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Civil War-era drill draws spectators to Safety Harbor

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Published:   |   Updated: August 5, 2013 at 06:21 AM

SAFETY HARBOR - Lt. Scott Anderson knelt under a fabric tarp Sunday afternoon and reviewed the day's battle plan for his seven-person infantry, drawing lines and drills with his finger on an old artillery box.

There would be no battles today, only a series of drills and a ceremonial raising of the first national flag of the Confederacy. Still, Anderson expected the First Florida Artillery Company B to work with precision, no matter how itchy their wool uniforms became under the hot Florida sun. Were it not for the sweating cans of Coke and the flurry of iPhone checking when it was time for the drill to begin, the front lawn of the Safety Harbor Museum and Cultural Center looked like a scene from a history book.

Anderson, curator of the museum and an antiques dealer, has participated in Civil War reenactments for more than 30 years. A retired policeman from the Clearwater Police Department, he first laid eyes on a reenactment when he was filling out paperwork for a routine traffic stop. Now, Anderson's life revolves around collecting historical items and stories that he uses to enchant anyone who will listen.

Sunday morning the group was acting as the Florida Militia, Company B, which was based at Fort Brooke in Tampa, and performed drills for about 200 museum visitors and passersby on Bayshore Boulevard. The drills were part spectacle and part preparation for the group's upcoming battle - a reenactment of the Battle of Ballast Point the first weekend of October at Veterans Memorial Park in Tampa.

As more soldiers retire there is a need for young people interested in the Civil War. Anderson ran a reenactment camp for groups of about 12 kids until last year, but now he says it's too hot and he's getting too old. The neighbors, he said, are grateful, but Anderson is considering opening up the camp again later in the year when the weather cools down.

"I'm not a baby sitter, we only work with kids that really wanted to be there because we're not screwing around," Anderson said. "There aren't enough kids in this, but it really makes their grades in history go sky high. Re-enactors are really a trustworthy, good group of people. We have a lot of fun and it's very family oriented."

For seven-year-old Soren Harrison and his three-year-old brother Trevor Harrison, Anderson's plan worked.

"Whoa, that was awesome," Soren said as he took his hands off his ears after a cannon blast. "My grandpa was in the war, not the Civil War but a different one. I don't know if I want to go into battle when I grow up, but I really like it."

The uniforms are handmade replicas and most of the weapons, including the cannon, are authentic from the 1800s. Finding authentic antiques, sometimes to sell in his shop, has been an obsession for Anderson for years, said his brother Don, who helped him haul the cannon back from Panama City as motorists beeped and waved their middle finger at his "I'd rather be shooting Yankees" bumper sticker. Don doesn't take part in the drills, but had one of the most important jobs of the day, standing by the road and watching for unsuspecting joggers, bikers and motorists coming around the bend. The cannon isn't loaded, but the cloud of gunpowder and flour produced a 26-foot flame that would be enough to send any unprepared motorist into the mangroves across from the museum.

"I can't do this," said Don, retired military who's done everything from guarding nuclear weapons to working in medical evacuations. "They spend hours out in the heat and then stand in a line as people are shooting at them. Instinct would make me run away and hide or dig a fox hole or something. It sure looks real."

There are usually 11 in the company, though four were missing Sunday morning, and the battle reenactments include everything from cooks and medical staff to costumed women and children running the camps while the soldiers are away. But anyone who wants to be in Anderson's company has to follow three rules, he said.

"If I find out your a member of the Ku Klux Klan, you're off my gun crew, I don't care who you are, that's rule number one," Anderson said. "Rule number two, no crooks, thieves or scalawags, we may portray that, but in reality we are not, and number three, no one under 18 works the front line, it's too dangerous."

For trust officer Jamie Nielson and his son Parker, the group is an answered prayer. Parker has autism, but Anderson insists he's the best student he's ever had at his kids camp, and has become an apprentice of sorts, learning all the different roles on the battlefield. Parker and his dad have been members of the company for three seasons, even going with the group several months ago to participate in the Battle of Gettysburg, living in period tents for six days with about 1500 re-enactors from across the country. It's a passion that has brought the two closer and inspired confidence in Parker, Jamie Nielson said.

"He's been through a lot in his life, but this is something that lifts him up and really taught him he can do anything, be anything," Nielson said as he watched Parker clean the cannon with the precision of a soldier. "With people coming at you, shooting, it's just like you're in a movie and history comes alive right in front of you. Now, Parker knows that he's just as tough, just as sharp as those war heroes were."

adawson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-9851

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