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History at Sunset: Ranger-conducted program shows devastation of war

Eric Campbell stands on the grounds at Belle Grove
Eric Campbell, park ranger for the National Park Service, stands on the grounds at Belle Grove in Middletown on Tuesday. The National Park Service is conducting the first ranger-led public programs this summer and fall at Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

A monument dedicated in 1913 to Stephen Ramseur
A monument, dedicated in 1913 to Stephen Ramseur, a soldier who died at Belle Grove, will be part of the program. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

Eric Campbell stands inside Belle Grove mansion
Eric Campbell, park ranger for the National Park Service, stands inside Belle Grove mansion in Middletown on Tuesday. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

By Laetitia Clayton --

MIDDLETOWN -- Even though the National Park Service has had a presence in Middletown since 2002, many people don't know it.

Park Ranger Eric A. Campbell aims to change that.

Campbell, the only full-time ranger in the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park, is offering several programs this summer and fall called "History at Sunset."

"This is the first year we've done anything public," he said of the ranger-conducted programs.

Campbell, who has worked at the park since last fall, said he borrowed the "History at Sunset" idea from other park sites like Fredericksburg and Richmond that have offered them and been successful.

"They've been doing them for years in Fredericksburg, and they tell me they get about 250 visitors at each one," Campbell said.

The idea is to offer programs on Friday evenings so local residents can take advantage of them. Each one will start at 7 p.m. and last 60 to 90 minutes, he said. The first "History at Sunset" program was set for July 23 and offered an overview of Belle Grove and its place in the history of the valley. The next two programs are scheduled for Friday and Oct. 15.

The Friday evening's program will include a visit to The 8th Vermont Monument at Cedar Creek, which is located on private property. The monument -- one of three in the park area -- is not accessible to the public, and is on private land because that is where they fought, Campbell said.

The monument, about 4 feet high and made of marble, was built in 1885 by veterans of the Vermont regiment, he said.

"The monument was placed 21 years after the event [the Battle of Cedar Creek] during a reunion to commemorate the fallen," Campbell said.

The program, called "Recorded in Scriptured Stone," will begin at the park service office at 7718 1⁄2 Main St. in Middletown. Visitors will then travel by car pool to another site closer to the monument. A short walk will be involved, so walking shoes are recommended. At the site, visitors will learn the story of the New England regiment.

The Oct. 15 program, which takes place on the eve of the Battle of Cedar Creek re-enactment, will examine two Civil War soldiers who lost their lives in the battle. Stephen Ramseur, a Confederate soldier, died in the manor house at Belle Grove a day after the battle, Campbell said, and Union soldier Charles Lowell died in a private residence in Middletown. The program will look at the impact their deaths had on their families, communities and even their generation, he said.

The theme of the program is to show how devastating the Civil War was as far as lives lost, Campbell said, and "these personal stories help illustrate how tragic it was."

Participants will meet in the main parking lot at Belle Grove and will visit several locations around the park, traveling by a car-caravan system where drivers follow the ranger's vehicle. One of the sites is a monument to Ramseur -- a pillar located at the entrance to Belle Grove. The monument was dedicated in 1913 and unveiled by Ramseur's daughter, who was only an infant when her father died, Campbell said.

When considering the topics to cover, Campbell said he knew he wanted to provide an overview since the programs are new and park resources are limited.

"I knew that whatever we started with had to be basic," he said, adding that there are no park trails or roads at this time.

He said he hopes to build on the programs and offer more of them next year. Also by next year, Campbell said the park service plans to have a contact center with a small display area and some exhibits.

Campbell pointed out that the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park is not typical of most other national parks. This one is a partnership with Belle Grove and Cedar Creek, as well as the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation and the Shenandoah County Parks and Recreation Department. In addition, some of the park land is privately owned. In fact, of the 3,700 acres inside the park's boundary, the National Park Service only owns 70 acres, Campbell said.

"We don't own and control all of the land," he said. "The park service was the last partner in. We wouldn't be here without the [other] partners."

Campbell, who worked for more than 20 years at Gettysburg, said he keeps the land partnership in mind when deciding what programs to offer.

"I want to complement the partners, not compete with them," he said.

In addition to the "History at Sunset" programs, Campbell has been holding a daily program at 2 p.m. at Belle Grove called "Cedar Creek and Belle Grove in a Box." It's an hour-long orientation on the history and settlement of the Shenandoah Valley, the Battle of Cedar Creek and the Civil War's impact on the local community. For now, most people who attend are out-of-towners visiting Belle Grove and Cedar Creek Battlefield, who then discover the park service is there, Campbell said.

"I hope to reverse that by having people seek us out," he said.

Campbell said he views the sunset programs as a good way to introduce local residents as well as visitors to the park and what it has to offer.

"Basically it's to get the word out that this is a national park in their own backyard, and to get local support for the park," he said.

It also gives "people a chance to see something they normally wouldn't see, like the monument," Campbell said. "It's a gem in their own backyard."

Several car-caravan tours of the Battle of Cedar Creek are offered either weekly, semi-weekly or monthly. Because of limited staffing, all program schedules are subject to change. For more information on the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park and to check the program schedule, call 869-3051 or go online to www.nps.gov/cebe.


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