Despite re-enactment woes, Civil War demonstrations attract visitors to plantation

MIDDLETOWN – The site of the Battle of Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historic Park sounded quieter Saturday for this year’s commemoration of the Civil War engagement.

MIDDLETOWN – The site of the Battle of Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historic Park sounded quieter than usual Saturday for this year’s commemoration of the Civil War engagement.

The Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation chose not to host a re-enactment of the skirmish out of safety concerns. However, Cedar Creek and Belle Grove Plantation still attracted visitors to see demonstrations by the 10th Virginia Voluntary Infantry Regiment, also known as the Valley Guards, as well as Civil War-era cooking and exhibits inside the historic house on the property south of Middletown.

Patrick Heelen, a captain with the Valley Guards, said this marked the first year the Valley Guards did not appear concurrently with the anniversary of the Battle of Cedar Creek, a result of the re-enactment’s cancellation.

“We’re still out here,” Heelen said. “We’re very appreciative of Belle Grove for hosting us in spite of the threats and the security measures. So we’re just glad to be a part of it.”

Heelen admitted he felt disappointed that organizers canceled the popular re-enactment.

“Everybody’s got a different opinion,” Heelen said. “I’m disappointed and I’d hazard to say most of the men are as well.”

At the same time, Heelen said he felt ecstatic the group could still participate in the commemoration in some way. The organization made event attendance mandatory for its members, Heelen said.

“Given the threats, I gave each man an opportunity to make a personal decision to be here and I can tell you we had about a 98 percent favorable response rate and those that weren’t coming had prior commitments, conflicts, et cetera,” Heelen said. “We saw this as a challenge and an opportunity to meet it.”

The Valley Guards tries to do its part to help battlefield preservation, Heelen said. The group works closely with Belle Grove as well as the Cedar Mountain Battlefield in Culpeper.

Members of many re-enactment units can claim ancestral ties to soldiers who fought in the Civil War,  including Valley Guard members with links to their particular unit, Heelen said. The 10th Virginia Regiment drew originally from the counties of Madison, Page, Rockingham and Shenandoah, Heelen said.

“Our modern roster is strikingly similar in its composition,” Heelen said. “We didn’t plan it that way. I think, honestly, that speaks to the local ties a lot of these guys have.”

Heelen said that to his knowledge, he has no ancestors connected with the Confederacy.

“But, to me, so much what the South was fighting for was consistent not only with the founding fathers’ vision for this country but consistent with what they put in place, and by that – states’ rights, individual liberty – obviously, what about the slaves – individual liberty for these men; self-governance; a constitutionally limited federal government of specifically enumerated powers,” Heelen said. “So, in my view, and I don’t think it’s just my view, the government we have today is wholly inconsistent with the founders’ vision of what the federal government should be and, to me, that’s what the majority of these men were fighting for.”

The census in 1860 indicated that 74 percent of Virginians did not own slaves, Heelen said.

“So it’s a strange credulity to think that these farm boys, some of whom were immigrants, were fighting for another man’s right to protect his property,” Heelen said.

Heelen’s opinions about the cause of the Civil War, although once common among professional historians, are largely rejected today by leading scholars, who identify slavery as the main cause of the war. James McPherson, writing in January 2000 in “North & South: The Official Magazine of the Civil War Society” cited comments by Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Vice-of President Alexander Stephens as clear evidence that preserving slavery was the South’s principal motivation for seceding from the Union.

McPherson, quoting from part of a speech that Stephens delivered in Savannah, Georgia a few weeks before the war broke out, said that Stephens described slavery as  “the immediate cause of the late rupture and the present revolution” and  that the United States had been wrongly founded on the principle that all men are created equal. But the Confederacy, Stephens argued,  “is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Civil War re-enactment groups usually try to disassociate modern politics from the hobby, Heelen said.

“I don’t think you can technically engage in this lifestyle, if you want to call it that, because you can’t disassociate modern politics from this conversation because we’re living the results of that war,” Heelen said. “Slavery aside, I don’t think those results were favorable. I think things are in a state of imbalance”

Heelen spoke more about slavery as part of the Civil War.

“I think ‘symptom’s’ probably a great word for it and we don’t pretend that it wasn’t an issue; it was,” Heelen said. “It was a touchpoint, if you will.

“I liken it to the recent Supreme Court hearings because you had an issue, you know, sexual assault,” Heelen went on to say. “Those are real issues. Those were issues that were in play. But that set of circumstances implicated fundamental principles of how this country was intended to operate – due process of law, a presumption of innocence. So you had symptoms … or issues over here. But over here you had those much more significant fundamental principles in play and, to me … that is such an apt and striking and recent analogy.”

Politicians, not soldiers called to duty, legislated slavery as well as secession from the Union, Heelen noted.

“I think political correctness … has dehumanized these guys and I see it even in the hobby,” Heelen said. “People want to ascend their chair of virtue and look down on these men, denigrate that for which they fought and things aren’t black and white, and then I hear so much of tolerance and diversity of viewpoints. When it comes to this and other things that goes right out the window if you’re not preaching the orthodox sermon.

“So I believe in much of what these men were fighting for,” Heelen said. “I believe in what these men are doing because really we’re here to teach.”