that pitted neighbors against neighbors and even families against their kin: But to the world, the attack on Sumter is an international event that represents a turning point in the history of warfare.

"It was the start of the first truly modern war ... which is why it's important to be as accurate as possible," says Antley. "It was a time of new technology for weaponry. Yet tactics were still Napoleonic, with men standing in line and shooting. That's why 650,000 Americans died."

Depending on how you look at it, the war could have started on Dec. 20, 1860, when South Carolina seceded.

But it was six days later that U.S. Maj. Robert Anderson abandoned Fort Moultrie, near Charleston, and secretly moved his garrison of about 100 men to the more easily defended Fort Sumter.

After months of refusing to evacuate Fort Sumter, Anderson was asked to surrender. He declined, prompting a command by Confederate Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, to begin firing on the fort at 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861.

The bombardment lasted nearly 36 hours, at which point Anderson agreed to evacuate. What followed was the bloodiest war ever fought on U.S. soil, with wounds that have not completely healed.

Sinclair, a re-enactor for 13 years, will play the role of Beauregard during the battle, which has been adjusted to cause as little public disturbance as possible.

That means no barrage at 4:30 a.m. and definitely no real cannon balls.

Instead, the siege will start about two hours later than in 1861. And it will continue at full force for only 40 minutes, before being scaled back to one shot every 15 minutes.

Then, at 7:30 p.m., there will be a second full barrage, ending at sunset.

Cannon fire will be intermittent on Wednesday. But things will pick up on Thursday, during six staged Union "surrenders" at Sumter, timed to the arrival of tourist boats.

Each time the Confederate flag rises over the Sumter, all 30 cannons will fire a salute.

Coincidentally, the National Park Service won't allow the 50 Union re-enactors at Sumter to have cannons. So this time the Confederates don't have to worry about anybody firing back.

Straddling time

Sinclair says the event is a commemoration, not a celebration, because he's aware of the controversy surrounding almost anything Southerners do connected to the Civil War.

The Winthrop University grad avoids discussing "the politics of the war," preferring to limit his involvement to that of a historian and genealogist.

Slave interpreter Kitty Wilson-Evans is a friend, and he appreciates that the National Park Service invited her to be part of the events at Charleston's Liberty Square on Wednesday. Her photo in slave garb is even featured on National Park Service banners and educational material about the sesquicentennial in the southeast region.

"I'm glad just to be asked," says Wilson-Evans, who lives about eight miles from Sinclair in Lancaster. "There was a time when discussions of slavery wouldn't even have been considered appropriate for something like this."

Sinclair believes if all works as planned, everyone involved will at some point feel they are straddling 2011 and 1861.

For him, it could be the sound of the cannons firing, as he stands on the balcony of a home a stone's throw from Fort Moultrie. Then again, he wonders if it might be the quiet hours just before the siege.

"The night of April 11 could be cool," he says. "It wasn't a secret that they were going to fire on Sumter the next day. I imagine guys standing guard at 2 or 3 in the morning will think back, and imagine what guards might have been thinking 150 years back."

Tom Teff, 60, of Monroe will be among the people taking aim on the historic fort. His group, Latham's Light Artillery, is bringing the ultimate man toy, a Tredegar cannon, purchased by the members for $27,000.

The only two soldiers who actually died on Fort Sumter in 1861 were victims of an accident, so safety is his big concern. His group will be firing 8-ounce charges of gun powder wrapped in foil, rather than 6-pound iron balls. That's a good thing for tourists, considering the last time they fired a real cannon ball, it went twice as far as expected.

"We were trying to hit a tobacco barn 500 yards away, that a guy wanted knocked down," Teff recalls, "and it went through the barn and 450 yards past it. We found the ball in the woods, and it went 2 feet into the ground."

Brian O'Neill, 50, of Indian Trail is also going to fire that cannon. He's a re-enactor with the 43rd N.C. Infantry based in the Charlotte area, and about eight from the group are going.

He intends to experience everything the soldiers went through in 1861, from sleeping on the ground to doing without a shower the length of siege. They'll be set up at Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant.

"I'm looking forward to that very first shot," O'Neill says. "All around us, I'll be looking up and down and seeing all those cannons going off at the same time. ... I'll be reliving history."

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