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Competition surfaces for Appomattox battle

Spotsylvania and Appomattox counties may battle it out for Civil War tourists in April.

Both are planning overlapping events next year to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s famous surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, that effectively ended the Civil War.

Sue Cochrane of the Appomattox 1865 Foundation said a lot of older re-enactors plan to retire after Appomattox’s festivities, which she called the “cap of their whole re-enactment career.”

So why go to Spotsylvania when the “real village” is a little more than 100 miles away? she asked. “You can drive an extra two hours, and you can be at the real thing,” Cochrane said.

Experienced re-enactors David Childs and Jake Jennette, who are proposing the re-enactment in Spotsylvania, have asked the county Board of Supervisors for $20,000 to cover costs such as county staff overtime and portable bathroom rentals.

The supervisors last week expressed their initial support for the plan and directed county staff to draft a memo of understanding with Jennette and Childs. They will have to approve that agreement, in addition to any funding for the proposed event that would be in the historic courthouse area on April 10–12.

Jennette said Spotsylvania is a more convenient location for a lot of people and has more hotels and restaurants than Appomattox. “I’m not throwing rocks at Appomattox,” he said. “That’s not the purpose. The purpose is to offer another avenue, another venue for the re-enactors.”

He and Childs want to hold a re-enactment of the Battle of Appomattox Station that would be closed to the general public. But spectators will be able to check out living history displays, in addition to re-enactments of Lee’s surrender and the stacking of arms by Confederate soldiers.

It wouldn’t be the first time the Fredericksburg area has hosted an Appomattox re-enactment.

Stafford County in 1990 was the site of a Battle of Appomattox Station re-enactment, which attracted 2,000 spectators and about 1,000 re-enactors for the 125th anniversary of the event, according to a Free Lance–Star article at the time.

The competing event in Appomattox had a much larger turnout, with 4,000 re-enactors and nearly 8,000 spectators, the article said.

Jennette, who attended the Stafford re-enactment 25 years ago, called it a “nice little event.” He and Childs are hoping to have about 3,000 re-enactors next year, or three times the number at the Stafford event.

Meanwhile, Appomattox officials say they have been planning their festivities on April 8–12 for several years now. Numerous groups are involved, including the National Park Service, the Appomattox Historical Society and The Museum of the Confederacy.

Appomattox Court House National Historical Park will host living history demonstrations, and re-enactments of Lee’s surrender to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and the stacking of arms ceremony. The surrender occurred at the McLean House, which was reconstructed at the Appomattox Court House park in 1950.

And the Appomattox Historical Society will host a battle re-enactment at the Appomattox Center for Business & Commerce industrial park, which is less than five miles from the national park. Battle re-enactments are prohibited on park service land.

Ernie Price, chief of education and visitor services for the Appomattox park, said he doesn’t have a problem with Spotsylvania putting on an event of its own. “Personally, I’m flattered that another location would think the events of Appomattox important enough to actually re-enact or commemorate somewhere else,” he said. “I agree, it’s a huge event in American history.”

Jeff Smith, president of the Appomattox Historical Society, said a lot of people in the re-enactment community are calling the event their “retirement party.” The society, he said, did not ask for any money from Appomattox, though he said the county is handling logistics such as transporting attendees to and from events.

Smith said about 500 re-enactors have registered to date and another 600 have said they plan to attend. He expects to have 2,500 to 3,000 re-enactors in all. Plus, the Park Service anticipates having about 800 re-enactors at its events.

Many re-enactors want to be at the actual historical site, regardless of how far they have to travel to get there, Smith said.

“We’ve got a group coming from Sweden and another group coming from Ontario, Canada,” Smith said. “They don’t seem to care how long it takes to get to Appomattox.”

Still, he said he thinks there are enough re-enactors to support multiple events and says he hopes Spotsylvania has a successful re-enactment. “We don’t have any ill feelings for Spotsylvania, that’s for sure,” he said.

Next year would mark the third straight year that Spotsylvania has hosted a sesquicentennial re-enactment. The difference is that the previous events commemorated battles that actually occurred in Spotsylvania—the battles of Chancellorsville, Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House.

This year’s Wilderness/Spotsylvania Court House re-enactments in May drew 3,591 registered re-enactors to Spotsylvania. The county spent $161,132—about $21,000 more than it collected from ticket sales, re-enactor registrations and merchandise sales.

Jennette, who helped organize Spotsylvania’s last two re-enactments, says he wants to give the county a tourism boost.

“It’s on the map, let’s go ahead and advertise it,” he said.

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Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402