In 1988, a group of concerned citizens in the northern part of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley came together for a common cause. They recognized the need to preserve, and make available for public access, land over which the October 19, 1894 Battle of Cedar Creek raged. This fiercely fought battle finally wrested control of the Shenandoah Valley – and its abundant resources – from the Confederate government. The new dominance of Union forces cut off critical supplies to Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and further pushed the Confederate capitol of Richmond toward collapse. Some historians also believe that Union General Sheridan’s victory over Confederate General Jubal Early at Cedar Creek helped Lincoln’s reelection effort. It was Early who won a victory at the July 9, 1864 Battle of Monocacy, Maryland, and then threatened Washington’s defensive lines. It was also Early who helped put in motion the Confederate raiders who, on July 30, 1864, burned a substantial part of the town of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania to the ground – making many Pennsylvanians homeless, far north of Lincoln’s White House. At this stage of the war, this was an embarrassment to Lincoln and a potential sign that control of the war was beyond his capabilities.
The small group of Virginia citizens from the Shenandoah Valley created the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation in 1988 as an entirely private 501(c)3 nonprofit. It operates out of its headquarters at 8437 Valley Pike in Middletown, Virginia where it also runs a Visitors Center and Museum. The foundation has so far acquired and preserved over 350 acres of critical battlefield land – all through donations and the hard work of volunteers. In addition to acquiring more land that is in danger of being lost forever to commercial development, the Foundation’s latest project is the preservation and restoration of the Heater House, an 18th-centruy homestead that stood at the vortex of the battle and miraculously survived. Also, one of the most unique aspects of the Foundation is that it presents relatively large-scale reenactments of the Battle of Cedar Creek in October of each year, along with another selected Civil War battle. The extraordinary educational and cultural value of the Foundation’s reenactments has been recognized by Congress and by the multitudes of reenactors and spectators that come to the reenactment events.
Gary Rinkerman, Vice President of the Foundation and the narrator for each of the reenactments described the activities as follows: “We really strive to present a unique experience as hundreds of reenactors recreate the battle on the actual ground over which important parts of the Battle of Cedar Creek were fought. We’ve had people from all over the United States, Canada, and from as far as Australia, France, England, and Dubai visit us to witness the reenactments and, in some cases, to actually participate in them. Our visitors and reenactors do this because they recognize the worldwide importance of the battles and the direct impacts they had in the United States, in Canada, and also in Europe – which, at various points in the war, threatened to turn our Civil War into an international conflict. The battles had and continue to have important impacts on American and world history – and on the shaping of the character and culture of the American people. These battles made us who we are today, whether your family has been here for generations or you just arrived to participate in the American experience. We really want to preserve these cultural and historic resources, but just as importantly, we want future generations to understand what happened here and why. Books, films, and the internet are valuable purveyors of knowledge, but there is no substitute for standing on the battlefield and witnessing the clashes of cavalry, the collisions of the infantry, and the boom of the cannons. In some ways, we’ve been doing 360 virtual reality for decades.”
Jeannette Shaffer, President of the Foundation, added, “The Foundation is a great example of citizens volunteers coming together to provide a public service. We depend on the support of the people, not any particular government entity. The entire Board of Directors consists of volunteers. Every penny donated to the Foundation or raised through our activities goes directly to land acquisition, preservation and education. We have lots of events, but the reenactments are by far the largest. The reenactors are really a precious resource and we want to ensure the continuation of that important style of presenting history. We don’t want people to lose this unique and valuable tradition. It all begins with acquiring and protecting the land. But that’s only the first part. We want people to be able to come as close as possible to experiencing what a Civil War battle was like. Sometimes, you can actually feel the ground shake when the cannons are fired.”
This year the reenactments will occur on Saturday, October 21st and Sunday, October 22nd. On the 21st the 1862 Battle of Cedar Mountain will be recreated. The battle of Cedar Mountain was selected because it was a pivotal engagement that led to Union General Pope’s defeat at the Battle of Second Manassas and the bloodiest day of the Civil War at the Battle of Antietam. On Sunday, October 22nd, the Battle of Cedar Creek will be presented.
