Saturday, July 23, 2011

"110 Degrees And I Just Got Chills:" Some Thoughts On The Manassas Sesquicentennial Commemoration

The Stonewall Jackson Statue Atop Henry House Hill On The Morning Of July 21, 2011

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At one point early yesterday afternoon, I overheard the superintendent of Manassas National Battlefield Park tell one of the park's living history volunteers, clad in wool, that the National Weather Service stated that the past two days [July 21-22] were the two hottest consecutive days on the east coast since the 1920s.

. . .it certainly felt like it. The scorching temperatures and high humidity were the constant; the thread that ran through my two-and-a-half-day assignment at Manassas. Even at night there was no let-up. Leaving our shift on Thursday afternoon, Mannie noticed the temp was at a balmy 103 degrees, though the heat indices over the past two days climbed to near 120. It got so hot yesterday afternoon, that all afternoon outside programs were cancelled. I cannot even estimate how many gallons, yes, gallons of water and gatorade I drank, or how many times I soaked my handkerchief with cold water and placed it under my ranger hat. Within a matter of minutes each morning, sweat began to pour, and it continued to pour for the duration of our shifts. . .eleven hours Thursday, eight hours on Friday.

Still, despite all this. . .despite the heat, the humidity, and the sweat-soaked uniforms. . .I could think of nowhere else I would have rather been than on top of Henry House Hill on the 150th Anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas. It was a memorable experience and already ranks among the most rewarding of my short Park Service career.

Having left Bendersville around 1:00 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, my first stop was to pick up my colleague Mannie in Boonsboro. An hour and a half later, we arrived at Sudley Road. "It won't be long now," we thought, "we made some good time." Just a few miles south on Sudley Road, however, we ran into some traffic. . .and there we sat, twenty minutes to travel the final two miles. No bother. We knew it would be busy. Arriving about an hour before the staff briefing, we took some time to wander the fields surrounding the visitor center and to snap some photographs. I could not help but to think, "I am here, working for the park service on the 150th." It was a thought that stuck with me constantly over the next two days. Twenty-five years ago, had you told the seven-year-old me that I would be doing that, while I sat there reading the TimeLife Civil War series books or watching the Classic Images Production of the Manassas 125th Anniversary Reenactment, he never would have believed you.

After a forty-five minute meeting that lasted an hour and a half, we checked-in to our hotel then stepped out for a late bite to eat, which proved to be a bad idea for me, since it kept me awake until after midnight.

Four-and-a-half hours of sleep then it was up at 5:00; to my chagrin, the hotel's continental breakfast did not begin until 6:30. So it was off to the Manassas maintenance yard, where we reported for duty at 6:00 and where we received a ten-minute briefing, led by our friend and colleague Keith Snyder who was in charge of the Roving Interpretation for the event. I cannot thank Keith enough for assigning me to this duty; to be able to spend two days on Henry House Hill, roving between four interpretative stops, talking about the battle and its significance on the battle anniversary itself is something I will never forget.

The heat was already unbearable that early in the morning, but we stepped off and prepared for what promised to be a long, hot, but enjoyable and memorable day.

Rangers Keith and Mannie in the foreground and Ranger Brian in the back (a part of the Antietam contingent) are all smiles as the day began Thursday, July 21, 2011.

A photo of "Jackson's Line" at 6:30 a.m. 7/21/11. . .the temps were already in the low nineties

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Already the ground was alive with activity as the Park readied for the Commemoration Ceremony. Here, a camera man angles for the best shot.

Our first assignment was to greet visitors as they arrived and to direct them to their seats for the 9:00 a.m. ceremony. Many hundreds arrived, though I am sure the number would have been much, much higher had not the forecasted heat indices been in the triple-digits.

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Following the ceremony, most of the attendees returned to their vehicles, though the hardy remained. The afternoon walking tour program had nearly 300 in attendance, a remarkable number considering the heat. However, this is a once-in-a-lifetime event and, like me, those folks, dedicated students of the Civil War, would not have missed it.

