Re-enactors bring Civil War battle to life

tbarton@islandpacket.comOctober 30, 2011 

  • What: Battle of Port Royal 150th anniversary commemoration

    When: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 5

    Where: Coggins Point Road in Port Royal Plantation

    Things to know: This event is open and free to the public. Visitors will receive parking instructions at the gate and be shuttled to the Fort Walker site. No bicycles or walk-ins are permitted. Program seating and light refreshments will be available. Pets, coolers, lawn chairs and other bulky items will not be permitted. Gates will close when all parking lots are full.

    The formal program at noon will include a historical presentation about the Battle of Port Royal, a portrayal of the Drayton "brother versus brother" story, Civil War music, an opening salvo from Fort Walker, a final rifle salute and "Taps."

  • The Beaufort County Library and its Beaufort District Collection will commemorate the Battle of Port Royal with two free history sessions featuring Michael Coker, author of "The Battle of Port Royal," on Nov. 7.

    A book signing with Coker is set for 2 p.m. at the Bluffton library. Coker; Larry Rowland and Stephen Hoffius, co-editors of "The Civil War in South Carolina;" and Neil Baxley, author of "No Prouder Fate," will be featured at a district collection history series from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Penn Center's Frissell Hall on St. Helena Island.


Beaufort resident David Smoot admits he is a little crazy.

To be a Civil War re-enactor, you have to be, Smoot said.

Who, he asks, would spend $14,000 to $20,000 buying Civil War replicas -- from tin ware, underwear, swords, guns, food and toothbrushes -- and spend hours researching just to travel the country and play a historically accurate, educational form of dress-up?

Marriages have ended and personal incomes and social lives destroyed as a result.

"You go see your doctor and have your brain removed. You've got to be nuts to do this," said Smoot, who has been re-enacting since 1976.

"But it's the most fun I've ever done," he said. "A feeling overtakes you -- a feeling of satisfaction of preserving history and being as close as you can get to that pivotal, divisive period in time, the scars and ripples of which we still feeling today. One hundred fifty years have passed, and for some folks the war hasn't ended. The wounds still bleed."

On Saturday, Smoot's alter ego -- Confederate field medic Dr. Tooms -- will join other re-enactors on at the historic site where Fort Walker once stood on Hilton Head Island to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Port Royal.

In 1861, the South was winning the war. Fort Sumter in Charleston had fallen to the Confederates. The Federal army had been routed at Manassas. The blockade of 3,000 miles of Southern coast was a farce.

The Union needed to turn the tide and did so with the largest U.S. fleet ever assembled at that time, said Michael Coker, author of "The Battle of Port Royal."

Navy ships under the command of Flag Officer Samuel du Pont carrying an army of 16,000 soldiers commanded by Gen. Thomas W. Sherman combined for the amphibious assault to clear the area of Confederates and establish a coaling and resupply station for Union naval ships.

The battle began the morning of Nov. 7. By that afternoon, Fort Walker and Fort Beauregard on St. Phillips Island across the sound were in shambles.

In addition to the excitement of participating in a re-enactment, participants are driven to remind spectators of long-forgotten details and separate fact from fiction, Smoot said.

For one, the British didn't fight this war. Seriously.

"The most frequent question I get asked? Honestly, people ask, 'Which side is the British?'" Smoot said.

And Smoot is not the only one to share such tales.

"I was wearing a derby hat, and a teacher asked me if men ate out of it," said Don Bickham, a 71-year-old Buford, Ga., resident and re-enactor for the Union New York 17th. "I said, 'No. You're thinking of the metal helmets they wore in World War II.' "

Bickham said he considers himself a "living historian" more than re-enactor.

"We're trying to tell a story of what happened during those periods of time and give these kids some education they're not getting in the school," he said. "We're trying to show what happened out there. It was guerilla warfare, but it defined us as a nation."

Follow reporter Tom Barton at

Related Content:

Sea Foam: 150 years after the Battle of Port Royal, the legacy lives on: Oct. 24, 2011

Area historical groups plan events to mark start of Civil War: Sept. 25, 2011

Key Words: Civil War, Battle of Port Royal, Hilton Head Island, Port Royal Plantation, Fort Walker, Fort Beauregard, Michael Coker, David Smoots, Fort Sumter, Manassas, Confederacy, Don Bickham, St. Phillip's Island, re-enactment

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