Tag Archives: Shenandoah Valley

19th Century Virginia Homebrew?

Recently I have been completing research for an upcoming History at Sunset Program at the park. During the last week or so I have been combing through available transcribed letters written by Isaac Hite Jr. and others related to the plantation. The letters reveal numerous aspects of everyday life on the plantation. They also allow historians insight into the various business endeavors of Hite and Belle Grove Plantation. As any successful business owner, Hite kept meticulous records of his goods being shipped and sold to market. Most of his flour and grain was shipped to Alexandria. Once there, certain merchants would hold and sell his goods locally and across the Atlantic. During my review of these letters I came across a certain letter of interest.

The letter is dated February 3rd, 1806 and written by one William Hay to Isaac Hite Jr. Hay was one of Hite’s legal advisers and close friends of the time. The letter is a short two paragraph letter. The first paragraph deals with Hay telling Hite about the happenings in his family at the time. He wrote in part, “The family is well and Polly begins to suffer by a comparison with Ann’s daughter.”

The gold of this letter is in the second paragraph. The whole second paragraph deals with Hay sending Hite beer, in the nature of three barrels of porter. Hay apologizes that he cannot send the beer in bottles when he wrote, “sorry that I cannot send you porter in bottles.” This is the only recorded evidence of beer being on Belle Grove’s property. Hite was known for making whisky in his distillery on site, and shipping in large quantities of wine regurarly.

What I find interesting is the comparison between the modern craft beer movement and this letter. Personally I love beer, all types of beer. Trying new beer and comparing them to others is a great pastime of mine. I recently have dabbled in homebrewing. One of the themes of this new craft beer/homebrew movement is people being highly particular about how the beer is made, served, and stored. What is interesting is that in the letter of note, Hay spends the rest of the letter describing how the porter should be stored and consumed:

“I know Mrs. Hite is a good housewife and will take a pleasure in having it bottled as soon as it settles. Let the bottles be make perfectly clean and dry and when it is well corked, lay it away on its side. In about a fortnight it will be rife and by this means you will drink Porter much cheaper than usual. If you are inclined, you may use it from the cask, but take care when you draw any that the vent hole is immediately shut [so] that the beer may not loose its air. My best respects to the Family.”

These instructions are eerily similar to that of a modern day home brewing recipe! Both beer drinkers of today and in the early 19th century were concerned about how their beers will be bottled, and how long to store it. I find it interesting that the public sees history as foreign and distant. But I would argue, and this letter shows it, that we are more similar with our historical ancestors than we think.

Myself and my first batch of homebrewed beer earlier this year

Myself and my first batch of homebrewed beer earlier this year


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My Experience as an Undergraduate in History at James Madison University

This Saturday I will be graduating with a B.A. in History and Public History. The two years I have spent at JMU in the history department taught me crucial skills for my future academic and professional careers. Professors cared about the well being of their students and pushed them to succeed in numerous ways. When looking back I have been very successful during the last two years. I have presented papers at local and regional conferences, completed an Honors Thesis, accepted into graduate school, awarded scholarships, and excelled in my professional career. With that being said, I want to share some skills I have learned and that others may find useful.

1. Begin Research and the Writing Process Early 

In high school it was easy to write a paper the night before it was due and receive an adequate grade. Even during my time in community college I could get by leaving a term paper to the last two or three days before its due date. One thing I learned quickly at JMU is that in order to produce a well rounded and polished paper, research and writing needs to begin as soon as possible. One class, History 395 taught us history majors how to conduct proper historical research by using the vast amount of databases provided by the JMU Library. These databases proved immensely helpful in shaping an argument. Vice versa, the earlier the writing process begins the easier it is. This allows you to try out ideas, let them sit for a day or two and then reassess them. By writing early and often, the paper can be completed before the due date. This provides crucial time to edit and adjust the paper. As Ernest Hemmningway said, “the first draft of anything is shit,” Give your paper to your peers of professors and have them suggest changes.

