Not many people realize that Polk County played a fairly important role in the Civil War, but it did.
And that history will be celebrated this weekend in Fort Meade at the fourth annual Battle of Bowlegs Creek Heritage Festival, highlighted by some 150 re-enactors who will bring the battle to life Saturday and Sunday afternoon.
David Hackel remembers the first time he visited a Civil War re-enactment.
It was celebrating the war’s most well-known Florida clash, the Battle of Olustee, fought in Baker County in early 1864, where some 1,800 soldiers were killed, injured or went missing.
Hackel went two decades ago, and was hooked.
Hackel is the coordinator of some 150 re-enactors that have descended on Fort Meade to celebrate Polk County’s only skirmish, the centerpiece to the fourth annual Battle of Bowlegs Creek Heritage Festival.
The battle, fought about two miles from the festival grounds at the Fort Meade Outdoor Recreation Area on U.S. 98 wasn’t quite Olustee, but it was far from insignificant either.
By the time the Confederate and Union forces clashed in Polk County on April 7, 1864, most of the south’s supply lines from the west had been effectively cut off.
The remaining source of food for bedraggled Confederate troops in Georgia was the beef cattle herds of pioneer Jacob Summerlin and a few other smaller cattlemen. They were driving north 2,000 head of cattle a week, starting in Fort Meade, winding through Bartow and Brooksville, Gainesville and eventually on to Baldwin, where they were loaded onto train cars.
“Actually, when you look at the cattle, this was the breadbasket of the Confederacy in 1864,” Hackel said. “And when you look at the Union side of it, most of those guys came from here. So it was important, yes. They kept the Union, for a period of time at least, from taking the cattle. It was a small battle, but a big part of the bigger picture. Fort Meade was an important crossroads when you think about it.”
The event started as the Peace River Folk Festival in 2010, and just a few re-enactors attended.
It has steadily grown through the last few years, however, with battle re-enactments and top level folk entertainment drawing crowds.
Hackel says the Union and Confederate re-enactors have a simple goal.
“To get a true sense, as close as we can portray, what is was like living in the 1860s and being a soldier, or a woman, because especially in the South, they were left to fend for themselves,” Hackel said. “I love history. If we don’t portray this, it’s going to get lost.”
And here’s a little insider’s tip. If you want to see the Union “win,” come Sunday. The last re-enactors battle of an event is usually “won” by the side that actually won it during the war.
“In Fort Meade’s case, Bowlegs was ultimately a Union victory,” Hackel said.
“We really want to make this Fort Meade’s signature event,” Priscella Perry from the Fort Meade Chamber of Commerce said. “And for the 150th anniversary this year, we’re making everything bigger, better and more fun.”
There are more cannons and horses this year, too, she noted.
In stepping up for the 150th anniversary, the festival will also pay tribute to the city’s heritage as Polk County’s oldest municipality with the top folk singers in the state, including Frank Thomas, who this year was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame along with Gloria Estefan.
Born and raised in Clay County, Thomas is a native Floridian whose ancestors came to Florida to farm in the late eighteenth-century. Members of his family fought in the Second Seminole War and in the Civil War, which is central to the Battle of Bowlegs Creek Festival. This direct connection with the land and heritage of English-speaking Florida inspired much of his music.