Dissecting a battlefield: on the Sesquicentenial of the Battle of Cool Spring

Posted on July 19, 2014 by

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I attended the first half of the Sesqui commemorative tour at Cool Spring yesterday… and a well-attended event it was (see Craig’s post about it, here). While I enjoyed hearing about the battle that unfolded along the Shenandoah River, I have to say… the infatuation I have with the cultural (pre-war and wartime) settings of the battlefield intrigued me more. This is not a slight on the Sesqui presentation, but merely a reflection of how my interests have changed in the 40+ years I’ve spent studying the Civil War.

Cool Spring 150 tour

Just some of the crowd present at the Cool Spring 150 tour

I mention “dissecting” this battle… but really, it’s more the matter of understanding the layers of history that envelop the landscape. Who knows, it might be that my review of the 1997 application for the National Registration of Historic Places… which I read, on and off, for a few days prior to my coming to yesterday’s event… impacted my visit greatly.

For one, reading about the place and visiting it are two entirely different experiences. My hat is off to Jonathan Noyales and Shannon Moeck for their interpretation of a site which is very difficult to interpret from the perspective of the actual site. As I said, I didn’t make it to the second half of the tour, which took place on the eastern bank of the Shenandoah River, but I did attend the tour on the western side (on the grounds of the Abbey). It didn’t take long to realize that, mostly because of the foliage and the layout of the land, this was very difficult terrain on which to interpret a battle. Troop movements and the environment that those troops encountered (and saw) is very difficult to grasp in a setting that has changed much since that day in 1864.

But, again, this is an interesting opportunity to understand that the action of that one day, on July 18, 1864, is just part of the story of that site. Much like an onion, you have to peel back several different layers to find that one (or different layers of interests… as mine for this site also include the stories of local Unionist George Bell, Jr., and that of Judge Richard E. Parker; Parker having presided over the trial of John Brown) that seems of greater personal interest to the people who visit. Some were there because their ancestor had fought in the battle… the majority, I suspect, were there because it was part of the rolling line of events in the Sesqui series. Who knows… I may have been the only odd man out for my interests in features that might be considered more along the lines of “sidebars” to the battle. The Sesqui event brought me there, but I found myself fueled by a passion which seems to have surpassed my interests in the stories of battles.

Anyway, not unlike most sites in the Shenandoah Valley, this site has history that predates the battle that took place there. The one thing that struck me (call it, “the baggage” that I brought with me to the Sesqui tour) was the community that existed here at the time of the battle… and how it came into existence, beginning with European settlement patterns that date back to the middle 18th century.

By the time of the war (and not unlike many, many other sites throughout the Shenandoah), Castleman’s Ferry was a thriving agricultural center. Again, not uncommon for the Valley… .it was “King Wheat” as opposed to “King Cotton” that ruled the day, here. But, I get ahead of myself just a bit…

One should understand that the 1997 application for recognition of this site encompassed… 4,064 acres, with 18 buildings, 11 structures, and 26 sites that are considered “contributing” to the story of the battle… though we can only really grasp of a fraction of that in our efforts to interpret it on-site. Granted, there have been changes to the site in the course of the fourteen years since this application was submitted (so, I’m wondering how many of those contributing features have since become “no more”).

I could go on about what existed at this site at the time of the battle and the cultural make-up of the place… and I may still do that at another time, in another post… but, I’m left wondering… “What is the future of interpretation for this site?” I mean, despite the effort to get it on the National Register of Historic Places (and let’s face it, it’s because of the battle, and not so much because of the cultural story of the place before), when and how can interpretation of this site evolve and actually encompass all… or at least more… of what has been singled-out as “contributing” elements of the site?

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