Civil War battle re-enactment an economic engine

Rick Wagner • Aug 27, 2013 at 1:28 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — What do an 1863 Civil War battle reenactment and flea market have it common?

Both are economic development activities. And both were topics of discussions at Thursday’s NETWORKS — Sullivan Partnership meeting, centering around a Civil War battle re-enactment next month just east of the airport.

Sheila Hunt, director of the Sullivan County Archives and County Tourism Department, gave a program to the NETWORKS board on the Battle of Blountville 150th anniversary reenactment Sept. 6-8 on the Old Hawley Farm at 1173 Hawley Road, Blountville, behind the Fed Ex building on State Route 75.

NETWORKS is a joint economic development effort of Sullivan County, Kingsport, Bristol, Tenn., and Bluff City.

“We have to build our tourism block by block,” Hunt told the board of events like the reenactment and the annual Historic Blountville Flea Market and Yard Sale, Saturday, Sept. 14.

Tourists spent more than $15 billion in Tennessee in 2011, the last year for which statistics are available, and Hunt said in neighboring Virginia one of seven tourists is visiting for heritage tourism.

As for the battle reenactment, Friday, Sept., 6, will be the day for school groups to come out and see reenactors and their camps. The events, all free this year in part because of $8,500 in donations — although Hunt said more would be welcomed — continue with battle re-enactments Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 7-8.

Other events for the weekend are an old-time county fair with sack races and three-legged races, circa 1860s, a ladies tea, a Civil War ball/dance and fireworks. A three-day revival also is to take place.

Jack Lawson, director of economic development for NETWORKS, said that an old Methodist church camp near the reenactment site owned by the airport will play the part of downtown Blountville.

After the meeting, Hunt and event co-chairman Bob Dotson said about 125 reenactors are registered but that with walk-ons they expect about 200 reenactors. Dotson said “several thousand” spectators are expected.

Lawson said spectators will be able to view the reenactment from a hillside, and Dotson said the views would include cavalry charges, artillery barrages and other battle scenes.

The reenactment site is on the back side of Partnership Park I. Hunt said next year the reenactment likely will move back to downtown Blountville, where the actual battle occurred Sept. 22, 1863, when Union troops descended on the Confederate community. Dotson said the battle destroyed a third of the sleepy town, including the Sullivan County Courthouse that wasn’t rebuilt until 1866.

A resident of Blountville, Dotson, 46, has been a reenactor since age 15. He said the Union attacked because Blountville was a crossroads, a gateway to Bristol, which, in turn, was a gateway to Saltville, Va., the salt works of the Confederacy.

“We can’t forget who we are. We can’t forget where we come from,” said Dotson, who reenacts with a Union group but said reenacting is “just as honorable to do blue as it is gray.”

He said most Blountvillle residents viewed the war from afar until those four hours on Sept. 22, 1863. A smaller battle occurred the next day in the direction of Zollicoffer, now Bluff City.

“As usual, wars are not started by the folks who fight them,” Dotson said. As for 21st century reenactors, he said reliving history is a tradition in his family that includes his children. The family lives on what was part of the Blountville battleground.

“It’s more than a hobby for us. It’s a life,” Dotson said. “There is life outside a Nintendo and Xbox.”

Closer to the actual 150th battle anniversary, a walking tour and other activities are planned downtown.

Hunt said she, Dotson and Ric Dulaney, who chairs the reenactment event, have worked on the reenactment since October of 2012. For more information on the reenactment, go to www.battleofblountvillle.com or call (423) 323-4660.

Hunt said other efforts to preserve the history of and promote tourism in Blountville include a Heritage Tourism Project, covering 1795 to 1865. The effort, Hunt said, is to include putting up signs on each of the original lots in the 30 acres James Brigham donated to the town of Blountville from a 600-acre land grant he received in 1782 from North Carolina, then the state in which Sullivan County was located.

In addition, the 1795-1865 project is to include collecting and organizing photos and documents from the era, as well as a brochure, she said.

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