Early this morning, I drove south from Fredericksburg, Va., with my friend Jane toward Spotsylvania Courthouse to witness the 150th anniversary reenactment of the Battle of Saunders Field — the opening engagement in the larger Battle of the Wilderness that raged from 5-6 May 1864 during the U.S. Civil War.
The Wilderness confrontation marked the first time the Union Army, now under Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, did not retreat; the first time the 23rd Infantry Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops moved out as part of the Army of the Potomac; and the first time my great, great grandfather U.S. Pvt. Arthur Bull entered the fight. Today, I attended my first reenactment of this pivotal battle.
On Courthouse Road near the battlefield, traffic thinned. We seemed to be alone on the highway when suddenly, there they were. White canvas tents pitched across the countryside north and south of the road, smoke rising from campfires and Union soldiers everywhere readying to move into battle. And just like that it was 1864 again, made tangible by thousands of reenactors paying homage to those long-gone soldiers who changed the march of history.
Later, we sat under trees beside a stream and watched the Battle of Saunders Field unfold — Union and Confederate regiments advancing and retreating, cavalry galloping to and fro, cannon batteries booming, gun smoke everywhere.
But for me, it was that first breathtaking moment seeing the Union Army bivouacked by the road that brought everything back to life — including my ancestor across the field on duty with the Union artillery.
Memorial Day weekend last year, I went with friends to a concert at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, Kings Co., N.Y.
Afterwards, I asked, “Who wants to come with me to visit the grave of J. Howard Kitching?” There were questioning looks all around.
I explained that he commanded the Union Army’s 6th New York Heavy Artillery in which my ancestor Arthur Bull served during the U.S. Civil War. I had just learned he was buried at Green-Wood, and located his plot in the cemetery’s directory. So six of us, maps in hand, set off together to pay our respects.
Brevet Brigadier General J. Howard Kitching is not an ancestor of mine. But because he shared the battles of my great, great grandfather’s unit in the Overland Campaign and later in the Shenandoah Valley, to me he is almost like family. Kitching, 26, was wounded in the Battle of Cedar Creek and later died. Visiting him on Memorial Day seemed fitting.
When I told a genealogy colleague about bringing friends to his grave she was surprised. “How do you convince people to go with you?” she asked. “I can never seem to get anyone interested.”
For some, it was a chance to see old-growth trees and birds along the way. Others were drawn by a sense of history. But as we stood around his small VA headstone, placed through the cemetery’s Civil War Project, and I told them about his role in the war, it was his story that ultimately captured and held their interest. A story that was cut short too soon.
Today I pause to remember BBG Kitching on the sesquicentennial of the Overland Campaign in which he fought.
A friend invited me to go somewhere with her on May 2. I told her I couldn’t because I’d be headed to Virginia for a U.S. Civil War reenactment.
“Now there’s an excuse you don’t hear very often,” she said.
Reactions to my trip have ranged from “You’re going where?” to “Wow, that’s so cool!” Last week, I ran into a Chilean colleague in the hall who asked me excitedly, “How did the battles go?” I reminded him that the trip isn’t until May. An African American friend said, “Go on down and win the war for us all over again.” And pretty much everyone wants to know if I will be dressing in period clothing.
I’ll admit, it is hard to put into words why I want to visit the battlefields where my ancestor Arthur Bull fought as part of the Union Army. Pride? Awe? Fascination? It’s tough to pin down.
For years, I’ve tried to imagine what it was like for him and the others in the Army of the Potomac as winter faded and, on 3-4 May 1864, they marched out silently during the night for a spring offensive that helped to end slavery and set the country on a new path.
Though the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania were fought 150 years ago, there is still an abiding interest in that landmark period — and sometimes a direct connection. A surprising number of people have said, “You know, I have an ancestor who fought in the Civil War,” and gone on to tell me their story.
Best of all was my friend Jane’s reaction, “I would love to go with you!” So on May 2, she and I will embark on our journey. Check back here for dispatches from the field.