2. Get to Know Your Adviser and Professors 

One reason I was successful during my time at JMU was because I got to know my adviser really well. First off, if you are assigned an adviser that does not mesh well with your interests, or personality, switch advisers as soon as possible. Advisers are there to help you, and if you do not feel comfortable approaching them or talking to them they will be no use. After two weeks at JMU I switched my adviser to Dr. Dillard. Dr. Dillard was amazing at guiding me through the academic process, suggesting possible graduate programs, and most importantly chaired the committee of my Honors Thesis. I know the hours of talking about my research and writing in his office will pay off in the long run. Outside of advisers, get to know the professors in your field. I got to know a number of public history professors very well at JMU. These relationships pay off huge dividends when it comes to writing recommendation letters, and forming professional networks after graduation. Having a close relationship with professors also makes you approachable to professors. This leads me to my next point.

3. Take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way 

The JMU history department has numerous opportunities outside of the classroom to excel. One way you get to know about these opportunities is by having close relationships with your professors. During my undergraduate career I presented papers locally in Virginia, and regionally at the CAA Conference of Undergraduate Research at Drexel University. I would not have known about these possibilities if it were not professors and my adviser suggesting that I submit my research. Take advantage of these opportunities. It may seem like a pain to give up a Saturday or a whole weekend to rub elbows with other academics at a conference. But these conferences provide crucial networking skills, build your resume, and help hone your public speaking skills.

Besides conferences take advantage of field work and field trips. Every semester I had to give up at least three Saturdays to travel to museums or complete archaeological field work. Again, it may seem like a pain to do so, but the ability to get hands on experience will pay off immensely in the long run. The same should be said about internships. Make the best out of them, and produce a tangible project at the end to add to your resume. Internships provide a way to form lasting relationships and this networking can help you once you graduate. Lastly, if you can join any honors society that you can, whether it is the history honors fraternity, Phi Alpha Theta or the national honors society, Phi Betta Kappa.

4. Utilize Out of Classroom Experience to Tailor your Academic Work 

I was fortunate enough that during my undergraduate career I was able to work professionally in the public history field. I continued by job with the National Park Service at Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park as I attended classes. Granted it was a lot of effort to balance life, work, and school work. But I learned crucial life skills having to balance these all at once. Having this experience in the field allowed me have one foot in the professional arena and one in the academic sphere. This created a symbiotic relationship where I was applying the skills I have learned professionally in my academic work, and using my new academic knowledge in a professional setting. What this led to is numerous research papers being based of questions I came up with at work. A great example of this is my Honors Thesis. Also being able to learn ideas about public history in the classroom and apply them to my professional career often in a matter of days reinforced many of the principles of museums and public history. This solidified many of the ideas quickly as I was able to apply them. Again I realize I am out of the norm having the ability to work with the NPS while being in school. But use your skills you have learned in school in your internship, or other part-time jobs you hold during school

Some may say that the JMU history department is not a top-tier program compared to UVA or William and Mary. Sure these have big reputations with larger than life faculty. But I argue it is not the program itself, but it is what you make out of it. The opportunities I was granted at JMU to excel were there, and I took advantage of them. Too often I see students doing the bare minimum and then complaining about their situation. Undergrad is only for four years (two for me). These years are crucial to developing the professional skills needed to succeed and networking for the future.


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2015 Colonial Academic Alliance Undergraduate Research Conference

In March 2015 I will present my original research synthesized in my B.A. Honor’s Thesis, Evaluating Contested Ground: Civil War Interpretation in the Shenandoah Valley at the annual CAA Undergraduate Research Conference.

The conference will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, on March 27-29, 2015.  I have been selected to represent JMU and give a poster presentation on my findings. Here is my abstract:

This research focuses on how three distinct Civil War sites in the Shenandoah Valley interpret the American Civil War. The Virginia Museum of the Civil War in New Market Virginia, the visitor center housed by the Kernstown Battlefield Association in Kernstown Virginia, and Harpers Ferry National Historical Park information center in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Each of these three organizations is administered by a different governing body ranging from the National Park Service to the State of Virginia, and lies in the geographical and cultural region of the Shenandoah Valley. Research is based off; interviews conducted with interpretative managers at each site, visual documentation of the physical exhibit space, and critical analysis of written rhetoric. Examination and evaluation reveal; the organizational structure of each site is reflected in their exhibits, interpretive endeavors fail to reach a suitable level of inclusiveness, and the need to reassess future interpretation.

