Monday, August 25, 2008

Tenting on the old camp ground.........

My road trip to northern Virginia this past weekend,went quite well. I got to spend some quality time with my adopted family the Randalls, spent the day at the Carlyle house in Alexandria on Saturday with my shipmates from the Dragon and then having nothing else pressing to do, took a tour of both the Fredricksburg and Chancellorsville battlefields on the way home Sunday.

The orders were to be at the Carlyle house at 9:00 AM for the start of the show. I had spent the night before at King George with the Randalls which is about 1 hour south of Alexandria. I left in plenty of time to be able to stop and get some coffee on the way up and arrived in town about 8:45. When I arrived, I discovered that Alexandria has a farmer's market on Saturday morning so I had to weave my way through hordes of Birkenstock wearing, limousine liberals picking up baguettes and fresh cut flowers. I must have driven around the Carlyle house three times before I finally spotted the signs which were hidden behind all the farm trucks. I managed to locate my shipmates who helped me off load my gear and get me parked.

I got settled under a tree with Miss Jan (Doc Lee's wife) and started doing some knot work. I finished up a couple of cats and a few other odds and ends. Again, as the public walked by they came over to see what I was doing. The public has a fascination for any type of demonstrated handcraft. Again as I have said over and over again we, as a people have for the most part, gotten away from (or lack the ability of ) making things. It's much easier for most people to buy it. You can sit and simply carve on a stick and draw a crowd. How many kids today even own a pocket knife?

We were joined by our friends in the Royal Marines later in the morning and together we served as shills for the house. Standing around for photo ops and drawing in the public. There were a few weird moments that stood out. Early in the morning a gentleman in modern kilt and gear shows up and start playing a selection of tunes on the bagpipe. When he cranked up, because of the way the buildings were set up it was so loud that I couldn't talk above the noise. For just about 45 minutes I just sat and smiled at the visiting public. It turns out that a big buck contributor made a deal with the site people that whenever they have a event, this guy comes out to play to "draw the public in" It didn't work........

What we were doing, if I didn't tell you earlier was commemorating the surrender of Alexandria to the Royal Navy in the War of 1812. It seems that in 1814 three frigates came up the river opened up their gun ports and told the town fathers that if the town didn't surrender, they would pound the town into dust. The town fathers being no fools, surrendered posthaste. They surrendered to the point where they sent word to the American government to NOT send troops to try to rescue them. We were portraying sailors who were sent into town to assure that the conditions of the surrender were followed. The town fathers were required to provide food, supplies, tobacco, naval stores and just about anything else the Navy wanted.

Now we could have had a lot of fun with this scenario, but the site just did not explore the possibilities. So in the vacuum the locals tried to fill in. We had a fellow show up dressed in a faux colonial outfit made of a blue velvet that would not have looked out of place with a portrait of Elvis painted on it. He also had a wig that made him look like a walking Q-tip. He told all and sundry people he ran into that he was a British civilian ship's captain who was trying to do some trading with the locals. I didn't want to bust his bubble, but I wanted to ask him why he wanted to trade with people that his country was at war with. He suggested to me that if he was to join our group, with his knowledge of nautical matters, he could be of great deal of use to us. I suggested that Jim talk to him, but for some reason it just didn't happen.

Then, a little later, a fully uniformed 1812 American Army regular appeared in the middle of our camp. He proceeded to give a musket demonstration to include firing at least three times. (He was shooting some WAY overloaded cartridges) As far`as I know, he didn't check with anyone before doing this. I thought about opening up on him with my blunderbuss, but I didn't think the boss would have liked it. At around 4:00 we packed our gear and headed out.

Due to my fried knees, I opted out of the second day event in Maryland but figured that I could check out some stuff on the way home so I stopped by the Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville battlefields. Having never been to Chancellorsville I figured it might be interesting.

I did my moment of communing with nature at Chancellorsville. Near the visitor's center was the location where Stonewall Jackson was fatally wounded by his own soldiers the night of the battle. The fatal shots were strangely enough fired by soldiers in the 18th North Carolina Inf. Regt. I keep reminding myself of the old term, "Friendly fire, isn't". I picked up a piece of "hardtack" at the visitor's center and gimped out into the woods and just drank in the atmosphere while gnawing on the hardtack. I always do something like that when I first go to a historic site just to get a "feel" for the area. I know it sounds a little weird, but it helps me get a feel for the place.

It WAS a interesting site, but it was also just a bit disappointing. I am glad that we had the foresight to save these bits of hallowed ground but for whatever reason we just stopped there. Both sites have exhibits that might have first been done in the 1960's with clip and paste letters, dull colors and poor lighting. It gave you a overwhelming feeling of low rent and seediness. I understand that when budgets are tight, history suffers, but come on.....Men fought and died at these sights and no one can spring for the cost of a new coat of paint? No help to do the work? What about people working off community service after being convicted of D.U.I.? Hell, what about the chain gang? There are ways that you can get stuff done, you just need to be able to think outside the box once in a while. I will give the staff at Chancellorsville a bit of grudging respect since they did have signs up in the visitor center advertising the upcoming 150th anniversary of the battle in 2013. They also have 150th commemorative coffee cups, T-shirts and other stuff for sale. I guess they want to avoid the rush and have the stuff ready, but it seems to me that they have their priorities a bit skewed. but what do "I" know?

I also now better understand the problem of urban sprawl that seems to want to swallow up battlefields. The plank road that goes from Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville is nothing more than strip malls, filling stations and other benefits of modern civilization. There is a small break about midway however. Salem Church which was the site of a battle affiliated with the Chancellorsville campaign and the land it sits on has been preserved. It is a very nice sized brick church which suffered some damage in the battle. It is still used as a house of worship but one of the most interesting things about it is the HUGE monument that somewhat overshadows the church building. The monument is dedicated to the 15th New Jersey Inf. I can't help but wonder how that monument got placed there and how much controversy was stirred up when it was first suggested. I would bet that there were one or two old gray haired gentlemen in the church congregation that were not happy to see it erected. But maybe I am wrong. Maybe by the time the monument was put up, the bitterness was gone and the old timers only remembered the good times and fellowship of the war.

You just never know.


Andrew Duppstadt said...

Very nice post, sir. Lots to grin about and think about. Sounds like a great trip.

mrwill said...

Hi Andrew,

Thank you for the kind words. I did have a pretty good time and even more important I learned some new things and gained an better appreciation for that "other war"