Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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Getting a Grip on 1864′s Virginia Campaign

MORE: Read more news from Fredericksburg

There’s still a month to go before the calendar marks the sesquicentennial of the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, but signs of the big anniversary are already popping up everywhere–rather like the pear trees now in bud on the streets of Fredericksburg.

Confederate and Union soldiers fight hand to hand in the horrific combat at the Bloody Angle during the weeks-long Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in May 1864. NATIONAL PARK SERVICE

Confederate and Union soldiers fight hand to hand at the Bloody Angle during the days-long Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in May 1864. NATIONAL PARK SERVICE

Word about special walking and bus tours, living history programs planned here in April and May and June is already on the street and on the World Wide Web. Perennial volunteers and new recruits plan to get out this Saturday–Park Day 2014–and spruce up the battlefields of Spotsylvania Court House, the Wilderness and Cedar Mountain, as scores of people will at other Civil War sites across the country. Spotsylvania County, which is preparing a giant re-enactment on May 1-4, has just installed a special exhibit about the Civil War’s Overland Campaign–complete with an 1863 cannon used by Phil Sheridan’s cavalry–inside the region’s mall, Spotsylvania Towne Centre.

And this Saturday afternoon, Salem Baptist Church in Spotsylvania will host the official kickoff for the campaign’s the 150 anniversary, which you can follow on Twitter via the hashtag #overland150. That launch, the Fredericksburg area’s fifth “Years of Anguish” speakers forum, will leave no doubt that a big deal is brewing.

Two of Civil War history’s most highly regarded biographers, William J. Cooper of Louisiana State University and Brooks D. Simpson of Arizona State University, will share insights about two presidents and their top military leaders: Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, in Cooper’s case, and U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, in Simpson’s case.

Cooper, author of a definitive Davis biography that won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, said he will emphasize how “Davis and Lee agreed on how the Confederacy should fight,” he said Wednesday. “It shouldn’t sit on its haunches; it must strike. They were very clear in what they said to each other, starting in early 1862 and lasting right down to Petersburg.”

Simpson, author of acclaimed “Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph over Adversity, 1822-1865,” will likely touch on how the Overland Campaign was markedly different than what had come before it in the East.

“These armies were fighting one major battle on the heels of another major battle,” he said in an interview this week. “It’s as if Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg had been fought in the space of three or four weeks, with that cumulative impact.”

But it’s possible the best may come last, when the forum’s final session brings together some remarkable DNA.

Three disparate individuals will explore the trials and joys of being descended from Civil War-era figures. Bertram Hayes–Davis, the gracious and eloquent great-great-grandson of Jefferson Davis, will get top billing, for good reason. But historian Clark B. “Bud” Hall and Avery Lentz, a Gettysburg College student with Union and Confederate soldiers for ancestors, will add their own spice. Together, they will examine “how America’s close personal connection with the Civil War affects our perception of the war, and how the legacy of the war affects descendants,” according to John Hennessy, chief historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

Hennessy and Dr. Jeffrey McClurken, a history professor at the University of Mary Washington–author of “Take Care of the Living: Reconstructing the Confederate Veteran Family in Virginia”–will moderate the discussion, which will be broken into three sessions.

The free event–titled “Presidents and Generals and Descendants, Too”–takes place from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. April 5 at Salem Baptist Church, next to historic Old Salem Church on State Route 3, a mile west of Interstate 95.

The forum is being sponsored by the National Park Service, the Fredericksburg Area Museum & Cultural Center and the University of Mary Washington.

Lastly, here’s helpful advice from the national park’s “Mysteries and Conundrums” blog on parking: A note on getting to new Salem Church: there is no left turn from westbound Route 3 directly into new Salem Church.  Though the modern church stands next to Old Salem Church, do NOT follow the signs to Old Salem Church. Instead, traveling west on Route 3, you will need to pass the church on your left and go through the light at Salem Church Road.  Then do a U-turn at the next crossover and return back through the light on eastbound Route 3. The parking area for new Salem Church will be highly visible to your right.