I am looking forward to the opportunity to reach a wider audience, and share some of my findings.

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Reflections on Cedar Creek 150

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.

Signal Knob 2

Visitors hike to Signal Knob

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.

Leading visitors the Heater House

Leading visitors the Heater House

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.

Visitors at Thorndale Farm

Visitors at 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.

Visitors gather early on the morning of October 19th at McCune Rd.

Visitors gather early on the morning of October 19th at McCune Rd.

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.

Interpretation at Hites Chapel

Interpretation at Hites Chapel

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.

Images courtesy:



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Turner Ashby Monument Podcast Tour

One of my many projects this semester is to put together a podcast walking tour of something in Harrisonburg. I decided to look at the Turner Ashby Monument. For this project, we had to record ourselves for the podcast, do some research on the site, and find historical photographs. My goal in this project was to not narrate the biography of Turner Ashby. Rather, I wanted to examine the role the monument had within the U.D.C and the local community in the 20th century.

The first place I went for my research was JMU Special Collections. One of the collections they house are the local U.D.C. chapter papers. The Turner Ashby Chapter was the organization that erected the monument in 1898. The collection contained historical photographs, transcripts of speeches, and newspaper clippings to name a few. These documents aided in my ability to frame my historical argument. I also referenced a blog. In this entry from 2011, the blogger voices concern over the lack of attention JMU was giving to battlefield presentation.

You can visit the site and listen to my podcast here.

Read my take on Turner Ashby from last year here. 


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Address at the Funeral of Col. George Duncan Wells

One of the beauties of the internet is the ability to reference primary sources. Many primary sources have been digitized in recent years by Google, and other organizations. One website I often find myself on is archive.org . The amount of information easily available to a researcher is amazing.

I was doing research for the upcoming 150th events at the park next month. When doing so, I was researching the battle of Hupp’s Hill, which took place on October 13th, 1864. During the battle, a Union colonel was killed. Col. George Duncan Wells commanded the 34th Massachusetts infantry was killed during the fight. In an effort to find out some more information on him, I headed to Google. The first thing that came up in my search results for his name was a document on archive.org .

This document was entitled, “Address at the Funeral of Col. George Duncan Wells.” When I clicked the link here, I was brought to a page that displayed the document. Scanned digitally, the pamphlet was the ten page oration read at Col. Wells funeral. When the reader reads the oration, it is filled with terms such as sacrifice, bravery, honor, and courage. All terms used extensively to remember the dead of the war. What was interesting is that the date on the pamphlet. October 21st, 1864. This leads me to think a couple of things. First, Col. Wells was brought home to Massachusetts for burial only eight days after his death in Virginia. Secondly, he rapid transfer of his remain signifies his prominence in his community. I would like to do some more research on this matter.

Regardless, I am once again amazed by the amount of primary source information readily available via the internet. Who knows what I may uncover next. Click below to read the document for yourself.

Address at the funeral of Col. George Duncan Wells

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Summer 2014 in a Nutshell

Classes start in less than a week. As I gear up for the beginning of my senior year, I cannot believe how fast summer went by. With that being said, I would like to reflect on the past three and half months that was the summer 2014.

When the spring semester ended, I began my third year at Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park. With the sesquicentennial rapidly approaching the park this October, I am constantly engaged in the planning process, carrying out special programs and, conducting original research at the park. I worked on the park’s website, assisted with the park’s social media and worked with visitors. Above and beyond regular in park interpretative programs, there were numerous special programs and tours I led.

