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Hallowed ground

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National Park Ranger Jonathan Steplyk points out the location of Union encampments during a Saturday tour at the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historic Park. The monument in the background was dedicated to the Union 128th New York Infantry Regiment that was part of the 19th Corps that was overrun in the 1864 Battle of Cedar Creek. Andrew Thayer/Daily

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National Park Ranger Jonathan Steplyk explains to the group that they are standing in a fortification known as a redan during a tour at the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historic Park on Saturday near Middletown. Andrew Thayer/Daily

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Mike Kehoe, right, of the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation, and Bob Jolley, with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, survey trenches during the ranger-guided tour. Andrew Thayer/Daily

Rangers guide tour of Union trenches at Cedar Creek battlefield

By Alex Bridges -- abridges@nvdaily.com

MIDDLETOWN -- Union soldiers literally dug in at Cedar Creek to fight off Confederate troops as seen in the remains of trenches in the hills of the Civil War battlefield.

But the U.S. Army never used the mile-long stretch of trenches to their full potential, according to a park ranger leading the first tour of the earthen fortifications at the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park on Saturday.

"What you'll see here today is a snapshot of history that's very well preserved on property that's pretty rural," Tim Stowe, president of the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation, said before the tour began. "What we'd like to do is to be able to help educate the public and show them some of these historic resources that are here and help them understand why this area's important."

Jonathan Steplyk, a ranger with the National Park Service, led the group and gave background about the war at the time of the Battle of Cedar Creek, which pitted U.S. Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan against Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early.

Sheridan camped his troops in the area in October 1864, divided them into three corps and awaited his next orders. The 19th Corps made their fortifications by digging trenches along which the soldiers would construct walls of earth, sod and wood, Steplyk said. Sheridan expected Early to try a frontal assault on the U.S. forces by pushing through Cedar Creek, according to Steplyk.

Early did not act as expected. Instead, he made a pre-dawn "daring surprise attack" from the left flank on the 8th Corps, Steplyk said.

"One of the fascinating things about this program is it gives you a chance to see, up close, some wonderful examples of the remnants of Civil War fortifications," Steplyk said, "Modern military minds talk about the principles of cover and concealment."

The trenches, also called earthworks, provided cover for soldiers, according to Steplyk.
"These works would have been a source of security for Union soldiers," he told the group. "For Confederate soldiers, they were an obstacle. They were a threat. By this point, both sides well knew the danger of frontal assaults against fixed, fortified positions like the ones we saw."

But, as Steplyk explained, the Union soldiers didn't have a chance to use the trenches to their full potential because Confederate troops attacked from the side rather than the front of the fortifications.

"So those New Yorkers and their comrades, those Indianans and Massachusetts men and the others of the 19th Corps who held this line, they were caught on the wrong side of their works," Steplyk said.

The park added the trenches property to its roster of programs, with rangers versed in the history leading the groups along a cleared path and stopping at historically significant points, some of which feature illustrated information markers.

The two-plus-hour tour takes groups along a path which runs parallel with many of the trenches. The hike does involve trekking up and down hills, walking through an occasional spider web or over an ant colony. Officials recommend those interested in taking the tour wear appropriate footwear and bring along bug repellent.

Mike Kehoe, vice president of the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation's board of directors, pointed out large holes along the trail dug in the 1970s as preparation for a housing development.

The foundation eventually purchased the property and ended any possible construction on the site, he noted.

Mark and Melinda Boudreau and their son, Matthew, of Memphis, Tenn., stopped by the foundation headquarters Saturday while on vacation because of Mark's ancestors' connection to the area during the Civil War. The Boudreaus hadn't heard about the tour before but decided to join the group.

Mark Boudreau said his mother inherited a flag which flew at the Battle of Cedar Creek and spurred his interest in Civil War history, and a distant relative, Frank Taylor, served in the battle in the 21st Regiment from Pennsylvania.

Several people said they learned more about the war by taking the tour.

"I know I've been in the woods before and seen these kind of things and didn't know what I was looking at," said Tim Stowe's wife, Lisha Stowe. "I thought I was looking at ravines or that type of thing, but now I know what to look for to recognize them if I saw them again and I know what their purpose was."

The tour ended in the same place it began, near the large stone monument to the 128th Regiment of the federal army from New York, which participated in the Battle of Cedar Creek on Oct. 19, 1864.

Foundation representatives also used the inaugural event to make a pitch for its latest fundraising campaign aimed at restoring and protecting the trenches property.

The trenches tour will be held on a weekly basis. Visit cedarcreekbattlefield.org or nps.gov/cebe for more information.

1 Comment

Excellent!!! Cedar Creek is a worthwhile historic site that has deserved interpretation for some time now...

This can only help the area's tourism as well... While it isn't a Civil War battle that rolls off the tongue of the casual backyard historian. It is probably the most important/significant battle in the Valley. The tools to teach are there and fairly well-preserved. The development of them is exciting to witness...

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