Back to the land


It’s hard to quantify just how goddamned unpleasant the Battle of Waynesboro is. I slept poorly the previous night, skipped breakfast, and arrived late and underdressed. I want socks. I want coffee. I want a funnel cake from the vendor across the road from the battlefield, but I’m stuck firmly on the 19th century side.

My woolen Union coat is large enough to fit over my corduroy jacket, but not warm enough to keep my voice from shaking as I discuss marching orders with my brothers-in-arms. We’re assured victory, but each of my five senses feels defeated. And then sleet begins to fall.

“This is what they fought in,” says Reed Lewis as he fits a black bowler hat on my head. It is unclear to me whether he means the weather or the hat, but this much is clear: Lewis, one of the organizers of the reenactment, is thrilled.

So, 146 years after the real skirmish, the Battle of Waynesboro unfolds on a privately held piece of land that once belonged to Confederate Major William Patrick. Union Cavalry approaches the Confederate trench, falls back, approaches, falls back. Both sides trade shots from replica rifles and litter the yard with gunpowder packets. Cannons appear and exchange volleys.The Battle of Waynesboro, a March 1865 skirmish between General George Custer’s Union Cavalry and Confederate forces led by Lt. General Jubal Early, took place near what is now Waynesboro’s West Main Street. The true battlefield is located between the original Waynesboro High School (now Fishburne Military School) and its successor, built in 1936. Now, however, cannon fire at the true battle site would very likely disturb locals dining at Kline’s Dairy Bar or tourists checking out the Wayne Theatre.

My fellow soldiers are men and women between the ages of 15 and 55. They joke and yell in a mix of 19th and 21st century slang: “C’mon, Johnny Reb, come get some!” I hear a father tell his teenaged son, “I don’t want to hear any modern songs. And I don’t want to hear anything about Hooters. Is that clear?” The son replies, “Sir, yes, sir.”

I spend most of the battle near a 17-year-old messenger named Dylan, who helps the Union Cavalry coordinate its battle-winning flank attack. Dylan has grown up around battlefields, and got involved in reenactments because of his dad. At one point during the battle, he pulls a flute from his satchel and, unprompted, begins to play “John Brown’s Body,” the song written for the hanged abolitionist whose attack on Harpers Ferry played no small role in the nation’s path to the war.

“How many Civil War songs do you know?” I ask. Dylan answers, “Quite a few.”

On July 21, Virginia will begin the first major events for the Civil War Sesquicentennial, a 150th anniversary that will last until 2015 and may boost the state’s multi-billion-dollar tourism industry to unknown heights. However, the anniversary commences at a time when Virginia’s tourism industry is targeting a younger generation that came of age during a time when the state first began to take stock of its battlefields, determining which held value, and which were lost for good. We will learn to experience the Civil War differently. But there are reasons to remember the sole survivors, literally the grounds beneath our feet.

Virginia’s “heritage tourism”

Although Virginia was one of the last states to secede from the Union, it was the first to form a sesquicentennial commission. In 2006, a stone’s throw from Jefferson Davis’ Confederate White House, the General Assembly created the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission to commemorate—though never “celebrate”—its role in the war.

The Battle of Waynsboro, says Lewis, is one that “very few people know about, so we’re creating a stir, I guess, by reminding people of a piece of history they’d forgotten that is pretty important.”

That year, the National Park Service published a study of 15 prominent Shenandoah Valley Civil War sites, selected from among more than 300. (“This does not include many of the raids, ambushes and partisan actions,” noted the authors.) Most of the battlefields were privately owned; several, including Cool Spring, Tom’s Brook and Piedmont, preceded the March 1865 Battle of Waynesboro.Virginia hosted more battles than any other state, and four of the 10 deadliest battles—conflicts at Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, Wilderness and Manassas that totaled more than 100,000 casualties. However, Virginia’s relationship with its battlefields, specifically those in the Shenandoah Valley, was largely undefined until 1995.

The study focused in no small part on the battlefields’ potential role in economic development. “Protection of these 15 major Civil War battlefield sites can be seen as not only an important national objective, but also as an important element of the local economy,” reads the report. “[A]nd, therefore, an added incentive to local governments to play a substantial role in protecting these sites.”

While the report stopped short of making official preservation recommendations, it devoted several pages to “heritage tourism,” which it called “experiential tourism that provides for…feeling part of the history of a place.” The report concludes that area planners tended to support heritage tourism, and the Shenandoah sites “would likely prove to be one of [Virginia’s] major attractions.” The same year, Virginia launched its Civil War Trails program, which placed signs for hundreds of state sites, including some in Charlottesville and Albemarle.

The National Park Service owns more than 2,700 acres that comprise the Wilderness Battlefield (pictured), which saw 29,000 casualties during the Civil War. Walmart had planned a store for a nearby 55-acre tract, but withdrew its plans.