“We like to present something new each year,” Jeannette said. “So, if you saw any previous reenactments, the current one might bring new insights and perspectives to light. We do this through the scripts for troop movements in the reenactments and through changes in the narrations. Of course, the main movements and the results stay the same, but each year certain nuances might be brought into focus. This year, Gary really pushed for cavalry to have a very significant role in the presentations, along with the hundreds of infantry participants and the artillery. You can find the schedule and the location of events on the CCBF website. If the hotels near the Cedar Creek Battlefield are full, the hotels in Winchester and Front Royal are pretty close. Along with the reenactments, there are also lectures, demonstrations, sutlers for shopping opportunities, food, and an amazing chance to experience Shenandoah Valley culture and hospitality. We hope people will visit us to experience these unique presentations of history and the community spirit of public service. Everyone who pays the admission to the events, volunteers or participates in the reenactments helps us to continue in our efforts.”
“That’s absolutely true,” Gary added. “Also, the reenactments distill dozens of general movements and thousands of individual actions into a narrated ninety minutes of a reenacted battle. Like scriptwriters and playwrights, we need to create an engaging presentation, but we also have to consider the logistics of actual troop movements, barrages of cannon fire, and clashing horsemen, with sabers drawn. It’s true that I pushed for a bit more cavalry involvement in this year’s presentations. Union General Phil Sheridan was a master when it came to use of cavalry as a real-time battlefield asset. This was part of the Union’s final dominance at the Battle of Cedar Creek. The reenactors demonstrate that and the spectators get a good insight into the coordinated use of infantry, artillery, and cavalry. Also, sometimes people forget that General George Custer was an amazing cavalry commander during the Civil War. He appears at the Battle of Cedar Creek, along with Wesley Merritt, and the result was catastrophic for Jubal Early’s Confederate army. But, honestly, we also respect and honor the combatants and how they came back together after the war to help rebuild the country and support its new vision. There were over 100,000 Confederate troops still in the field under other commanders when Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox. It didn’t have to be over.”
Unlike other organizations, the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation has maintained its independence from the National Park Service and has relied chiefly on its Board and contributions from donors who recognize the value of the Foundation’s work. The reenactors are also a key resource as they travel, sometimes hundreds of miles, to participate in the events and support the Foundation’s preservation and educational activities.
“We generally work very well in coordination with the National Park Service,” Jeannette said, “but our independence gives us options that might not otherwise be present inside a federal structure. We try to interpret and present history with as much detail and objectivity as possible. Our reenactors and audiences appreciate that. They bring a lot of patriotism, intelligence, passion and common sense to the events, to the Visitor’s Center, to our Museum, and to our preservation and educational efforts.”
“I’d like to elaborate a bit on Jeannette’s mention of the reenactors,” Gary said. “They are, in a very real sense, amazing actors and educators who place themselves in character and spend their own money on travel, uniforms and equipment. They also endure conditions that are as close as practicable to those experienced by Civil War combatants. They deal with sometimes grueling outdoor conditions and spend their nights in period-correct tents. Their efforts take a lot of toughness, heart and dedication. I’m thinking of inviting some Hollywood film actors or New York Stage actors to participate, but I’m not sure they could accept the routine challenges of reenacting, and I’m absolutely sure we couldn’t afford them. But if, for example, Johnny Depp is looking for work and is up for a bit of volunteer, anonymous pro bono acting, we’re open to considering the possibilities. But seriously, we don’t expect any celebrities to participate. Our goals are simply public service, education, and outreach.”
“We encourage everyone to look into the Foundation’s activities,” Jeannette added. “We also encourage people living in other areas of the country to make every effort possible to preserve historic land and landmarks. We favor education, not eradication. To be clear, we’ve never been against reasonable, well-managed development. We just don’t think we need to sacrifice historic lands and resources to achieve it.”
For those interested in supporting this unique foundation you can contact the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation through its website at https://ccbf.us/.