SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. -- The presence of military forces in this area goes back about 240 years. In both the American War of Independence and the American Civil War, much blood wet the soil of the region from Sumter to Camden.
What historians call the worst defeat for colonials in the War of Independence took place near Camden, about 25 miles north of Shaw, on Aug. 16, 1780. About 2,100 regular British troops, commanded by Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis, faced 3,700 rebels (colonials) under the command of Gen. Horatio Gates.
When the smoke cleared, the British ruled the field. Nearly 2,000 rebels were dead, wounded or captured, while only about 300 British fell.
Musket and cannon smoke returned to Camden Nov. 2 and 3 as around 200 re-enactors set up camp in the historic Camden site and brought 1780 back to the town.
Stepping through the gate into the American camp was like stepping back 240 years in time. White canvas tents flapped in the breeze, which was laden with wood smoke and the aroma of simmering pots of meats and stews.
Among the visitors was Airman Jodi Lange, a pharmacy technician in Shaw's 20th Medical Group. Lange admitted it was the first re-enactment she had attended, and she wasn't sure what to expect.
Men (and some women) ranging from teens to some with solid grey hair, stood or sat in small groups. Many held or shouldered their rifles. Others had stacked their rifles together in teepees. From time to time, the sound of a fife tune or rattle of a drum stirred the air.
"We've been doin' it since 1990," said former Air Force Staff Sgt. Buddy Bell of Hodges, S.C., as he grasped a five-foot-long single-shot musket. From hat to shoes he was dressed in the garb of a Continental soldier, as regular soldiers of the 13 American colonies were known. His clothing was hand-stitched, not machine made.
In real life, Bell earned a Purple Heart in 1969 in Vietnam. One tour in 'Nam and one enlistment was enough for him at the time. Now he's been helping create what some call "living history" in uniform for more than 20 years.
The Continental soldier stood and explained his weapon to 23-year-old Lange, as she pumped him for information about the ancient rifle.
Bell said he has traced his ancestors to many major battlefields in the eastern states. His great, great, great grandfather, he claimed, was in the North Carolina Continental Army. "One of the biggest things about (re-enacting) for me is that I'm doing it on many of the fields my (ancestors) fought on." He admitted he also loves the old uniforms and learning about the lives of early American patriots.
"I believe in honoring the earlier soldiers," Bell added.
Battle re-enacting isn't just for men, however. Carol Sherwood, of Greensboro, N.C., has invested 34 years of her free time creating living history. At Camden, she was clad in coarse, hand-woven garments topped with a linen cap.
"I'm a 'camp-follower'," she began. "General Washington allowed wives to follow the armies in the field. When our man left, he took his musket, so we didn't have any way to kill game to survive. So we went with the army."
Sherwood was doing what she would have done almost three centuries ago; preparing lunch in a bed of wood coals. Lange, the med group Airman from Shaw, watched and asked questions about the process.
There weren't any ovens, just cast-iron pots. Sherwood put a pie into a pot, settled it into the coals, put a dished lid on it, then heaped more coals on top. She told Lange that although it might take longer than a day, the pie eventually would be done.
In real life, Sherwood is the mother of Air Force Tech. Sgt. Colin Carter of Joint Base Charleston, so she's no stranger to military life.
It was the American Bicentennial (200th anniversary) celebration in 1976 that lured Sherwood into re-enacting. First she portrayed a drummer in events. Then she got bitten by the re-enacting bug and has been doing it ever since.
Finally, it was time for the battle. That, after all, was what many came for. Muzzle-loading cannons in tow, the two armies first collided in the woods next to the historical center. The rattle of musket shots was punctuated by the booms of four cannons. Once the armies broke from the woods, the battle turned into rolling waves of attacks and counter-attacks.
Unlike the August morning in 1780, however, this time the blue-coated Continental Army won the field.
"It was like going back in time, and I was there," said Lange. "Seeing the battle re-enacted reminded me of the price of our freedom. It was a very good reminder for me that 'freedom isn't free,' and of all the blood that was shed for what we have today."
A recent graduate of Air Force Basic Training, Lange compared today's M-16 rifles to flintlock muskets.
"What they used was a more simple version of what we have today," she observed. "They had to load everything by hand. I heard that if you were good, you might be able to shoot one shot every 14 seconds. I'm glad for what we have now because all we have to do is charge it, pull the trigger and it shoots."
Lange said she would definitely go to another battle re-enactment if she had an opportunity.
"The people you meet are like you've gone back in time. They're in character and you get to learn what it was like to live in that time period."
"It was such a reminder of what the people who lived before us went through so we could have the life we do today," Lange concluded.
Camden, founded in 1733, is the oldest city in South Carolina. Historical Camden's military park, off US Highway 521 on the south side of town, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and 2-5 p.m., Sunday. It is closed on major holidays. Entry and maps are free, however, there is a charge for guided tours. For more information, call 803-432-9841 or visit www.historic-camden.net.