They came to honor the dead.
Men clad in butternut and blue gathered beneath a gray overcast sky, bearing candles to light the night on Fleetwood Hill.
A dozen or more reenactors with the Liberty Rifles fanned out across the hilltop to place 500 luminaria along its trail loop. Punctuated by wayside interpretive markers, the trail winds across the ground trod by visitors to Culpeper County’s Brandy Station battlefield, where the most men lost their lives in fierce fighting 156 years ago today.
The top-flight group of living historians from mid-Atlantic states strive for authenticity in portraying the Civil War’s fighting men and homefront civilians. They wanted to call attention to the battle’s anniversary and the effort to create a state park that will spotlight the stories of peril, sacrifice and surprise embodied by Culpeper’s Brandy Station and Cedar Mountain battlefields.
So the Liberty Rifles partnered with the Brandy Station and Cedar Mountain State Park Alliance to pull off this first-ever event, modeled after much larger luminaria programs held annually at Antietam National Battlefield and Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.
Each Fleetwood Hill luminaria, a paper bag filled with sand and a lighted candle, represented 10 of the soldiers who were killed, wounded, captured or went missing during the 1862 and 1863 battles in Culpeper.
“We hope that this illumination of Culpeper’s battlefield resources ... inspires Virginians of all ages and backgrounds to visit these hallowed grounds at a time when they, too, can pause to remember and reflect upon what happened here so many years ago,” said Mark Coombs, the American Battlefield Trust’s deputy director of government relations.
Fought on Aug. 9, 1862, the Battle of Cedar Mountain pitted Confederate commanders Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and A.P. Hill against John Pope, leader of the Union’s brand-new Army of Virginia. Culpeper’s first and bloodiest major Civil War battle, it inflicted 3,691 casualties.
Brandy Station, fought on June 9, 1863, began as a surprise Union cavalry raid and opened Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Gettysburg Campaign of 1863. The battle marked the first time in the conflict that Union troopers held their own against J.E.B. Stuart’s renowned cavalry.
Fleetwood Hill, where Confederate Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart pitched his headquarters tent, became the furious, swirling, blood-soaked heart of North America’s largest cavalry battle. Whomever controlled the long ridge’s high ground could dominate the battlefield, which ranged across miles of Virginia countryside.
As they placed the luminaria, one by one, on Friday afternoon and evening for a photo shoot arranged by the American Battlefield Trust, members of the Liberty Rifles expressed appreciation for the solemn occasion. Each historian had taken time from work and family and driven many miles to participate. They said they were happy to volunteer.
“Every time you read a number in history, for example, the 1,400 casualties suffered at Brandy Station, it’s so incredibly easy to normalize those staggering numbers through the lens of the past, and to quickly make them impersonal,” said Michael Clarke, the reenactors’ leader.
“We want to gain insight and empathy, and try to comprehend who those 1,400 men were. What were they doing there, and why? The stories are vast,” Clarke added. “So any way that we can make those numbers more tangible, we better remember their sacrifices and struggles—whether that be through luminaria, living history, preserved ground, wayside markers or more.”
To add some extra pizzazz to the occasion, the Liberty Rifles trucked in two horses and a 3-inch ordnance rifle and its two-wheeled ammunition chest. Appropriate gestures, since Brandy Station was all about the cavalry, and a lone Confederate cannon atop Fleetwood Hill slowed Union attackers.
The horses roamed gently across the hilltop as evening came on, accompanied by the sounds of birdsong, the sparkle of lightning bugs and the whistle of passing trains on the former Orange & Alexandria Railroad.
When dusk approached, the Liberty Rifles gun crew manned their cannon and fired off four rounds, with each muzzle blast deafening nearby onlookers and lighting up the night sky.
Fredericksburg-area freelance photographer Buddy Secor, an expert at battlefield landscape photography, captured each moment.
Twinkling in the twilight, the luminaria ringed Fleetwood’s recently developed loop trail, whose markers describe different events and people during the battle. It’s one of five trails the trust maintains on its Culpeper lands.
Open to the public, the Trust’s interpretive trails in Culpeper County—at Fleetwood Hill, Buford’s Knoll, Cedar Mountain and St. James Church—stretch more than 3 miles, said Jon Mitchell, the trust’s Geographic Information System specialist.
For maps, mileages and trailside photos, he consulted the trust’s Visit Brandy Station web page on his smartphone. The trust also offers a free Brandy Station multimedia app for smartphone and tablets, with GPS positioning, for travelers.
The trust’s acreage in Culpeper County is among its most sizable holdings. The nonprofit has preserved more than 50,000 acres in 24 states, with more than half that land in Virginia, the most fought-over state in the Civil War.
“Even among Virginia’s many significant Civil War sites, Brandy Station and Cedar Mountain stand out,” Coombs said. “More than 1,000 acres have been purchased and permanently protected by the preservation community across the pair of battlefields to date.”
Before turning in for the night with their horses in a grove of trees across Fleetwood Heights Road, the Liberty Rifles joked and bantered among themselves, much as soldiers have done down through the ages. And then their leader turned serious, for a moment.
“We are glad to be a part of something that we believe is of significant value, something worth preserving, honoring and remembering,” Clarke said.
By the time the living historians tucked in beneath their blankets, stars were beginning to poke through the clouds high overhead.