'Vicious' Battle of Gainesville re-enacted

A Union officer fires at Confederate troops during the Battle of Gainesville reenactment held in Sweetwater Park in downtown Gainesville Saturday August 17, 2013.

Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, August 17, 2013 at 5:52 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, August 17, 2013 at 5:52 p.m.

Johnny Reb drove the Blue Bellies out of Gainesville on Saturday morning, much as they did 149 years ago to the day.

This time, however, they were Civil War re-enactors dressed in authentic Confederate and Union garb who followed a carefully choreographed script, portraying as accurately as possible the Battle of Gainesville.

And they acted it out on the same spot where the Union made its last stand before being ousted by members of a local militia and Confederate troops.

"You're actually standing on bloody ground, people," said John McLean, a sixth-generation Floridian who lives in Gainesville and narrated the play-by-play for the spectators. "This is the only battle in town that you can actually participate in."

For the third year in a row, the Matheson Museum commemorated the Battle of Gainesville, the second and larger of two battles fought here during the Civil War. The re-enactment coincides with an exhibit at the Matheson that's on display through Sept. 22 called "War Torn Lives: The People of Civil War Gainesville."

Alicia Antone, the Matheson's executive director, said the goal was to show "the good, the bad, and the ugly" of the battle as it really was in the hopes that the community could learn from this living history.

"The battle that took place here was a vicious one," Antone said.

On Saturday, Sweetwater Park thundered with the sound of rifles ripping through the silence and cannon fire concussing the air as about 300 onlookers watched soldiers streaming across the south field on foot and horseback.

Large palm fronds camouflaged park benches, and an authentic wagon was hauled onto the field to give a sense of realism. A fife and drum corps played Civil War songs.

In about an hour, or about half the time the actual battle was waged, Confederates had broken through the Union ranks, surrounded their enemy and pushed them to Sweetwater Branch.

"It's so realistic — the rounds, the horses, the regalia," said Marvin Green, a longtime Gainesville resident who said he came out of curiosity to watch the re-enactment.

"This is my home, but I never dwelled on the fact that there was a battle here in Gainesville," Green said. "I care about the history of my town."

Gainesville was a major food distribution center for the Confederate Army during the Civil War, with the second largest warehouses in the state, McLean said.

On Aug. 17, 1864, 342 Union soldiers marched into Gainesville and set up camp, said Keith Kohl, an Ocala historian and one of the battle's choreographers. The Confederates, with only 175 troops (including a Home Guard militia made up of retirees, the wounded and boys), launched a surprise attack and overwhelmed the Union occupiers, driving them out of town.

The Confederates had three dead and five wounded that day, while the Union lost 28 and had 188 captured, McLean said. About 40 Federal soldiers escaped to Magnolia and returned to Baldwin.

"We used the original battle as a blueprint," Kohl said, to ensure that the re-enactment was as accurate as possible.

It was the only battle in Florida fought entirely by native Floridians, McLean said, which he said is why they were so tenacious. For the rest of the war, Gainesville remained in Confederate hands.

Before and after Saturday's re-enactment, visitors could examine clothing and artifacts on display in the park. The re-enactors had set up a camp on the museum grounds using period tents, trunks and lanterns.

Anna Hackel, one of several women in period garb, said her role was as a seamstress. "I sew for the soldiers," she said. "I do a lot of research on my clothing."

Gene Honeycutt said this was the second year he and his family had come to see the battle re-enacted.

"It's very educational and fun," the Gainesville resident said. "It's interesting to see all the period's accoutrements and to see one of the few battles that took place in Florida."

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