ARARAT, Va. — Time travel hasn’t been invented, but an event this weekend in Ararat is enabling the public to step back to the 1860s and get an idea of what the Civil War was like.
That included a rousing recreation of the Battle of Marion (Virginia) Saturday afternoon on the grounds of Laurel Hill, the site in Patrick County where Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart was born.
Re-enactment troops in both blue and gray took the field about 2:45 p.m. and began firing musket volleys at each other to the delight of hundreds of spectators of all ages packed six and seven deep along a nearby ridge — many armed with cameras.
The soldiers were portraying events of Dec. 17-18, 1864, when forces under the command of Union Maj. Gen. George Stoneman sought to destroy salt mines, lead works and other Confederate resources in Southwest Virginia.
True to history, Union re-enactors were repelled Saturday by their Confederate counterparts maintaining well-coordinated defenses during a make-believe skirmish that lasted about an hour.
That included taking the high ground at one point in front of the appreciative crowd and unleashing a thunderous barrage of cannon fire that prompted many of those watching to cover their ears as thick smoke billowed around the scene. Such displays of firepower left some soldiers “dead” on the field.
History shows that the Confederates had to withdraw from their positions on the second day of the Battle of Marion due to dwindling ammunition and supplies. This allowed Stoneman’s troops to destroy the infrastructure in the area, a prelude to his fateful raid on Surry County in 1865.
However, no one in attendance seemed bothered by that eventual outcome Saturday, as cheers greeted the end of the mock battle.
“It’s just good, clean fun,” Carol Alderson of West Jefferson, North Carolina, said as she walked away with her husband Jim.
“People can bring their kids and let them learn about history,” added Alderson. The older couple are former re-enactors themselves who for the last four years have enjoyed simply being spectators at the annual Civil War Encampment and Living History Weekend.
It is being held for the 25th year at the Stuart birthplace, which was a beehive of activity Saturday and will continue to be so today when the gates are open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The admission cost for the event is $8 per person (but free for children 12 and under), with parking free.
In addition to uniformed re-enactment troops who are attending from states such as Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia in addition to the Carolinas, many women are dressed in Civil War attire. Also to be found on the grounds are live music, educational displays, campsites for the troops, a working blacksmith and a variety of vendors offering Civil War artwork, books and more.
Today at 2 p.m., the Battle of Fisher’s Hill will be re-created, another 1864 engagement, which was part of the Shenandoah Valley Campaigns.
The battle re-enactments are entertaining and exciting, Carol Alderson agreed, but the fact history is being showcased is at the heart of the annual event. “That’s what it’s about more than anything.”
Steve Smith of Mount Airy agreed.
“Well, it’s part of our Southern history,” Smith, who is a member of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans group, said when asked about the significance of the gathering at Laurel Hill.
“People have ancestors who fought in the Civil War,” the Mount Airy resident said of many folks in this area who want to identify with that heritage. In Smith’s case, that includes about 12 men who took part in the conflict from both sides of his family.
As part of its emphasis on realism, the Civil War Encampment and Living History Weekend features re-enactors dressed as various generals and speaking as those characters when interacting with the public.
One notable quest is Henry Kidd, a lecturer, Civil War artist and re-enactor from Colonial Heights, Virginia. He grew up playing on the battlefields surrounding Petersburg and has studied the war and its people in-depth due to his passion for that historical period.
Kidd will speak today at 11:45 a.m. at the main tent at the birthplace site, which is managed by a trust group.
Other scheduled events today include a 10 a.m. church service led by the Rev. Allen Farley, a Civil War chaplain, and music by Tina, Herbert and Catherine Conner at 11 a.m. at the same location.
A general’s council will be held in the main tent at 12:45 p.m., before the mock battle.
Meanwhile, Sharon Stuart McRee, a great-great-granddaughter of J.E.B. Stuart from Glendale, California, is attending the Laurel Hill event this year for the first time. She is impressed by the encampment and the preservation of her ancestor’s birthplace.
“It’s really astonishing,” said McRee, who has extensively researched Stuart family history in America and abroad. “It’s beyond anything I expected — the preparation, the research — the work that goes into this is amazing, the attention to detail.”
Tom Bishop, a member of the J.E.B. Stuart Birthplace Trust governing board, was pleased with Saturday’s turnout, which as of about 4 p.m. included nearly 650 people, not counting re-enactors and vendors.
“I think it’s excellent,” Bishop said, praising the beautiful weather Saturday as one factor.
And unlike the bloody four-year conflict waged from 1861-65, no one died.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.