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Marching Ahead
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One of Savannah’s most sweeping and ambitious preservation projects is one step closer to reality.

With the official end of environmental remediation last week, the Battlefield Park area off MLK Jr. Blvd. is set to become what one city official calls “a major anchor” of the city’s tourism industry.

“Between the battlefield, the Visitor’s Center and the railroad museum, I see this whole site as an entryway,” says Bob Scanlon, environmental affairs officer for the city of Savannah. “The site encompasses a tremendous amount of local history.”

As of last week, crews had finished removing lead and arsenic industrial pollutants from the 9.5 acre site of the 1789 Siege of Savannah, commonly considered the single bloodiest battle of the American Revolution.

Recent rains have slowed the process, Scanlon says.

“We started the cleanup in April, and by the second week of August we thought we had finished,” he says. “But since then we’ve had 15 inches of rain, starting with Hurricane Bonnie.”

Scanlon says despite the percolating sandy soil typical of the L-shaped tract, the rain still posed a formidable barrier to cleanup crews.

“At one point we measured three inches of rain in 45 minutes,” he says. “We had some holes here that could swallow a small truck.”

As rains slacked off, crews filled the sinkholes. Weather willing, soon work will begin on an interpretive site and a replica of the British redoubt, or fort, used at the battle to successfully repel a force of French and Colonial troops 225 years ago.

Combined with the adjacent Roundhouse railroad museum and the Savannah History Museum across Louisville Road, the entire area of the siege will henceforth be known simply as Battlefield Park.

“We now consider this all one project,” says Michael Jordan, marketing director of the Coastal Heritage Society, which is spearheading the battlefield restoration and also runs the Roundhouse and History Museum. The city of Savannah is the owner of the Battlefield Park property.

The resulting blend of historical eras could be a potent draw for tourists, says Coastal Heritage Society Executive Director Scott Smith. Contrary to popular opinion, he says, most visitors to Savannah are not families with children.

“Actually, the largest component of local tourism is adults in their 50s, who tend to look for a lot of intellectual stimulation,” Smith says. “The key to this project’s success is developing facilities that contribute to each other, but each having its own particular draw.”

Battlefield Park will not reach fruition through the siege site alone. Smith says there are additional plans for many of the huge industrial buildings behind the old Roundhouse.

One building, formerly a railroad Coach Shop, is slated to house the remains of the CSS Georgia, if and when the Confederate ironclad is recovered from its resting place in the Savannah River.

The railroad complex’s massive Carpentry Shop, now without a roof or flooring, will house the official state railroad museum.

Scott Smith says there is discussion of a youth-oriented museum in the complex’s old Paint Shop as well, to offer a draw to the large amount of school groups that travel to Savannah.

“Right now we don’t know if it would be a science-based technology education facility, or a more humanities-based one,” he says.

Funding for Battlefield Park has come from a myriad of sources. State Senator Eric Johnson helped to secure $9 million of state funding; the city of Savannah has pledged $8 million; and some federal funding is involved also.

The Siege of Savannah itself didn’t last very long. French and Colonial troops, supported by a contingent of free Haitians, wanted to attack in the pre-dawn hours. But the swampy terrain held them up and disorganized their ranks.

By the time the French had formed up, the British knew the attack was coming and were ready for the fight.

“As the French marched through the swamp, they heard a single bagpipe playing,” says reenactor Mike Vaquer, dressed as a French officer at last week’s press conference.

“That’s when they knew the 71st Highlander Regiment was there,” he says, referring to a crack regiment of Scottish troops known for their fierce fighting.

On top of that, the Highlander piper was playing a French song.

“You’re marching into battle, and you hear the enemy playing one of your songs?” laughs reenactor James Burns, portraying a member of the British militia. “Yeah, I think I’d be pretty scared too.”

The Highlanders were supported by British regular troops and militia, as well as Loyalist colonial fighters. There was a contingent of Royal Marines and even some British sailors behind the redoubt’s six-foot walls.

The French couldn’t attack from the river, because two British warships were anchored there. Their only choice -- a frontal assault over a half-mile front -- would prove disastrous. Despite a series of feints at different areas of the city to draw off British defenders, the assault -- late and poorly executed -- was repulsed by the defenders.

“The French and their allies lost about 800 killed and wounded,” Vaquer says. “The British only lost 56 troops.”

Among the dead was Count Casimir Pulaski, a Polish nobleman killed in the frontal assault on the redoubt. A fort and a square, among many other local institutions -- are named after the brave fighter who gave his life in the pursuit of American freedom.