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 will descend on Fort Meade this week 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 recalled. “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 cross roads 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. The re-enactments are scheduled Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. All weekend events are free; there is a $7 parking donation requested per vehicle.
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 added.
Headlining the entertainment this year is an appearance from Florida Artists Hall of Fame inductee Frank Thomas.
“We really want to make this Fort Meade’s signature event,” Perry 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, Perry noted.
“Every year, the battle portion, which is a cornerstone of the weekend, gets more impressive,” Perry noted. “People can really get a close-up look at the re-enactment, smell the gunpowder and hear the cannons roar.”
Re-enactors actually will set up authentic Civil War camps Thursday at the park. Friday, local schoolchildren are invited to attend for a special field trip, and the festival runs Saturday and Sunday. The camps are open to the public during most of the festival’s hours, save for the period right before, during and after the Bowlegs Creek battle.
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.
Thomas, who is considered the “dean” of Florida folk music, has composed hundreds of original songs that pay tribute to the state’s past. He will perform on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in the Florida Public Utilities Entertainment Pavilion.
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.
Thomas relates that his entire family played music and that he “learned guitar so young that he doesn’t remember learning.” Before the age of 10, he began singing with his family’s gospel group. Later he began to attend square dances, where he learned the fiddle from a traditional fiddler named Allie Murray. He also received inspiration from his mother who wrote songs about Florida.
Performing both Saturday and Sunday is Jerry Mincey, who has authored such Florida folk favorites such as “Narcoossee Lucie,” “Kissimmee River Blues” and “Sweet Florida Sunshine,” and Larry Mangum, who currently is playing concert dates in Europe, but lived in Jacksonville.
A Floridian since 1970, known for his butter-smooth voice, Larry has released seven albums of original music and two live albums since 1980. He has appeared with such legendary performers as Alabama and Waylon Jennings.
Mangum performs both Saturday and Sunday at noon, while Mincey will take to the stage at 1 p.m. each day.
“As part of our commitment to make this a top-flight event, we’ve brought in some of the best folk entertainers in the state,” Perry added. “They are artists in every sense of the word, from singing to storytelling to just plain good old entertainment.”
Other events for the weekend include a Ladies Tea on Saturday morning, authentic Civil War era church service Sunday morning, and the Confederate Ball on Saturday evening. Friday night, as part of the festival weekend, there will be a Battle of Bowlegs Creek Dinner Dance at the City Mobile Home Park Activity Building featuring the New Orleans Jazz Nighthawks. Tickets for the dinner dance are $15 and are available at the chamber office, city hall, city mobile home park or Fort Meade animal clinic.
“We hope everyone in the community gets behind this effort,” Perry added. “We need the support of all, the city, the business community, the residents, to make this the kind of event we want it to become, one that we can all be proud of and one that people from all over will know Fort Meade for. The chamber is thrilled to be able to coordinate it all, but we can’t do it without the support of many.”