Cedar Creek battlefield beckons re-enactors

Tom Alexander shows off a cannon he built that will be used in this weekend's re-enactment. He plays a role in the 2nd Maryland Battalion. Alexander has been coming to the battle re-enactment since 1991. Jake Zuckerman/Daily

MIDDLETOWN – John Davis Jr. and his wife, Lillian Garland, of Woodbridge, were among the thousands on Friday who began to descend on the Cedar Creek Battlefield in preparation for a weekend of re-enactments paying tribute to soldiers of the Confederate and Union armies.

The battlefield was dotted with tents by mid-afternoon as vehicles streamed in, a few of them towing cannons that would be fired harmlessly during the next day’s simulated battle.

But not everything at the site was about gunfire and explosions. Davis and Garland were there to assume the roles of civilians – harness maker Henderson Wilson and an enslaved woman.

Davis, who is black, is the great-grandson of Wilson, a white who fought on the side of a North Carolina unit during the Battle of Cedar Creek.

“He’s here,” Davis said of his ancestor. “He walked down this road.”

Brandon Lunday, left, and Troy Davis walk barefoot at Cedar Creek Battlefield before the battle Friday. They will be fighting with the 1st Virginia Infantry Batallion. Jake Zuckerman/Daily

After the war, Henderson agreed to his daughter’s marriage to a black man who had once been a runaway slave.

The complicated story of Davis’ ancestors echoes today in his and Garland’s experiences as re-enactors. Lillian Garland, despite being the great-granddaughter of an enslaved woman, sometimes walks in parades wearing articles of clothing displaying the Confederate battle flag.

“The black people were angry,” Garland said of the reaction from some of the spectators at one parade. “They looked like they could have shot me.”

Garland said other black people have objected to her taking the role of an enslaved woman, a decision she defends as a way of portraying the contributions blacks made to American life over hundreds of years, despite the limitations whites imposed on them.

“I don’t care,” Garland said of the criticism she has received. “I do what I do, and I enjoy it.”

Lillian Garland

She and Davis said they were gratified by the growing recognition of the important role of almost 200,000 blacks fighting in the Union forces by the end of the war. Large numbers of black troops were among those who cut off Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s last attempt to escape the Union army before his surrender at Appomattox.

Davis said more blacks are taking an interest in the Civil War as their contributions gain more prominence in modern histories.

“They’re seeing that it wasn’t just a white man’s war,” Davis said. “It never was just a white man’s war.”

The Battle of Cedar Creek on Oct. 19, 1864, was a pivotal moment in the final months of the war. The victory of Union forces led by Gen. Philip Sheridan helped seal the re-election of President Abraham Lincoln a few weeks later and dashed southern hopes that the North would negotiate a peace.

Debbie Jones, of Georgetown, Delaware, said the 12-pound cannon parked across the road from where she sat was her pride and joy.

John Davis Jr.

“We got it a long time ago,” Jones said. “Since then, my husband has passed, and I’m doing my best to keep it on the field.”

Jones has belonged to the 2nd Company Richmond Howitzers for more than 20 years. She was expecting about 15 of the unit’s 43 members to be on hand when she fires the cannon during the battle today.

A keen interest in history and the banter among members of the group seated in chairs around their encampment is part of what keeps her coming to re-enactments.

“We’re all pretty much family,” Jones said.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com.