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Civil War re-enactment revives old ghosts in Manatee

BRADENTON

The field adjacent to Manatee Mineral Springs Historical Park was quiet, save for the songbirds and rustling of the moss-draped live oaks in the morning breeze.

Come Saturday, it will spring to life, harkening back ghosts from another time.

August 1864 to be exact.

Reflections of Manatee, Inc., will hold its 10th annual Party for the Pioneers and the event will include a Civil War re-enactment of the eighth-month occupation of old Manatee Village by black Union troops.

The 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War is April 12.

“People are not aware of it because Manatee didn’t have any real battles,” said Trudy Williams, executive director for Reflections of Manatee, Inc., a non-profit dedicated to preserving Manatee County history.

“Besides the Gamble Planation, it’s one of the few recorded Civil War sites this far south in Florida,” said Sherry Svekis, a Reflections vice-president.

The black troop re-enactors represent the Third U.S. Colored Cavalry, one of the few such groups still active.

“People didn’t know black cavalry existed,” said John Russell, a professional Civil War re-enactor from Orlando. “Most of the perception comes from what they saw in ‘Glory.’”

That’s the 1989 movie about the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the U.S. Army’s first black units. Denzel Washington won the Oscar for best supporting actor.

“Forget what you saw in Hollywood, there were a lot of black Union soldiers -- about 133,000,” Russell said. “Blacks wanted to fight but the Union wouldn’t let them. Then Union enlistments were down, people were tired of the war and the Union finally relented or else they’d probably have run out of soldiers.

“They took part in raids along the west coast, cutting off Confederate supplies. This far south there was just the home guard -- young boys and old men. But their farms and plantations were still raising livestock for the Confederacy and the goal was to cut off that supply.”

One of those places was the Curry settlement, 30 acres that includes Manatee Mineral Springs Historical Park.

It belonged to John Curry, a boat captain from Key West and cattleman.

His son, John W. Curry, was a Confederate soldier and provided the Confederacy with 2,000 head of cattle weekly.

By the time a U.S. Navy detachment showed up, the cattle were gone.

“They ran the cattle upstate to protect them from Union troops,” said Joanna Williams, John W. Curry’s great granddaughter.

Instead, the naval detachment destroyed the sawmill and gristmill partially owned by the Currys.

The black troops showed up shortly afterward.

They set up camp in the field and their officers used the two historic Curry houses on Third Avenue as quarters.

“The soldiers searched for war contraband -- ammunition, cotton, salt -- anything that would be provisions for the Confederacy,” Trudy Williams said, “They had a more important role there than usual.”

They broke camp in March 1865.

The Civil War ended a month later.

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055.

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