However, VATC spokesman Richard Lewis pointed out a few problems facing Virginia’s heritage tourism. Other states have more famous battlefields; Pennsylvania’s Gettysburg attracts twice as many visitors as Manassas or Wilderness battlefields. Additionally, Lewis noted that the large number of war sites could pose “an internal threat.” Heritage tourism quickly became one of the state’s focuses for the sesquicentennial. After Virginia formed its commission in 2006, it partnered with the Virginia Tourism Corporation (VATC) to develop a strategic marketing plan for the 150th anniversary. In 2008, Lewis informed the committee that “approximately 10 percent of Virginia’s 35 million annual visitors experience a Civil War site as part of their trip.” The same year, the state Commission on Economic Development reported that 60 million visitors came to Virginia. Those visitors combined for a $19 billion impact and generated more than $1 billion in tax revenue.

“Because it has so many Civil War attractions, historic sites and historic cities all vying for their own share of the market, potential visitors may be bombarded by conflicting messages,” he said.

University of Richmond President Ed Ayers, a Civil War scholar and host of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities’ “BackStory with the American History Guys,” observed that very dynamic in Richmond’s sites.

“One of the sad things about Richmond’s battlefields is that they’re not really coherent,” Ayers tells C-VILLE. “There are so many of them, and they’re scattered around. Whereas, Gettysburg kind of brings them all together.”

Virginia loses ground

During the same time that Virginia began to harness heritage tourism, however, several of the state’s most prominent battlefields fell under threat. Manassas fended off a 1.2-million-square-foot mall in 1988 and a Disney theme park in 1993. More recently, retail behemoth Walmart withdrew a special use permit request to build a 141,000-square-foot store near Wilderness Battlefield after preservation groups filed a lawsuit against the Orange County Supervisors for approving the permit.

“The Walmart site is well within the [battlefield’s] study area,” said National Park Service spokesman Russ Smith at the time. “And very, very close to the [battlefield’s] core area.”

Meanwhile, plenty of historically significant spots around the state were overwhelmed by development. The Confederate White House, the seat of our nation’s government in an alternate universe, is now dwarfed on three sides by the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center. Despite some mild chatter in 2005 that the Museum of the Confederacy might relocate the house, the mansion will remain in its location, nearly hidden in plain site.

“Visiting the White House of the Confederacy shows you what’s lost when you just have anachronistic development all around,” says Ayers. “I mean, when you go inside, you can picture Jefferson Davis and his family. But when you walk outside, O.K., there’s the 21st century.”


A marker next to a Subway restaurant on Route 29N commemorates an 1864 Rio Hill skirmish in which 200 Confederate soldiers held off 1,500 Union troops. Now, there are more parking spaces at Rio Hill Shopping Center than there were Confederates.


Here’s a local version: In 1989, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources erected a marker to commemorate a raid in northern Albemarle led by Custer’s Union cavalry. The raid, which took place before Custer’s 1865 triumph in Waynesboro, was unsuccessful, and 200 Confederate soldiers rebuffed 1,500 Union troops. The event is the only official military conflict to occur in Albemarle County during the Civil War. The state’s marker was installed the same year that the nearly 300,000-square-foot Rio Hill Shopping Center was constructed.

Later, Virginia’s Civil War Trails program added its own historical display to the shopping center. The display is a two-panel case mounted on a brick wall, located directly next to a Subway sandwich shop.

How we use battlefields

Let’s leave aside the longer, more nebulous conversation of preservation versus development and turn, instead, to perception: How do we literally see the Civil War? Essentially and necessarily, we see it in pieces.

In 1993, the federal Civil War Sites Advisory Commission assembled the Report on the Nation’s Civil War Battlefields to answer, among others, this question: “Just what is the universe of American Civil War battlefields worthy of protection?” The report narrowed a total 10,500 conflicts to 384—a number that represents less than 4 percent of all battle sites. A combined 36 percent of those 384 sites were either “lost as coherent landscapes” or in irredeemably poor condition. Half of the remaining sites were under threat “from roads and from residential and commercial development.”

Of those 384 important sites mentioned above, 92 percent were owned privately or through some combination of national, state, local or private partnership. Without a unifying plan to develop or protect the collection of sites, more than 100 had been lost, one at a time, and plenty more stood ready to fall.

In some ways, that profane treatment of Civil War battlefields extends back to the moment when the last curls of gunpowder smoke evaporated over the Union and Confederate dead. At the first Battle of Manassas, spectators from Washington, D.C., traveled south to within a mile or so of the Bull Run battlefield. And while it wasn’t quite as close as a crowd at a baseball game, as Ayers puts it, they could watch soldiers go to battle. Moreover, immediately following many contests, the spectators closed in.

“People came to the battlefields as soon as they were over and rifled through soldiers’ pockets and picked up souvenirs,” says Ayers. “People were not squeamish of that, going to a battlefield in the wake of all this horrific suffering.”

The point being, says Ayers, “that people have not treated Civil War battlefields with reverence throughout our history. In some ways, that’s a 20th century recovery, to some extent, of a sense of how precious they are.”

