Cannons roared, rebel yells rang through the smoky air, and 600 men in uniforms of the 1860s charged into battle in a green field 110 miles from Washington.
That was in 1864, of course -- and a few Sundays ago as well, when men came from 16 states to join students from the Virginia Military Institute in reenacting the battle of New Market, Virginia, while visitors in 1980s casual clothing watched.
That annual reenactment, with VMI's participation, is just one of the many commemorations of Civil War battles carried out in this area on summer weekends, and the throngs of spectators are, in a way, reenacting the behavior of Washingtonians of the era, who came out with carriage and lunch to watch the war itself. Our experience at New Market Battlefield Park last year is typical:
We arrived about 11, paid the $1 parking fee, parked as directed in a grassy field, and walked to the roped-off spectator viewing area where the battle would be reenacted.
We spread our blanket, picnic and folding chairs next to a kind lady who offered to keep an eye on our belongings. Thus assured of front-row seats for the battle, we explored our surroundings.
Rows of canvas tents filled the encampment area where reenactors spent the weekend as their 1864 counterparts had done. Reenactment participants usually adopt a unit that served in the Civil War, then wear authentic reproductions of that unit's uniforms. The variety of types of Civil War units and the uniforms they wear makes New Market's reenactment a colorful scene.
Outside one tent a Zouave unit dressed in bright red pantaloons, white leggings, blue jackets and red stocking caps was pulling on a long rope in a lively tug of war with a unit of white-shirted, blue-trousered, black-booted, kepi-hatted young cavalrymen, while a belle in a royal blue ruffled hoop shirt and wool shawl cheered the Zouaves to victory.
A group of young men with modern military haircuts and 1860s VMI cadet uniforms had come from the school to represent the 247 young cadets who marched up from Lexington and fought here on the rainy Sunday afternoon of May 15, 1864. Ten of those cadets died in battle, but the rest captured a key Union battery and helped rout the Union troops in this, one of the last Confederate victories in the Shenandoah.
A film about the young cadets' march from classroom to battlefield is shown in the Hall of Valor, a new million-dollar museum here. The farmhouse, and orchard from which these cadets came under fire are a short walk from the museum.
We were looking at the restored home of the Bushong family, whose farm it was, when the reenactment units began assembling for battle. We hurried back to our selected spot, opened our Southern fried chicken picnic (which I'd had packed for us at a nearby old hotel's dining room) and settled down to watch the battle unfold before our eyes.
The rattle of musket fire in the distance came from the direction of New Market, a mile away, and signaled, as it did in 1864, the advance of the Confederate forces toward the wheatfield on the Bushong farm, which the Union troops occupied and where we now sat.
A small group of men in Union officers' uniforms, representing Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel and his staff, strode onto the upper right side of the hill and peered into the distance.
A cannon was pushed into position. A unit of blue-coated artillerymen crossed the field and knelt in the tall grass. A courier from the general's staff rode out on horseback to confer with the men in the field.
Snapping noises like rounds of firecrackers and rebel yells sounded as the first Confederates appeared. The blue- and gray-clad groups exchanged shots.
Casualties fell in various stages of agony. All soon rose to rejoin the attack, for shells and live ammunition aren't allowed at reenactments, and detailed rules are enforced to ensure the safety and protection of all.
A Confederate unit marched up the dirt road behind us and entered the field. The Union cannon roared from the top of the hill, and the Confederate troops fell back.
Confederate cannons were placed at the bottom of the hill. Artillerymen rammed home the charge, and the cannons spit their fiery answer to the Union guns. Smoke covered the field, as the troops manuevered toward each other.
Gunfire, advances and retreats continued until, about an hour after it began, the battle was climaxed with the capture of the Union battery by the VMI cadets.
As the reenactment ended, spectators mingled with troops leaving the battlefield. My favorite was a spirited unit of Union cavalry marching (their horses must have been captured) back to their tents singing "Around Her Neck She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" in perfect time to their steps.
As the VMI unit marched past, I noticed a scratch on one cadet's hand, the only injury I saw at this battle.
As these cadets boarded a van to return to VMI, we set off on the two-hour drive back to Washington feeling as though we'd stepped back in time to see and hear a stirring moment in our country's history.