Seeking Living History
The Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania National Park Service recently hosted a living history event, commemorating the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse during the Civil War. The NPS does a great job offering different events, for all types of interests, at all of the parks. Although the heat out here is horrrrrendous, the events are usually free, so dealing with the heat is a small price to pay to take advantage of the great events that the NPS has to offer.
I have really tried to attend as many of the Civil War events as possible because there weren’t too many to attend back home. In California, the Spanish colonization, the Gold Rush, and the Wild West are more a part of the historical fabric than the Civil War. Not only that, but the NPS parks in Southern California are in super-touristy areas and are usually ridiculously crowded. I have seriously been coveting the open space here in Virginia.
People have asked me why I have taken such an interest in the Civil War events here and I think it’s a fair question to ask. I think that history is an important aspect to all cultures. It’s important to keep it alive so that we can learn and grow from it. Not only that, but experiencing events in the place that it actually occurred has a completely different feel than watching it in a video or reading a book. I’ve always been a big proponent for getting out there and living life!
The Battle of New Market
A few months ago, we attended a reenactment of the battle of New Market. It was a private event, so it had a very different vibe. There was an entry fee, which was fine; but there didn’t seem to be a lot of information at the event itself. Once you paid your fee and parked, you either knew where to go or you tried your best to figure it out. One of the perks was that there were a lot of re-enactors there, which gave the spectator a more realistic demonstration.
The parking area was right next to the Confederate campsite, so we ambled through, snapping pics and taking video. I was hoping that I’d be able to talk to people, in preparation for this article, but people seemed entirely uninterested in conversing. We had no idea what the protocol was of talking to the people in the camps, or if there was even a protocol at all, so we mostly kept to ourselves as to not bother anyone.
The “battle” was supposed to take place over 2 days, mimicking the actual battle. The battlefield is huge and there wasn’t any signage to indicate where anything was going to be taking place. The heat was really ramping up as the afternoon wore on. Between the heat and not knowing where to go, I was a little irritable. I wanted to plop down in the middle of one of the fields because there was no one there to tell me that I couldn’t. Instead I decided to ask a random person walking by if he knew where the battle was going to happen. He gave me a brief rundown and basically told me that the battle started wayyyyyyy over yonder (translation: super far from where I was) and it would last throughout the weekend.
After finally finding the spectator area, we waited….. and waited….. The start time kept getting pushed back because the re-enactors were falling out with heat exhaustion. Unfortunately the only communication was through a horrible PA system that was extremely difficult to understand. We ended up leaving before the battle actually moved into our plane of view because the heat was entirely unbearable. The only shots I was able to get was of the Artillery, and the Federal Army marching past. There wasn’t a lot of knowledge to be gained; you either knew, or you didn’t. We found that to be another difference between a private event and an NPS event.
At the entrance to the Spotsylvania Battlefield, the NPS had a welcome booth with event info, as well a cluster of living historians in various booths. There were seamstresses, gunsmiths, an apothecary, and several others. It was interesting to see something other than the period soldiers. The gunsmiths provided a very thorough and interactive presentation about the weaponry from that time. They were so interesting that we didn’t even realize how much time had passed. We got so wrapped up with the people and the displays that we had to hurry over to the battlefield.
Luckily we were able to get over to the exhibition area pretty quickly. The battlefield is rather large, but it was just a quick car ride to the location. The NPS had 2 different demonstrations throughout each day of the weekend. Each demonstration took place at a different section of the battlefield. Due to the heat, we decided to only view the demonstration at the Bloody Angle.
We walked up as the the Park Rangers were starting to explain the timeline of the battle. As the Park Ranger’s were explaining it, the soldiers demonstrated it. The contingent of Federal and Confederate soldiers was not as large as it had been at the New Market event. That is probably the only downside to the NPS event, they limit the amount of participants. It’s a little bit more difficult to understand the magnitude of the battle. At the end of the battle demonstration all of the soldiers lined up and let off several volleys of shots. The Rangers explained that the actual battle was deafening and they wanted to give the spectators an idea of the volume of shots that occurred. Obviously the demonstration only lasted a few minutes, but it gave us a good idea of what it would sound like for hours.
The NPS had a really neat way for the audience to interact with the soldiers. The Park Rangers offered a card with a soldiers name and other pertinent information to whoever wanted one. At the conclusion of the demonstration, the spectators were invited to try to find which of the soldiers was on their card. I didn’t get a chance to get a card, but I saw quite a few people take advantage of the opportunity. It was definitely a really neat way to encourage learning and dialog.
After the battle demonstration, we wandered over to the Federal encampment and took a look at the different displays, including General Grant’s Headquarters and sleeping area. The gentleman that portrays General Grant has several authentic items that he displays at all of the different living history events. The encampment was very militaristic, exactly what it would’ve been for the soldiers camped there. According to one of the soldiers we spoke with, they all sleep there throughout the event.
So Much More… Final Thoughts
Each of the events that I’ve attended has different aspects that I enjoyed, and some that I didn’t. I know from experience that putting together an event, on any scale, is a tremendous undertaking. The amount of activities is plentiful, so I will definitely attempt to attend as many as possible.
I took so many photos, too many to include in this article. If you’d like to see more, you can take a look at my Instagram, I have quite a few posted there. I am also working on a video of the event, hopefully that will be complete soon! As always, thank you so much for following along on my adventures and I look forward to reading your feedback.
Until the next Adventure,