Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Civil War Under the Stars and much more in Spotsylvania May 21-22

By Gwen Woolf

SPOTSYLVANIA VA — Beans and cornbread on a tin plate, anyone? How about dancing the Virginia Reel, watching cannon fire brighten the night sky, or touring a Civil War camp by candlelight and listening to soldiers’ campfire tales?

Visitors will get a different experience at the Saturday, May 21, “Civil War Under the Stars” program, part of the Battle of Spotsylvania’s 147th anniversary weekend observance. The evening offerings include the 2nd South Carolina String Band, period dancers, and a cavalry demonstration with up to 50 horses. Advance tickets are required for this special 4-9 p.m. event, which is limited to 500 spectators.

On Sunday, May 22, the gate will be open to everyone from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., with the battle at 1 p.m. The weekend events are expected to draw up to 8,000 spectators, says Spotsylvania Visitor Center Supervisor Debbie Aylor. Co-sponsored by the County of Spotsylvania and Longstreet’s Corps, the reenactment is being held for the second year at Spotsylvania Courthouse Village at State Routes 208 and 613, 60 miles south of Washington. The property is near the 1839 courthouse, which figured in the battle, and the famous Bloody Angle.

Besides the combat, a special emphasis is being put on the family experience.

Last year's Spotsylvania reenactment held kids' attention.
A month before the reenactment, children can whet their appetites at an April 22 Kids Camp. They’ll learn what it was like to be a soldier, whether in battle, espionage or “downtime.” They’ll also learn about the home front, women’s roles, cooking, basket weaving, and writing with a quill; letters can be picked up at mail call. (Registration:

On reenactment day, more in-depth presentations will appeal to the whole family. Talks about camp and civilian life and the African-American experience will broaden the public’s perspective. Among topics are 19th-century clothing and Underground Railroad quilts with escape-route codes. U.S. Colored Troops reenactors, several of whom witnessed the filming of “Glory,” the 1989 movie about a Union all-black volunteer regiment, will be present.

Visitors can tour the camps and interact with the soldiers, sutlers, and family members of Longstreet’s Corps. Also on tap are exhibits, battle talks by historians, a nondenominational worship service, and a special cannon salute for U.S. military veterans.

K.C. Meadows of Longstreet’s Corps expects up to 1,000 East Coast reenactors, including infantry, artillery, and cavalry units, to participate. Directed by Confederate commander (and overall commander) Dave Cornett and Federal commander Tony Daniels, the reenactment will focus on the battle’s Harris Farm engagement. After a fierce skirmish, the Federals were driven back by Confederate artillery. The action cost the life of Corps Commander John Sedgwick, the war’s highest-ranking Union casualty.

Spotsylvania, located between the opposing capitals of Washington and Richmond, was geographically important. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s and Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s 152,000 troops locked horns May 8-21, 1864, following the Battle of the Wilderness. Though there was no clear winner at Spotsylvania, the brutal collision left 30,000 casualties. Grant made a crucial decision at this point, choosing to press on to the south — and ultimately Richmond. The Union would win the war 11 months later at Appomattox.

“Spotsylvania was the clearest of all signals that the war had changed, that Grant would not accept stalemate as a verdict, and that it would be carried forth to its brutal end,” says John Hennessy, chief historian of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

Meadows agrees that Spotsylvania was “one of the crucial battles in the Overland Campaign. It showed Lee that Grant was going to stay in his face.”

Putting on a reenactment takes a tremendous effort, says Meadows, but “if you ever walk over a site and see a kid with his eyes as big as plates, it’s worth it.”

For ticket information and details, visit