MIDDLETOWN, Va. — Late Sunday morning, hundreds of Civil War reenactors concluded their battle on a rolling patch of grass 80 miles west of Washington.
In normal years, taps would be played and each side would march back to its tent encampments. But this was hardly a normal year. Last week, organizers announced they had received a letter threatening “bodily harm” to attendees. And Saturday, the battlefield had to be temporarily cleared because a suspicious device, possibly a pipe bomb, was found.
“U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” the reenactors began shouting, underscoring not just their sense of patriotism but the umbrage many felt at having their hobby dragged into the national debate over race and Confederate-era symbolism.
“We wanted to send a message,” said Keith MacGregor, 56, from Lebanon, Pa., who was playing the role of a Union infantry captain for the reenactment of the Battle of Cedar Creek, held not far from here. “We wanted to show the U.S. that we aren’t going to let some terrorist, or some nut, stop the event. I was never prouder of people in our hobby.”
Before and after the minute-long “U.S.A.” chant, the two sides who acted out the battle came together and thanked each other for coming — and for staying. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played and sung. So was “Dixie.”
“You did not see any reenactors in Charlottesville,” said Confederate reenactor Terry Shelton, referring to the gathering of white supremacists in the Virginia city in August. The event turned violent and led to three deaths.
The public was not allowed onto the battlefield or into the reenactor camps Sunday, but could watch the battle from a distance.
Local and federal law enforcement officials declined Sunday to describe the “suspicious item” found at the battlefield here about 4 p.m. Saturday, which prompted law enforcement to evacuate the immediate area. Several reenactors said they were told it looked like a pipe bomb.
In a statement Sunday, the FBI said that “the device was located during an annual reenactment of the Battle of Cedar Creek. No persons were harmed and the device was rendered safe by the Virginia State Police.”
Dee Rybiski, an FBI spokeswoman, said Sunday that the bureau “was not elaborating on the device.”
The FBI is investigating the incident, along with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Virginia State Police; the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office; and the Middletown Police Department.
The battle reenacted Sunday took place on Oct. 19, 1864, and was a Union victory.
In August, a two-day reenactment in Manassas — meant to show how Union and Confederate soldiers lived during the Civil War — was canceled. Though there were no plans to reenact a battle, several organizers were worried about possible trouble, given the racially charged atmosphere nationwide over whether to remove Civil War monuments.
Last week, organizers of the Cedar Creek event posted a warning on the group’s website.
“We would like to make everyone aware that the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation has received a letter threatening bodily harm to attendants of this event,” the foundation said in the statement. “With this in mind security has been increased and we ask that everyone work with us for a safe and enjoyable event.”
The two-day event started Saturday morning. Frederick County sheriff’s deputies — some on four-wheelers — stood sentry at the staging grounds.
All the trappings of previous years’ events were on display. There were tent encampments, where the uniformed soldiers would spend the night. Other reenactors played the parts of surgeons, embalmers and priests. There were horses and cannons and lots of flags.
But as the day progressed, and reenactments began, spectator George Rust, from Winchester, Va., said he thought the threat had dissuaded people from coming out.
“There’s not near the spectators,” Rust said. “Usually, on Saturday, you can’t walk around here.”
The 66-year-old construction worker, who wore a “Pride of the South” hat featuring Robert E. Lee and a Confederate flag, worried he might have come to the last reenactment of the Battle of Cedar Creek. He said that history is under attack and that it’s important, especially for younger people, to be learning about it.
“Take that girl there,” he said, pointing to a grade-schooler in pink shorts playing with her mom. “She’s learning. She’s picking it up.”
“The Confederate camp looked to me only half-strength of what it was last year,” said Mark Corley, 58, a former co-worker and friend of Rust’s from Cumberland, Md.
“You have to understand, a lot of this is family-oriented,” said Corley, who is retired. “So whether it’s going to materialize or not, whenever there is a threat like that made, of course your first concerns have to be for your wife, your children.”
“It’s really sad that it’s gotten to this point where you have organizations or people who are threatening violence,” said Robert Bailey, 62, a retired D.C. police officer who said he has been coming to the Cedar Creek reenactments for 21 years.
Bailey said he had heard the letter sent to the foundation threatened that excrement would be thrown or weapons fired at the reenactors.
“I understand why people want to bring the statues down, why they want to get rid of the flag,” he said, watching the battle from the rear because of a heart attack a year ago, a huge feather drooping from his officer’s cap. “But even if you do . . . the history is still there.”
He said he and other reenactors didn’t hesitate to play the role of Union troops and were mostly focused on re-creating the battle as accurately as possible.
Karla Macias and her two daughters stood at an embalming tent, watching as a white actor “operated” on an African American mannequin draped in an American flag.
Macias, a 43-year-old teacher at a Christian academy in Inwood, W.Va., said protesters had “blown things out of proportion.” She said she and her daughters, who are Mexican American, don’t take offense at the Confederate flag.
“I have a hard time with people trying to erase our history,” she said. “A country can’t be a country without a past.”
“This is exciting,” said her elder daughter, Elizabette, 16. “I wish they’d advertise this more.”
Yoly Harrell, wearing a long brown dress and holding a parasol, said she had spent the morning making oatmeal, eggs and sausage patties for soldiers. A 55-year-old nurse in Fredericksburg, Harrell said she came to the United States years ago from El Salvador.
She said she wasn’t put off by her history-teacher husband dressing up as a Confederate soldier. “We had our own war,” she said of El Salvador. “History stays there, no matter what people say.”