Battlefields reflect our reverence, or lack thereof. If Walmart had built a supercenter at Wilderness, the site could still inform a visitor of its historical significance in the Civil War story. But it also would have told a different story, of Orange County’s inability at a certain point in time to preserve a less developed—and, if you’re a romantic, a more potent—link to that battlefield’s legacy.

“It’s a way to let all of your senses think about what happened there,” says Ayers of visiting a battlefield. “Standing in those places gives you a kind of multi-sensory connection to the past.”

In March, I stood on Henry Hill, where the first Battle of Manassas took place in July 1861, and where the sesquicentennial commemoration will kick off in a few weeks. I could move freely behind Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s artillery, and then move before it, into the line of fire. I could lie down in tall grass on my stomach, as if reloading my rifle, or on my back, as if wounded. I couldn’t smell gunpowder, but I also couldn’t smell diesel or fast food.

Months later, I went to Rio Hill Shopping Center to experience Custer’s 1864 skirmish. I stood next to Subway, and tried my best to let my senses do the same work. I thought about white or wheat bread, not hardtack, the cheap crackers that soldiers carried with them during battle. I counted upwards of 200 parking spaces, more than the number of troops that turned away Custer’s 1,500 Union cavalry. I envisioned 200 gray coats encircled by a half-moon of Volvos and Toyotas, saw customers from Dick’s Sporting Goods walk towards the Confederates clutching Louisville Sluggers and hockey sticks as the soldiers struggled to reload.

Generation X meets the war

Last year, the General Assembly approved a budget amendment proposed by Governor Bob McDonnell to direct an additional $3.6 million to the Virginia Tourism Corporation during each of the next two fiscal years. That money will largely go towards the Virginia Tourism Corporation’s new target audience: Generation X.

According to a VATC report, tourists from Generation X—loosely, those individuals born between 1965 and 1981—spend 13 percent more than their Baby Boomer predecessors. Roughly 75 percent of McDonnell’s $3.6 million appropriation will be dedicated to television ads in a handful of out-of-state markets.

“These will be general ads directed towards Gen-X families, our new target audience,” said VATC President Alisa Bailey to Virginia Business magazine.


“Visiting the White House of the Confederacy shows you what’s lost when you just have anachronistic development all around,” says Civil War scholar Ed Ayers, president of the University of Richmond. “I mean, when you go inside, you can picture Jefferson Davis and his family. But when you walk outside, O.K., there’s the 21st century.”


The Virginia Tourism Corporation hired a marketing firm called BCF to conduct a “Sesquicentennial Qualitative Travel Research” report. BCF interviewed a variety of tourists at Civil War sites, museums and other historic spots. Those tourists included people identified as “Civil War buffs” whose median age was 52, “Heritage Travelers” whose ages predominately fell between 25 and 54, and “Vacaters.” During the survey, one “vacate” told an interviewer, “My kid does 10 different things at once…he gets bored pretty fast standing around watching someone make shoes.”

Those born during and after Generation X, many of them “digital natives,” have personal experiences with direct links to modern technology. To attract and educate Generation X and its successors, VATC and Virginia’s sesquicentennial commission have implemented a few multimedia plans.

In addition to the TV ad blitz, there is the HistoryMobile, a 53′-long tractor-trailer outfitted with interactive displays that will debut on July 21 at the Manassas National Battlefield Park. There is also the Civil War 150 Legacy Project, a mobile effort to connect with Virginia communities and scan relics like photos and letters for preservation through the Library of Virginia. As of May, the Legacy Project had conducted 53 scanning events in 38 communities, including Charlottesville and Albemarle, and gathered more than 10,000 images.

Doubtless, the Legacy Project will preserve documents essential to expanding our understanding of the Civil War. We will fracture our battle stories as we knew them previously, then reinforce them with drawings and letters from the times. But we will experience them from behind computer monitors, Generation X windows, much like the flags, uniform scraps and ammunition that we see in glass display cases. We will find new ways to create the soldier experience—Generation X saw Glory, and has more than a dozen Civil War videogames at its fingertips—but it should not be at the expense of the old.

“Let’s try to make every part of it be new and strange,” says Ayers, summing up his work and our collective challenge. “Because, when we domesticate it, it ceases to teach us.” And if we “know” a little bit less than we did at the centennial, says Ayers, then “that’s O.K.”

Reed Lewis, my brother-in-arms at the Battle of Waynesboro, was born just prior to Generation X. About 20 years ago, Lewis—a Mechanicsville, Virginia, native—began to reenact with the 27th Connecticut Volunteers while he lived in that state, and has been involved in similar efforts ever since. When he returned to Virginia, he taught a class on reenactments at the Staunton Public Library, got involved with the Waynesboro Heritage Foundation, and now helps direct the Battle of Waynesboro.

The battle, says Lewis, is one that “very few people know about, so we’re creating a stir, I guess, by reminding people of a piece of history they’d forgotten that is pretty important.”

But the way that Lewis and fellow re-enactors remind us is different from Glory, or Civil War videogames, or the HistoryMobile. They indulge what Ayers calls the “multi-sensory connection to the past,” but do so from the ground up—on the smallest pieces of land left scattered and unlinked, but not yet lost.