Living History: Re-enactors mark Columbia’s ‘Longest Days’

mlucas@thestate.comFebruary 16, 2013 

— They may not have been watching the skies for snow 148 years ago as they were in West Columbia Saturday. But it was a cold and blustery February day just the same when artillery shells began to rain over Columbia.

On Feb. 16, 1865, the war that had been raging for four years arrived at Columbia’s doorstep.

The cannon fire came from across the Congaree River, as Union troops led by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman began blasting the Capital City at dawn.

Often called “Columbia’s Longest Days,” Sherman’s march on Columbia would start, much as it did Saturday, with ear-splitting, teeth-rattling cannon fire. It would end with most of what is now Columbia’s downtown area, including the old State House, burned to the ground.

“It scared the populace to death here,” said Mike Keller, who had driven from Greenville to take part in Saturday’s re-enactment.

Keller was one of about 25 men and boys who carried out the “Cannonade of Columbia” in temperatures just under 40 degrees.

Set up in a vacant parking lot in West Columbia, across from the Gervais Street bridge, participants wore Civil War garb and manned three 6- and 10-pound cannons, named for the size shell they used. Across the river, Confederate “sharpshooters,” or snipers, returned fire just as they had in 1865. (Back then, the bridge had already been burned by Confederate soldiers in an attempt to slow Union forces.)

Of course, there were many more artillery weapons used that day than Saturday’s cannons – Ordnance-rifle and Parrott-rifle cannons, to be exact.

And the cannons Saturday fired only blanks.

But the loading of the rounds with long “ramming staffs” and the cooling of the barrels with water was done in much the same way as it would have been done in the late 1800s, said Keller.

Part of “Culpepper’s Battery,” named for the Confederate unit from South Carolina, Keller has participated in the firing on Columbia for nearly 20 years. As a member of the Military History Club of the Carolinas, he also participates in re-enactments from other wars in American history.

“We do (from) the French and Indian war, on up,” he said.

The 61-year-old said it was important to mark such events and had brought his 10-year-old grandson, Easton Keller, to participate.

“He’s really gotten into social studies and is just now learning about what was going on then,” he said. “He is living something that actually happened 148 years ago.”

Reach Lucas at (803) 771-8657.

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