For the duration of the day on Thursday and for eight hours on Friday, I had the great privilege of presenting informal interpretation to a number of park visitors. Strangely enough, even though it was hotter on Friday, there were actually more visitors and I made many more visitor contacts than on Thursday, the anniversary itself. I got to see some friendly faces, friends and fellow Civil War historians/enthusiasts. Robert Moore was there, as was Jared Frederick. I got a few minutes of conversation with John Hennessy from Fredericksburg, as well as Rob Schenk and Nicholas Redding from the Civil War Trust. I also had the great honor to work this event alongside some of the best the National Park Service has to offer including, of course, my interpretative colleagues at Antietam...Mannie, Keith Snyder, Brian Baracz, as well as Christie Stanczak and Christy Tew of Antietam's Education division, who did incredible work in preparing a Family/Youth Services tent with a myriad of excellent programs designed for children. I am sure that because of their efforts, many children walked away from this event with an increased interest in Civil War history. Who knows, but maybe a lifelong passion for some or many of these youngsters was triggered here.

In addition to Antietam, staff was brought in from throughout the region, and I had a great thrill to be able to work alongside the likes of Frank O'Reilly and Greg Mertz from Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania, and Matt and Angie Atkinson from Gettysburg, all superb interpreters. It was further an honor to work, if just for a few days, along Manassas' outstanding staff.

Gettysburg's Matt Atkinson providing some "informal" interpretation to a group on the Henry House Hill Overlook. Mannie and I stood there, captivated, by Matt's great interpretative skills.

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Our assignment came to an end Friday afternoon at 2:00p.m. Ninety minutes later, we were back on the road, heading home after an incredible two-and-a-half days at Manassas. I will long remember the privilege I had to work at Manassas for part of its Sesquicentennial Commemoration, but a few things will stick out above the rest. I'll remember turning away from the Ceremony for a few moments with Keith to gaze toward Matthews' Hill around 10:30 a.m., both of us visualizing that it was there, on that hilltop, 150 years ago to the hour that the first major land battle of the Civil War commenced. I'll remember looking around and seeing dedicated visitors, braving the heat, to help commemorate the battle's anniversary and honor the battle's dead. But perhaps most of all, I will remember the comment a visitor made to me late Friday morning. Having begun the day at 8:00 a.m. and doing some roving interp over the next three and a half hours at the Robinson House site, the Henry House Overlook, and Jackson's Line, I was making my way to the lunch tent. But as I strode next to the Jackson Statue at the top of Henry House Hill, I was approached by two visitors who had a few questions. They were from Alabama and this was their second time to Manassas; they having traveled all that way specifically for the 150th. One gentleman asked me if I could point out where the 33rd Virginia was before their charge. I was glad to be able to answer him, pointing toward their position, and briefly describing their attack. Continuing, I talked about the terrible and terrific struggle that consumed Henry House Hill that Sunday afternoon, 150 years ago, and what it meant for the nation and how this struggle on this otherwise nondescript hilltop in northeastern Virginia would usher in four devastating, bloody years and help trigger a second revolution in the United States. "And all of it," I finished, "happened right here, on this very ground, 150 years ago."

One of the gentleman then turned to me and said, "It's 110 degrees, and I just got chills."

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Me, Matt Atkinson, and Mannie Gentile on Henry House Hill, 7/22/2011

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Gearing Up For Manassas 150!

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The Civil War world is naturally focused on Manassas this week, as we move closer to the 150th Anniversary of the first major land battle of America's fratricidal conflict. Thursday, July 21, 2011, will mark 150 years since this terrible fight.

Even though I am now just thirty-two years old, I do remember distinctly the commemoration of the war's 125th Anniversary, back in the late '80s. The Civil War had captured my interest from an early age--since as long as I can remember--and my parents would do everything to help foster this interest. I remember every two months getting a new volume of TimeLife's Civil War series (those large hardbound, silver books, which still occupy an entire shelf in my office) and I remember how every Christmas from 1986-1990 I would unwrap the Classic Images collection of Civil War battle reenactments, produced for the 125th. And I well remember all the visits to National Battlefield Parks, listening to various ranger programs, and thinking how much I would love to one day do that. . .to work as a ranger at a Civil War park.

