By Joe Beck
Puffs of white smoke and crackling gunfire filled the air as about 2,500 Civil War reenactors gathered on the Cedar Creek Battlefield in Middletown on Saturday to replay the Battle of Rutherford's Farm.
Confederates representing Maj. Gen. Stephen Ramseur's division tangled with Union forces led by Brig. Gen. William Averell for about an hour in front of a crowd organizers estimated at about 2,500 to 3,000.
The battlefield reenactment was the most dramatic of a range of activities conducted on or around the battlefield as part of the 21st annual Cedar Creek weekend. Tim Stowe, president of the battlefield foundation that organized the event, said reenactments send a sobering message to modern audiences as they watch the sacrifices of earlier generations.
"It's important to keep in mind what happened to our country in the 1860s, so it doesn't happen again," Stowe said.
Stepping back in time has its limits, despite the pageantry of period costumes, music from 19th century musical instruments and hundreds of white tents that formed the backdrop to the battle reenactment.
They don't make Civil War battles like they used to nor would anyone want to do so. The original Battle of Rutherford's farm was fought miles to the north near Winchester.
Spectators and reenactors at Saturday's event took considerable comfort in the absence of live ammunition inflicting gruesome wounds on the participants.
The passage of 148 years since the first battle meant the dead lying on the ground were back on their feet in blooming good health after the Union troops had completed their rout of the Confederates. It also meant that the black men serving up cheese steak sandwiches at a concession stand were working because they chose to be there as free citizens, not as slaves.
Those in uniform included real life lawyers, teachers, truck drivers, students, and retirees, some of whom traveled long distances to play their parts. But few, if any of them, came from as far away as Hagen Derra, a printer from Germany who lined up on the battlefield with Company C of the Second Virginia Cavalry.
Derra said the event marked the consecutive year he has come to Middletown to participate in the Cedar Creek Weekend. The story of how someone born, raised and still living in Germany plugged into American Civil War history begins with his marriage to a woman from Salem, Derra said.
During a visit to the United States, her father introduced him to some reenactors. Derra, who was already a military history buff, said he came away enthralled when he learned about their activities.
"I thought it was outstanding," Derra said. "I thought this is a dream. I didn't think it was possible."
Historians estimate 216,000 German immigrants fought in the Civil War with Union forces and a few thousand more with the Confederates. Derra said fighting as a Southerner appeals to him because the demise of the Confederacy carries some lessons for today's Germans.
Germany's tormented history in the first half of the 20th century left the country struggling to come to grips with the military's prominence in German society and the devastation of two world wars, Derra said. Germans, like Southerners, found themselves faced with tens of millions of lives lost and profound suffering caused by leaders who sought to murder and enslave other humans.
As a result, Derra said, traumatized Germans have lost their appetite for displays of patriotism and celebrations of military valor and sacrifice since the end of World War II.
"They don't want you to show patriotism," Derra said of his countrymen. "They don't want you to wave a flag except at sporting events."
He said his grandfather earned an Iron Cross in recognition of bravery while fighting Soviet forces in Russia during World War II, but hid the medal in a cupboard.
Derra said cavalrymen have had a long and distinguished history in the German military going back to the reign of Frederick the Great in the 1700s. He had yearned to get a taste of what life was like in a cavalry unit but had given up hope of doing so until he discovered Civil War reenactments in the United States.
At last, he found an outlet for his passion in a completely unexpected place.
"I felt more at home coming here than I did at home, Derra said.
"I spend all my resources doing this," he added. "It's very worthwhile. I know of no other place in the world I can do this."
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or email@example.com