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‘Armageddon in your backyard’

South Boston News / June 20, 2014
It promises to be a festive occasion, to be sure, but the re-enactment of the Battle of Staunton River Bridge this weekend is serious business for the volunteers who will travel to Southside to bring the Civil War clash to life.

“This was armageddon in your backyard. All of your ancestors were involved in it, and it is a big part of your history because Virginia took the full blunt of it. It decimated the state,” said Paul Smith, event coordinator for the June 21-22 battlefield re-enactment at the Staunton River Battlefield Park.

“There’s hardly a family that didn’t have someone involved in the Civil War.”

The First Division Army of Northern Virginia — an all-volunteer army of historical re-enactors — will carry out a scripted version of the battle that took place 150 years ago this week at the railroad bridge at the Staunton River separating Charlotte and Halifax counties. The June 25, 1864 clash has long held a special place in Southside lore as the “Battle of the Old Men and Young Boys” — named after the volunteers who streamed in from the countryside to bolster the Confederate defenses: boys still in school in Clarksville, Halifax and Danville and too young to enlist in the regular army, and old men who were long past fighting age — or so it was thought.

The re-enactment is part of the sesquicentennial celebration of Civil War battles around Virginia. It is being organized by Virginia State Parks and the Historic Staunton River Foundation, which was created in 1994 to support the preservation of the battle site and the cultural resources around it. The Foundation is based in the Charlotte County community of Randolph — also the site of Mulberry Hill Plantation, ancestral home of the Carrington family and key ground in the battle, and Randolph Station depot, today a park visitor center.

With an abundance of battles to commemorate —1864 witnessed spasms of violence between the armies of Grant and Lee that horrified both sides — Southside can count itself fortunate to draw the interest of the First Division Army of Northern Virginia re-enactors. It helps that the group embraces its role with enthusiasm.

“This event is something we like to do,” said Smith, who also belongs to the First Division. After 37 years of working in “steel mills, power plants, and coal mines,” the Pittsburgh native was drawn to the historic hobby and joined a re-enactor army. He explained that the group is organized just like the army, with a mission to preserve battlefield sites. “Our purpose is to get as close to the actual historical event as we can,” he said.

Smith presented the potential of re-enacting of the Staunton River Bridge Battle to the division at its last two annual conventions. In November, the 3,500-member organization reviewed 11 potential battlefield reenactments throughout Virginia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.

The Staunton River battle was chosen. “We don’t just show up. It’s an orchestrated event with a lot involved,” Smith said.

From canon raillery to rifle fire, the “raid” will begin at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 21. There will also be an early Saturday morning medal ceremony at 9 a.m. for descendants of the battle, and a dusk artillery demonstration with Civil War-era music. Other activities scheduled throughout the day and on Sunday will provide living history opportunities for the public.

Aside from the First Division’s preparations for safety, military camp set-up, and drills, the Historic Staunton River Foundation and Virginia State Parks have also assisted with the anniversary in numerous ways.

For the battle itself, Smith explained, Col. Fallon will lead the infantry, Col. Nesbitt will lead the artillery, and more than 400 militia-style participants will take positions where the fighting raged. To date, re-enactors have arranged for 12 artillery canons, more than 150 Federal troops, and roughly the same number of Confederate forces and local militia to simulate the fighting. Much smaller than the 1864 contingent that fought it out by the bridge — the clash pitted 2,500 federals against less than half as many Confederates, including 300 or so who fought up-close in trenches at the foot of the bridge — the scaled-down armies make it easier for the observer to understand how the battle unfolded.

“At this condensed size, people can watch and walk away with a better understanding,” said Smith.

The Battle of Staunton River marked the effective end to a 1864 Union cavalry raid commanded by Brigadier Generals James H. Wilson and August V. Kautz, who had been ordered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant to destroy the Richmond & Danville and the Southside railroad lines that supplied Confederates in the great Petersburg battle that was raging to the east. The Union cavalrymen razed 60 miles of rail line across southern and central Virginia before they were halted at the covered railroad bridge over the Staunton, the key objective of the southeastern thrust. Confederate soldiers and reservists under the command of Capt. Benjamin Farinholt were bolstered by local volunteer militia from Halifax, Charlotte, and Mecklenburg counties. Capt. James A. Hoyt of the 1st Palmetto Sharpshooters led 150 soldiers who were rushed to the defense of the bridge via railroad from Danville. Meantime, another key figure in the battle was Colonel Henry E. Coleman, recuperating in Halifax from wounds suffered in the fighting, who is credited with improving the makeshift defense of the bridge and leading the motley crew that came to be known as “Old Men and Young Boys.”

The unlikely battlefield combatants repelled four separate dismounted cavalry charges in the late afternoon and evening of June 25. The Union raiders broke off the engagement that snight as Confederate cavalry led by Major General W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee closed in. The Wilson-Kautz raiders would not seriously threaten the area again as they made their way back to Petersburg.

In keeping with actual events of the battle, Smith explained that an artillery duel will place for about an hour on Saturday afternoon, just as it did 150 years ago. (Union artillery was stationed on the hillside near Mulberry Hill, which Brig. General Wilson had taken as his headquarters). For about an hour during Saturday’s commemoration, there will be eight Federal and four Confederate canons exchanging black powder. The public also will witness scripted assaults by the First Division Army’s 2nd and 3rd Regiments as well as the 30th North Carolina Troops, who are affiliated with the 4th Regiment, Army of Northern Virginia.

“These folks (re-enactors) come and pay to do this,” Smith said. Each pays $10 for the opportunity to time-travel to the front lines of our nation’s history. An enthusiast can invest around $1,200-$1,500 in authentic period uniforms, tents, and weapons. Each also furnishes his or her own black powder, which can cost upwards of $40 per event.

Re-enactment scenes can also include the family: “We have in camp wives and children in period clothing also,” said Smith.

And naturally, both sides of the battle will be represented: re-enactors may own a gray as well as a blue time-period uniform. The members’ mission is to be as historically accurate: “If we need to loan the Federal guys some canons, we do … we do what roles need to be done. The mission is to preserve, and tell the story of what happened, “ Smith said.

Prior to Saturday’s battle re-enactment,which begins shortly after 3 o’clock, the public is invited to walk through the period-authentic military camps and talk with members. “They are very knowledgeable of history and everybody walks away learning something,” Smith said.

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Do all those "canons" make pretty music??

Sounds like an interesting event, but your spelling and proof-reading need attention!

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