8 Living History and Historical Reenactments in Florida
By Howard Blount
My first experience as a living history reenactor was as a volunteer. Back in the 1990s, the church I attended operated the general store for the Alafia River Rendezvous. The store provided a much-needed service for event participants and also served as a fundraiser for a charitable cause. The event was mutually beneficial, but wearing period clothing was a non-negotiable requirement.
My first impression was that the rendezvous was a mere excuse for adults to play “Dress-Up” and “Cowboys & Indians.” I would eventually learn, though, that living history events and historical war reenactments are far more than childhood games. They are the result of intensive research by professional historians and amateur history buffs who not only want to experience how life was lived in these periods, but also hope to share publicly the things they have learned.
There are scores of living history events and historical war reenactments taking place across the state of Florida year round, but the following eight rank among my favorites. Check websites for more details, including entry fees.
CASTILLO DE SAN MARCOS NATIONAL MONUMENT
Where: St. Augustine
When: Open every day of the year except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Colonial weapons demonstrations are on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at scheduled times throughout the day.
The Castillo de San Marcos National Monument in St. Augustine is the oldest stone (coquina) and mortar fort in the United States. Construction began in 1672 while Florida was still part of the Spanish Empire, although later it was controlled variously by Great Britain, the Confederate States, as well as the United States.
On weekends, reenactors wearing Colonial Spanish uniforms demonstrate historic weapons, including firing of cannons. Although these are not battle reenactments, they are the only known Colonial military displays in the state.
THE DADE MASSACRE
The Second Seminole War was the setting for the Dade Massacre. In response to the U.S. government’s effort to move their people to a reservation, 180 Seminole warriors ambushed a column of 110 marching U.S. Army troops led by Major Francis Langhorne Dade on the morning of Dec. 28, 1835. Only three U.S. soldiers survived, and only three Seminole warriors were killed.
The annual reenactment of the Dade Massacre is hosted on site at the Dade Battlefield Historic State Park. Although the reenactment includes lots of action, men on horseback, bloodcurdling screams and gunfire, this narrated presentation feels more like a play on an outdoor stage. The Dade Battlefield also hosts the reenactment of a World War II Allied/Axis skirmish the first full weekend in March.
THE FORT FOSTER RENDEZVOUS
When: January or February
The Fort Foster State Historic Site is an extension of the adjacent Hillsborough River State Park. The original Fort Foster was built during the Second Seminole War as a military resupply depot and defense for the bridge crossing on the Hillsborough River. There were occasional conflicts with neighboring Seminoles at the fort, but only one documented skirmish when the natives attempted to burn the bridge. Today a reproduction of the original 1836 fort has been constructed on site.
The annual Fort Foster Rendezvous features military demonstrations and a small reenactment that is loosely based on the skirmish and varies from year to year.
I enjoyed learning how to throw a tomahawk at one of the living history stations during the event.
THE ALAFIA RIVER RENDEZVOUS
When: January (open to the public on Friday and Saturday)
The Alafia River Rendezvous is an annual event sponsored by the Florida Frontiersmen fraternity. It is the largest pre-1840s living history encampment in the Southeast. Each January, period reenactors from across the country descend on this 322-acre property in Central Florida to practice primitive crafts, trade their wares, participate in period competitions, and live like their pioneer ancestors.
Although there are modern camping facilities available outside the rendezvous encampment, the most authentic way to experience pre-1840s life is to pitch a tent or tipi in the primitive camp.
Because the Alafia River Rendezvous is an immersive event that requires authenticity, all participants, including volunteers, are required to wear period dress. When I worked the event, I recall that our clothing could not have zippers, our shoes could not have rubber soles, and any modern invention had to be draped in burlap, canvas, a blanket, or animal hide to not detract from the experience of the hard-core reenactors.
Also, we did not want to be viewed as “farbs,” reenactors who don’t pay attention to detail or take authentic living history seriously. Visitors who attend on the two public rendezvous days are not required to be in period dress.
