As I sit here and write, I begin to reflect on the sesquicentennial events that took place at the park last weekend. After months of planning, weeks of stress, and days of going over logistics, the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Cedar Creek came and went. The three days of programing I took part in where long and exhausting. But, they were worth every minute of it. Visitors were excited, passionate, and thankful for everything the park did. The following is a reflection of this once and a life time opportunity.
It all began about this time last year, after the 149th Anniversary of the Battle of Cedar Creek. I and the rest of the staff at the park began the arduous journey of planning for events to commemorate the 150th Anniversary. During the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the National Park Service actively commemorates the anniversary. This includes guest speakers, special programs, events, and ceremonies. Programs were spearheaded in 2011 at Manassas National Battlefield, continued through 2013 at Gettysburg, and opened up 2014 at the Wilderness. Events have been widely attended by the public. Locals and travelers alike flock the these events in the thousands .With all the precedent up to 2014, we had our work cut out for us.
When we began our brainstorming, we all agreed that we needed to conduct “Real-Time” programs. These ranger led interpretative programs take visitors through the battlefield exactly 150 years to the hour after the battle occurred. We planned on conducting Ranger programs from 5:00 a.m. through the day, concluding at 7:00 p.m. We also stepped up and lead various 150th real time events in the Valley leading up to Cedar Creek. This included The Battle of Piedmont, Cool Springs, Rutherford’s Farm, and Third Winchester. Read about my experience at Second Kernstown. For the commemorative weekend in October we planned: specialized battlefield tours, battlefield stations, and new outreach programs.
One new outreach program conducted interpretation at Signal Knob. Signal Knob marks the northern most point on the Massanutten Mountain range. Before the Battle of Cedar Creek this summit was controlled by Confederate signal corps. On October 17th 1864, Confederate officers hiked to the station and saw the Union army around Belle Grove, and conceived their plan of attack for the Battle of Cedar Creek. There has never been NPS interpretation at this site before. Therefore, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of this Confederate reconnaissance mission, I prepared a program for Friday, October 17th. Designed as an interpretative hike, the program was advertised to the public to join I and NPS volunteers from 10-2 p.m. Due to safety concerns, this was not a ranger led hike because to reach the summit is nearly five miles up, and five miles down. I arrived at the summit before 10:00 a.m. and could not have asked for better weather. The view of the Valley floor was picturesque, and the colors of fall in the Valley provided a beautiful backdrop. Through out this four hour period I encountered roughly 80 visitors and conducted four interpretative programs. I oriented visitors to the Valley at large, pointed out certain landmarks, and interpreted the Confederate plan of attack as it was thought out exactly 150 years prior.
That same evening at 5:00 p.m. I met around 100 visitors at the battlefield for a tour of the Heater House. Entitled, “The Heater House: A House Divided,” I examine the story of the Heater House, its inhabitants, and its role during the Civil War.
This is one of my favorite programs to lead at the park, and was excited to see such a large group attend. Visitors asked great questions that serves as fuel for further research.. With Friday completed, I went home that night tired with a hoarse voice looking forward to the weekend.
On Saturday morning I was stationed at the 8th Vermont Monument. We greeted visitors as they drove through the battlefield, oriented them the site, and conducted informal interpretation. At 11:00 a.m. I led a formal tour of nearly 60 visitors. We talked about who the 8th Vermont was, how they fit into the Battle of Cedar Creek, walked to the monument discussing their sacrificial stand. After lunch at 2:00 p.m., I led a two hour car caravan tour through the battlefield examining the role cavalry played during the Battle of Cedar Creek. This was a highlights tour that brought visitors off the beaten path. We started out at the Visitor Contact Station, traveled to Hites Chapel to discuss the opening sounds of battle. The third stop was along Westernview Drive, where Custer’s Third Division made their famous charge. The last stop was on a farm owned by a local landowner known as Thorndale Farm.
The farm marked the center of Merritt’s First Division of cavalry, and around this spot was where Col. Charles Russell Lowell was mortally wounded. It was a pleasure to see 70 visitors attend this never before done tour. I concluded my day attending the official 150th Commemoration Ceremony at Belle Grove Plantation.
During the night of October 18th-19th, I barely got sleep. I could not stop tossing and turning through out the night thinking about the events the next morning. I arrived at the park at 5:00 a.m. for my first of four “Real-Time” programs. At 6:00 a.m., I led a group of nearly 100 visitors through the dark examining the Union 19th Corps earthworks. It was eerie to be on the same ground, in the pitch black, walking through the woods exactly 150 years after the Union catastrophe begun. Luckily no visitors tripped over roots and hurt themselves and we made it out unscathed.After seeing the sunrise around the 8th Vermont Monument and listening to Ranger Shannon’s interpretation there, I traveled to my next stop. From 8:20-8:50 a.m. cars gathered along modern day McCune Rd. in Middletown. From this position I interpreted the stand of two Union 6th Corps divisions.
One of the special parts of this stop was that it has never been interpreted by Cedar Creek and Belle Grove NHP before. I took great pride and honor in having this privileged. My stop ended with the reading of an account of a father from New York holding the brains of son in his lap, as he was shot clear through the head during this part of the morning. The young man is buried in Winchester and I hope to see it soon. This concluded my role during the morning portion of the tours.
The afternoon “Real-Time” programs kicked off with my tour at Hites Chapel at 2:00 p.m. We discussed the role of Union cavalry in the early part of the Union counterattack. I then had a break until my final program of the weekend. At 4:00 p.m. I led a program discussing the Union counter attack. In an attempt to incorporate my audience, I placed ropes and wooden houses on the ground to represent that part of the battlefield. I then gathered about 20 volunteers to stand in lines on the map representing Union and Confederate battle lines. This went well as visitors visualized the Union offensive. Nearly 100 visitors attended this program.
Even though this was my last program, there were two other programs that evening. The tours conclude at St. Thomas Church in Middletown, with a powerful interpretation of the Confederate rout, and impact of the battle by Ranger Jeff Dricscoll.
This experience was easily the highlight of my professional career at the park. After months of planning, researching, and stressful days, everything went as planned. We received numerous compliments from visitors on our successes. I would like to personally thank anyone reading this who came out to make this weekend something special. I am speaking for my comrades, when I say that if it was a privilege for us to experience this 150th Anniversary with you. I would also like to thank all our volunteers and the numerous NPS Rangers who traveled to the park. Rangers from Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP, Gettysburg NMP, Richmond NBP, George Washington National Birthplace, and the NPS Social Media team.
As we move past the 150th, we are left with a feeling of accomplishment and relief. But the big question is now what? Stay tuned as we gear up more interpretation, research new ideas, and attempt to shed light on the many levels of the Shenandoah Valley’s diverse history.