Preserving war-torn grounds

Stan Hirschberg, president of the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation, stands outside the Hupp's Hill Cedar Creek Museum in Strasburg, where the story of the 1864 Valley campaign is told. Hirschberg, one of the original board members who organized the first Battle of Cedar Creek Reeanctment in 1990, is helping to plan the 151st Anniversary Battle of Cedar Creek this weekend in Middletown. Rich Cooley/Daily

STRASBURG – Reenactments of the Battle of Cedar Creek have brought marching troops and the crack of gunfire to Middletown for many years, but the fields would be a dead end in Civil War history without the efforts of the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation.

Stan Hirschberg formed the nonprofit foundation in 1988 along with author Tom Lewis and then-director of Belle Grove, Michael Gore, when developers were planning to divide the battlefield into smaller plots for light industry.

“Belle Grove had about 100 acres of preserved land, but this was directly north of them…if there was an industrial park there, it would’ve ruined Belle Grove,” he said.

Rather than wait for the Frederick County Board of Supervisors to approve the plans, Hirschberg and the others raised money for a down payment on those 158 acres. Within a decade, they had paid off more than $500,000 in order to preserve the battleground.

“Our organization…started in the basement kitchen of Belle Grove with a borrowed desk and one phone, and now we own about 333 acres of battlefield land,” he said.

Although Hirschberg said the reenactments now serve as the foundation’s main source of fundraising, hosting them at that time was a huge financial risk that could’ve put them tens of thousands in the hole.

“I promoted the idea of having reenactments as a fundraiser to show the public the value of preserving the land,” he said.

In 1989, the foundation hired a company to organize a reenactment on the battlefield land as a fundraiser. But when they learned that only around 100 reenactors had signed up, they decided not to follow through. The next year, using only volunteer help, Hirschberg said around 1,500 uniformed men played out the chaotic 1864 battle.

“It was the only time in the Civil War when both two armies both won and lost the same battle in the same day,” he said.

At the time, Hirschberg said he knew absolutely nothing about holding reenactments and relied on the advice of those more experienced.

“The reenactors know a good bit about it and they supported us throughout the years,” he said.

And they had plenty to benefit from the nonprofit holding such events – Cedar Creek is one of the few battlefields that will allow simulated warfare on the premises, unlike the Antietam and Gettysburg battlefields on national park lands. When entering into their agreement to join the National Park Service, Hirschberg said the foundation set a condition that would allow them to continue holding the events.

“I have seen every one, I have not missed one,” he said. “And it’s still exciting because you’re on the actual field, and that’s what makes it special to the reenactors. It’s like being at Disney World for them, it’s the real deal.”

Other factors that make the Cedar Creek event ideal are the cool temperatures – suitable for those heavy woolen outfits – and the relatively central location for reenactors in multiple states.

Since that first successful reenactment, much has changed. Multiple organizations now contribute to the historical preservation programming during the yearly anniversary and the foundation preserves 345 acres of land.

Hirschberg is a member of the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation board and is serving as president this year. Next year, the foundation will host the 155th anniversary of the First Battle of Bull Run, also known as First Manassas, and Hirschberg said the battleground may host Revolutionary War reenactments in the next few years.

Hirschberg said there’s no square mile of land in Frederick County that doesn’t hold some significance, and he made sure to preserve this chapter of local history before it was developed.

“Before I moved down here, the Civil War was just another war – it meant nothing,” he said. “But when you live down here and you can walk on the actual battlefields and visit these places, then you can say, ‘wow, this was important stuff.'”

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rmahoney@nvdaily.com