Presenting my lecture on Sheridan and Custer at Cedar Creek

Presenting my lecture on Sheridan and Custer at Cedar Creek

One of these was a two day experience with the Little Bighorn History Associates in June. This group of 150 is avid George Custer aficionados. Needless to say, they hold an annual conference traveling to Custer related sites. With this year being the sesquicentennial of the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, they made their base in Winchester. During their five day conference, they traveled to battlefields from Harpers Ferry to Toms Brook and Cedar Creek. I was responsible for leading bus tours for the group at Cedar Creek. I did original research at the park examining the role of George Custer and the Third Cavalry division at Cedar Creek. When they arrived I led two three hour bus tours of Cedar Creek, taking the group Custer related sites such as Hites Chapel. The following day, I presented a lecture focusing on Custer and Sheridan’s relationship at Cedar Creek. To practice my analytical and writing skills during the summer, I took all this information and produced a scholarly essay containing a historiographical footnote and annotated bibliography.

Another special program I conducted was part of the park’s History at Sunset Series. On July 11th, I presented “A House Divided: The Heater Farm at Cedar Creek.” I led visitors through parts of the battlefield not accessible on an everyday basis. We discussed the history of the Heater Farm, the Heaters during the Civil War and how the Battle of Cedar Creek was literally brought to their front door. It was nice to see some familiar faces and receive support from local constituents. I will be presenting this program again this fall, during the anniversary weekend on October 17th.

Visitors around the Heater House

Visitors around the Heater House

One of the most rewarding experiences of my summer took place on July 24th. On this day, I lead a group through the Kernstown battlefield exactly 150 years after the Second Battle of Kernstown. Part of the parks, “On This Day” tours, it was a privilege to represent the National Park Service. To read more about this click here.

In August I presented two lectures to the Village at Orchard Ridge Lutheran Community. I first spoke briefly on the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign leading up to the Battle of Cedar Creek. The second lecture focused on the Battle of Cedar Creek proper. Folks really seemed to enjoy it, and I even got a local history group interested in traveling to the park in the future for a tour of the battlefield.

Another great experience this summer was my short stint as a guest blogger and author on Emerging Civil War. Here, I authored numerous pieces on the summer campaign here in the Valley. I was able to practice my interpretative writing, and at the same time reach a larger audience outside of our park. To read my posts visit their site, or click here.

The 150th Anniversary of the fall Shenandoah Valley Campaign is right around the corner. As we near this, I am preparing numerous programs. First, I will be participating in the events commemorating the Third Battle of Winchester on Saturday, September 20th. I will be at the Third Winchester Battlefield interpreting and orienting visitors to the battle. For more information on these events click here, or contact me directly. On September 26th, I will be presenting a special History at Sunset at the park. During this program I will use my research from earlier in the summer to lead a tour focusing on George Custer at Cedar Creek.

Looking towards the 150th of Cedar Creek, my interpretative schedule has been set. On October 17th , I will be doing two special programs. First, during the day I will be at the summit of Signal Knob. On October 17th, 1864 Confederate officers trekked to Signal Knob to observe the Union Army. Exactly 150 years later, I will be in the same spot, interpreting the landscape and discussing how the Confederates conceived their plan of attack. That evening, I will be presenting my Heater House program again at 5:00pm.

View of the Cedar Creek Battlefield from Signal Knob

View of the Cedar Creek Battlefield from Signal Knob

Moving forward to Saturday, October 18th, the park will have battlefield stations throughout the battlefield interpreting key aspects of the battle. I will present programs during the morning hours. Later that day, from 2-4pm I will lead a car caravan tour focusing on the use of Cavalry at Cedar Creek. What I am really excited for however takes place the next morning on October 19th, the actual anniversary of the battle.

Starting at 5:00am on October 19th, the park will be conducting “real-time programs.” This will take visitors through the battlefield exactly 150 years later to the hour after the battle. These tours will start in the dark, and go all the way through the evening, concluding at 6:00pm. I am fortunate enough to have the privilege and amazing opportunity to be one of three rangers presenting these programs.

Stay tuned for the hour by hour schedule for the events taking place at the park from October 17th-20th. It will be available later this month, and I will make sure to post it.

Needless to say, I have been neck deep in research for all of these programs. With school right around the corner, the next two months are going to be busy to say the least. But, with this being the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War, I am privileged and excited to take part in this special time in our nation’s history.

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