Their claim to the land predates the American Revolution, and yet their parents and grandparents gave up their plots — some willingly, some not so willingly — for the sake of the nation when then-Camp Stewart was established in 1940, just in time to help prepare the Army for World War II.
On Wednesday, family members descended from the Martins, Downs, Slaters, Clantons, Driggers, Shumans, Lovettes, Bells, Mays and Speirs — to name a few — who now are living in communities surrounding Fort Stewart, took part in a semiannual historic site and cemetery tour sponsored by Fort Stewart’s Historic Communities Council, Public Affairs Office and the Cultural Resources Management, Prevention and Compliance Branch of the Directorate of Public Works’ Environmental Division.
“How many of y’all are taking this tour for the first time?” asked Pat Young, community relations officer and retired Fort Stewart soldier from Mississippi. “There are more than 5,000 historic sites on Fort Stewart and 60 of them are cemeteries. Today, we’re going to visit Irene Driggers Cemetery and Little Creek Baptist Church Cemetery, and y’all are going to visit a battlefield simulator so you can see how (Fort Stewart) is being good stewards of your families’ lands by keeping actual training to a minimum while providing jobs for the community.”
Young said the battlefield simulator lets soldiers train in a virtual world using simulated equipment and real-world tactics. The virtual terrain is designed to be as close as possible to what soldiers might encounter in the line of duty. Computer-simulated training saves wear on the environment from heavy track vehicles like the Abrams tank or Bradley Fighting Vehicle and costs less than live-firing these weapon systems, he said.
At the complex, tour guests first were met by MTC Director Andrew Felton, who told them how battlefield simulation saves the Army money and lives. The large group then was divided with half going to the Close Combat Tactical Trainer, where they were met by Jeff Field, computer-based training specialist for the CCTT, and half going to a battlefield simulation station.
“There is no substitution for live training,” Field said. “No simulator can replace the real thing — real bullets flying down range. But even though what we’ve got here is not real, it is realistic, and what we have is well ahead of what other countries have.”
Following the battlefield simulator, the tour left for Irene Driggers Cemetery, located off Ga. Highway 144. Young and local resident Wyman May told separate anecdotes about the cemetery and the people who lived in the community.
“After the Civil War, a lot of people came here from North Carolina and set up turpentine stills,” May told them as Young jokingly interjected there probably were a few moonshine stills in the area as well. “Most of the people were farmers but some worked with the timber companies’ turpentine companies.”
“Taylors Creek and Pleasant Grove, a nearby community of former slaves, had over 2,000 people living there,” Young said. “The people who lived in these towns were given fair market value for their land, which had been in some families since the 1760s. They got $5 an acre. The Army tries to get along better with the communities surrounding its bases now. Here at Fort Stewart, we work hard to better relations with the community, especially families that lost land so this base could be built so we could win World War II.”
Tour attendees shared anecdotal information during lunch at the new 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team dining facility and at the next cemetery on the tour, Little Creek Baptist Church Cemetery.
As she displayed a black and white photo of the old church while tour guests gathered around her, Richmond Hill resident Judy Harrison found Pembroke resident Earline Geiger interjecting tidbits of personal history about the church and relatives interred in the cemetery. The ladies soon realized they were related.
“We share the same great-great-grandfather,” Harrison later explained. “I sort of knew of Earline through information I’d read on the Internet, but I’d never met her. We’re probably third cousins, I guess.”
Young repeated throughout the tour how family members were welcome to visit their family gravesites and make use of Fort Stewart’s hunting and fishing resources. He invited everyone to attend the next historic site and cemetery tour in the spring.