THE ST. ANDREWS BAY SALT WORKS RAID
Where: St. Andrews Bay beach, Panama City
Before refrigeration, salt was crucial for food preservation, and hundreds of salt works sprang up along Florida’s Gulf Coast, boiling sea water in iron kettles for its production. To stop supplies from reaching the Confederates, a series of Union assaults were initiated in late summer 1862.
Over a year later, in December 1863, men from the USS Restless and other naval ships landed at St. Andrews Bay, and proceeded to destroy more than 290 salt works operations, valued at $3 million at the time.
The reenactment of the St. Andrews Bay Salt Works Raid is one of Florida’s newer living history events. It is hosted by the Pawnee Guard, a local historical reenacting unit that participates in other reenactments across the Southeast. Despite the smaller scale of this reenactment, the beach landing is a dramatic introduction to the land battle. I was surprisingly moved by the realism of the dramatized medical demonstration following the battle. It was a vivid portrayal of the physical and emotional pain endured by soldiers on both sides of the conflict.
THE BATTLE OF OLUSTEE REENACTMENT
Where: Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park
When: January or February (open to the public Saturday and Sunday)
The Battle of Olustee was the only major Civil War battle in Florida. On the afternoon of Feb. 20, 1864, Union troops, in an attempt to interrupt Confederate food supply routes, clashed in a fierce battle with forces at Ocean Pond, near Lake City. Retreating African-American soldiers from the Massachusetts 54th Infantry (featured in the 1989 Academy Award-winning movie “Glory”), in a feat of superhuman strength, pulled a disabled train with cars of wounded soldiers for three miles back to Camp Finnegan. After securing horses, they continued to pull the train all the way back to Jacksonville.
I have attended the reenactment of the Battle of Olustee twice. Reenactors portray the event in an impressive scripted battle. The sight of Union and Confederate cavalry emerging from the pines onto the battlefield, the sounds of explosives sending palmettos soaring high into the air, and medics and chaplains ministering to the wounded and dying scattered across the ground all make for a moving, realistic experience.
THE BATTLE OF BOWLEGS CREEK
Where: Fort Meade Outdoor Recreation Area, also known as Peace River Park
When: Traditionally held in April, but moved to Nov. 18-20 in 2016
The Battle of Bowlegs Creek was the final skirmish in a Union campaign to stop the flow of Jake Summerlin’s cattle to Confederate troops. On April 7, 1864, near the confluence of Bowlegs Creek and the Peace River, the Second Florida Cavalry, U.S.A., defeated the Confederate Cow Cavalry, a battalion organized to protect Florida’s cattle drives and settlers.
The Battle of Bowlegs Creek Heritage Festival is an annual event to memorialize Polk County’s only Civil War battle. Although this conflict is on a smaller scale than Olustee or Brooksville, I appreciated the intimacy of the reenactment. Observers can easily navigate around the perimeter of the battlefield to view the conflict from various angles, almost like a theater in the round. We also witnessed some impressive cannon fire.
The historical Brooksville Raid was another Union effort to stem the export of Florida cattle and supplies to Confederate troops situated farther north. This virtually bloodless skirmish over a six-day period in July of 1864 resulted in only one Union fatality, but the local community was utterly devastated by the looting and burning by the marauding Union soldiers.
Although the Brooksville Raid was not a major battle, the annual event is the largest Civil War reenactment in Florida, comprised of more than 1,500 reenactors and their families, 28 cannons, 60 horses, and 50+ sutlers. The second time I attended the event, the reenactors portrayed the scripted Battle of Shiloh, Tenn.
If you have never attended a living history event or historical war reenactment, I encourage you to load your family into the car and take a drive into Florida’s past. You’ll find the experience both educational and entertaining for all ages. While you are there, why not sample some Indian fry bread, kettle corn, and sarsaparilla? Stroll through a living village, watch skilled craftspersons at work, observe folk artists creating one-of-a-kind pieces, and even better, watch cavalry gallop across a field and tremble at a cannon’s blast!
Note: For greater insight into the lives of hardcore reenactors, I recommend Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz.
Note: For the very latest dates and information for the following historical war reenactment events, contact event directors.