What Can Volunteer Activity Do?   If You’re At Cedar Creek In Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, A Lot. 

Photograph by Gary Rinkerman

Imagine cannons booming, mounted cavalry clashing, and infantry blazing away with muskets as they maneuver for  battlefield position, clash, surge forward or are driven back. You might be able to see something similar on a cinema screen – but there is no stage, cinema or other entertainment platform that can substitute for live action on a key battlefield that helped shape the history of our country.  So, it is possible that you might be able to witness or even participate in such a presentation?  Surprisingly, the answer is “yes.” Even more surprising is that there are thousands of actors – also called “reenactors” or “living history presenters” – who endure sometimes severe conditions to present this important spectacle at their own cost and for the benefit of land preservation, education, and sheer entertainment. This all takes place each year in Middletown, Virginia on a preserved portion of the battlefield over which the October 19, 1864 Battle of Cedar Creek was fought.

To understand the modern history that led to the large-scale reenactment, we have to travel back to 1988 when less than a dozen concerned citizens saw potentially encroaching land development and industrial activities in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley.  This group banded together to form The Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation, the goal being to preserve as much of the Cedar Creek battlefield as possible and to engage in educational activities that help to preserve the memory of what happened on this critical piece of land.  Today, the Foundation still operates on its original premise and mission – and it is still directed by a board of volunteer citizens.   

“A lot of people are amazed at what a small group of dedicated volunteers can achieve,” explained Jeanette Shaffer, President of the Foundation. “We’ve preserved over 350 acres of battlefield land, built a Visitors Center and museum, and created a variety of educational resources and events, the annual reenactment being the sort of  the ‘jewel in the crown.’  Our annual reenactments have actually received favorable notice by the U.S. Congress.  This has all been done through public donations of time, materials, and funds.  We still rely on public donations.  We want to ensure that the Foundation remains true to its mission of public service and public participation.”

This year’s reenactment of the Battle of Cedar Creek will take place over the weekend of October 19-20.  On Saturday, Confederate General Jubal Early’s devastating morning surprise attack will be presented.  The attack resulted in vicious fighting that is among some of the most dramatic of the Civil War.  On Sunday, Union General Phil Sheridan’s determined and equally devastating counterattack will be presented.  Some of the fighting on each day will take place on the ground over which the original fighting took place.  Each day will also feature lectures, displays, demonstrations, camp tours, and sutler’s offerings of products, books, clothing,  music and other Civil War related items.

“Our visitors are amazed when they witness the scope of the battle and understand its significance,” Gary Rinkerman, the Foundation’s Vice President explained.  “The actual battle took place over an area that is larger than the Gettysburg battlefield.  It also took place along the Valley Pike, a route Native Americans called ‘The Great Warriors’ Path.’   Like our Civil War armies, a variety of tribes also fought determined battles along the Pike as they hunted, raided and conducted trade along a path that stretched north toward what is now Canada and down to what is now Georgia and the Carolinas.  History was simply repeating itself at the Battle of Cedar Creek, as it did at Gettysburg  – which was built on the intersection of a number of Native American war, commerce and hunting trails.  Some people like to start their journey through history at the Battle of Cedar Creek reenactment, but then they also begin to discover other details and nuances of our American history.  A lot of people return each year for the Cedar Creek reenactment, but they also come back during the rest of the year to experience our museum and other events, all within the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley and its rich history.”

The Battle of Cedar Creek was one of those life-and-death struggles between two fierce and well-seasoned armies. The result opened the Valley to Union dominance, deprived Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Richmond, the Confederate Capital, of valuable resources, and helped get Lincoln reelected as his administration reeled from setbacks on other fronts.  The ferocity of the fighting is highlighted by the fact that twenty-one Union combatants were awarded the Medal of Honor for their bravery and decisive actions at the Battle of Cedar Creek.  The stakes, and the see-saw nature of the battle, required such valor and determination. 

The mountains and fields are largely silent now, but you can come and hear the guns blaze, feel the earth shake, and watch the armies engage once again this October 19 and 20.   You shouldn’t miss it.  But if you have to be somewhere else, you can still support the Foundation’s operations as well as its ongoing efforts to acquire and preserve more land that has both scenic beauty and immense historical significance.  Your donation will go directly to preservation and education activities.  There are no layers of bureaucracy, contractors, public relations departments, or temporary agendas.  The Foundation started as, and remains, a citizen-volunteer team effort that has attracted participants and donors from across the country and from as far away as Canada, Europe, and Australia.  The National Park Service operates in the region, but the Foundation has remained separate and independent.  It is not controlled, managed or funded by the Park Service or any government entity.  This allows it to remain free of what can be transitory political policies and agendas.  It has one core focus to which it has remained true. It relies on, and it remains the embodiment of, independent citizen initiative, volunteer service, and direct support from interested members of the public.  Anyone who appreciates the study and presentation of history as well as land preservation  – or just wants to get away for a weekend of unique education and entertainment  – should consider the reenactment and the Foundation. 

You can find out more at the Foundation’s website: https://ccbf.us/.  

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