Well, that dream came true in May 2006. And as I have said many, many times before, there are few days that have gone by over the past five years that I did not think about how lucky I am to work at Antietam, alongside some of the best rangers the Park Service has to offer, interpretating one of the most significant battles in American history. It is truly an honor to wear that gray and green of the Park Service everyday. Over the years, though, I have also had some "can't wait to tell the grand-kids" kind of moments, such as delivering special hikes and tours on Anniversary weekends, working the 2009 Presidential Inauguration and the 2009 White House Christmas Tree Ligthing Ceremony. . .all very neat experiences.

But this week, I will have the great, great honor of working at Manassas Battlefield during the Sesquicentennial commemoration, something that is still difficult for me to believe.

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On Thursday, July 21 and Friday, July 22, I, along with several of my colleagues from Antietam, will be roving the battlefields of Manassas, providing interpretation on this important battle. Keith Snyder, in charge of the interpretation for the event, assigned me and my friend/colleague Mannie Gentile to Henry House Hill. The forecast for Thursday and Friday places the temperatures in the high 90's; we might even get to 100 degrees! And working ten-hour shifts in the heat will be sure to catch up with us (as Mannie said, it would be the exact opposite of the Inauguration, when we stood out for twelve hours in 10 degree weather!) Still, I can think of no other place I would rather be than right there, in the uniform of the Park Service, on Henry House Hill on the 150th Anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas.

Today is crunch time in preparation for the event. . .Already I am reading up on as much of the battle story as possible. It is also packing day (I cannot forget the sunblock and sunglasses. . .the coolers and the bottles of water). And, yes, it is also laundry day. Because of the expected heat, I plan on taking no less than four uniforms! Then, tomorrow is travel day, leaving here early in the afternoon. . .heading south to Boonsboro, where I will pick up Mannie, and then further south on 15, through Leesburg, past Oatlands, and finally to the Manassas Visitor Center for a 6:00p.m. briefing. Hotel check-in will follow. . .but I have a feeling Mannie and I will be out on the battlefields until dusk. But we will not be out too late: we must then report for duty at 6:00 a.m. on Thursday morning for what promises to be a couple of long, hot, but thoroughly memorable and unforgettable days.

And, yes, I already have the camera packed. . . with a new battery and blank SD card.

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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Pennsylvania's Civil War Militiamen Getting Long Overdue Attention. . .

Pennsylvania Militia Organize in Harrisburg

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Dave Maher is a good friend of mine, who I have come to know over the past few years through his volunteer work at Antietam National Battlefield. One thing I discovered early about Dave was his passion for the study of the American Civil War and his dedication to historical preservation. A native of New Jersey, Dave currently resides near Harrisburg where he works with the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission. Dave's main interest lies with his beloved Irish Brigade; recently, however, he has focused his attention on a little-known, though important, Civil War topic: the Pennsylvania Militia Men of 1862 & 1863.

In the late summer of 1862 and then again in June-July 1863, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin raised a call for volunteer militiamen in response to Confederate General Robert E. Lee's two invasions of Union soil, and the men from across the Keystone State responded in great numbers. Tens of thousands turned out to add their names to the rosters, and though they were the subject of much derision from the Union high command, their role was an important one and their service noble. Indeed, many of those who composed the Pennsylvania militia units in the summer of 1863--and who served during the Gettysburg Campaign--were recently discharged "Nine-Month" men from such hard-fighting units as the 125th, 129th, 130th, 132nd Pennsylvania, and so on. My own native Schuylkill County also furnished several of these militia companies, notably the 39th Pennsylvania Militia, a regiment raised by none other than Brigadier General James Nagle, who had just returned home from the army, following his resignation because of heart disease. Upon arriving at Harrisburg, General Darius Couch, commanding the Department of the Susquehanna, named Nagle a brigade commander.

The story of these men's experiences has long needed to be told, and Dave is certainly the right guy to do it, for he will give them due justice. Several weeks ago, Dave launched a blog titled Pennsylvania's Emergency Men, and so far, his posts have been simply outstanding. As Dave writes, his blog is "A look back at the the Pennsylvania Emergency Militia, and the Keystone state's reaction and response to the threatening advance of, and later invasion by, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the Maryland Campaign of September 1862, and the Gettysburg Campaign of late June and early July 1863. As well as other historical thoughts and observations."

I have added Dave's blog to the blogroll on the right, and I am hoping you, too, will make it a regular stop on your daily Civil War blog reading list. Pennsylvania's Emergency Men can be found here.