When a battlefield tour involves passing beyond a locked gate, that means it’s a great tour.
In early May I met my son Chris in Virginia for our annual Civil War battlefield tour. Basing our operations out of Harrisonburg, a 51,000-resident city in the Shenandoah Valley, we planned to visit battlefields in the Valley and across the Blue Bridge in the Virginia Piedmont.
Our guide — we’ve actually never had one on previous tours — for Thursday’s expedition was Nick Picerno, the Bridgewater College police chief and a Civil War buff extraordinaire.
Likely the nation’s leading authority on the 1st, 10th, and 29th Maine infantry regiments — each is descended from its numerical predecessor — he knows their members and their battles in detail. Nick invites descendants of soldiers who served with those regiments to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nick has been involved in battlefield preservation long before I ever heard of the Civil War Trust (civilwar.org) or the Brandy Station Foundation (brandystationfoundation.com). He is the chairman emeritus of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation (shenandoahatwar.org).
From the SVBF’s historic headquartersin downtown New Market, Va. the New Market battlefield park lies just across Interstate 81 and a bit “down” (north) the Valley, by the way.
Among other sites, the SVBF has helped preserve land at Cross Keys and Port Republic (the last battles of “Stonewall” Jackson’s spring 1862 Valley Campaign) and at Cedar Creek and Third Winchester (two major battles in Phil Sheridan’s fall 1864 Valley Campaign). On this particular Thursday, Nick took us to Cedar Creek and Third Winchester.
Long overlooked in traditional Civil War teachings, the Battle of Cedar Creek was named for the Shenandoah River tributary that Jubal Early’s divisions crossed to attack Sheridan’s troops on Oct. 19, 1864. Sheridan had spent the night in Winchester, some 15 miles to the north, and Early’s men rudely handled Sheridan’s startled troops in the battle’s early going.
Then, mounted on his horse Rienzi, Sheridan made his famous ride from Winchester, rallied his faltering soldiers, quickly devised a counterattack, and promptly shattered Early’s army.
According to Nick, Core Cedar Creek battlefield lands have succumbed to development, but preservationists have scored major victories. “There are 6,498 acres of core battlefield acres at Cedar Creek,” he wrote in a late May email. “Due to the efforts of several partner battlefield preservation groups, numerous acreage has been protected, but there is an additional 4,605 acres yet to be saved.”
Visible from the Valley Pike (Route 11), Belle Grove Plantation has preserved some acreage for years. The battle flowed and ebbed around this historic mansion, and a few monuments along the Pike attest to the fighting.
Congress has authorized the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park. The federal visitors’ center officially opened in Middletown (within the park’s boundary) the day after we visited Cedar Creek. Taking us by the visitors’ center on Thursday, Nick introduced us to some park staff members.
For more information about the park, log onto www.nps.gov/cebe/index.htm.
While we were northbound on I-81, Nick pointed out the land that the SVBF had saved at Cedar Creek. The land preserves many of the sites associated with Sheridan’s VIII Corps, also called the Army of West Virginia. Once off the highway, Nick took us via rural roads onto the SVBF’s property.
He also guided us to sites associated with the XIX Corps, to which the 29th Maine was attached. Some XIX Corps’ trenches are accessible from a hiking trail located off the Valley Pike; a walk along this trail also accesses an information placard about the 1st Maine Battery.
Nick discussed in some detail the 29th Maine Infantry’s role; he pointed out places where the regiment had fought.
From Cedar Creek we drove “down” the Valley to Winchester, a bustling town rich in Civil War and non-Civil War history. Sheridan pitched into Early just outside the town on Sept. 19, 1964 and mauled the Confederate troops during the Battle of Opequon (pronounced “oh-peckin”) or Third Winchester.
If they overlooked Cedar Creek, Civil War histories have ignored Third Winchester altogether. Developers have not. Located near the I-66/I-81 interchange, Winchester is growing. Key land associated with Third Winchester has already been lost to a new school and a modular home park, both of which abut the preserved property.
The rolling contour of the surviving battlefield straddles Redbud Run on the Winchester outskirts. Over the years several preservation groups have saved 567 acres. Included in that figure are the 136 acres that the SVBF acquired from 2002 to 2004 and 209 that the foundation purchased for $3.35 million in 2009. This acreage encompassed the “Middle Field” where the 29th Maine Infantry fought so gallantly; Maj. William Knowlton died there.
“This year we acquired an additional 222 acres that adjoin all our properties,” Nick wrote in his email. “We were given this property through the generosity of the Civil War Trust. We … are creating the largest preserved Civil War battlefield in the Valley.”
On this Thursday, Nick navigated the modular home park’s confusing street network and pulled up to a closed and locked gate. Beyond spread fields and woods, with no buildings in site; this was one access point to the CWT’s original property, and Nick knew the lock’s combination.
He opened the gate; I closed it after he drove through the opening. Nick drove carefully along a wide trail constructed by the CWT and turned into a woods road ending at another locked gate.
Stepping gingerly amidst the poison ivy and rain-left puddles, Chris and Nick and I reached the gate. We peered over the locked gate to see a prime example of battlefield restoration.
We gazed across the Middle Field. Nick had explained earlier (and had shown us a map) that the 29th Maine Infantry had crossed the land beyond the gate to form along a fence line and fight nearby Confederates.
For years an invasive tree species had covered the Middle Field so thickly that people really could not push through the growth, Nick said. The SVBF had hired a contractor who brought two “masticators” (machines parked just beyond the locked gate) to clear away the invasive trees. His employees had certainly done so, reopening the field present during the battle.
After Nick pointed out approximately where the 29th Maine boys had fought (the exact site will be found through archeological research), we returned to his vehicle and left the preserved battlefield via the closed gate. I twisted the chain into place, snapped the lock, and spun its dial.
Last stop on this excellent tour was the other side of the preserved land, where people can access the trails via a paved parking lot. From this site we could grasp the width and breadth of Third Winchester.
Maine boys fought and died here and at Cedar Creek. So far from the Pine Tree State, there is a connection to home.