Battle of 1864 to be marked

140th anniversary: Original battleground is owned and operated by Virginia Military Institute, whose cadets marched to battle there

May 09, 2004|By Katherine Denoyer | Katherine Denoyer,SUN STAFF

Every May, thousands of history buffs and area residents gather for the re-enactment of the battle of New Market in northern Virginia. This year marks the 140th anniversary of the Civil War battle and will be performed on the date of the actual battle, May 15. The battlefield, along with its surrounding farm buildings, has been preserved thanks to its status as a State Historical Park, and is open for tours year-round.

The Bushong Farm property, where much of the fighting took place, was acquired in the 1940s by George R. Collins, a 1911 graduate of the Virginia Military Institute. According to park director Scott H. Harris, Collins left the property and an operating endowment of $3 million to the Virginia Military Institute so that the battlefield could be maintained "as a tribute to the heroism of the cadets who fought there. ... The park continues to derive about half of its operating income through interest from the Collins Endowment and the rest from admissions and museum store sales."

Although the park is a state agency, no tax funds are used for park operations, Harris said.

The battlefield gained its historical definition as the New Market Battlefield Memorial in 1964; the State Historical Park officially opened in 1967. Owned and operated by VMI, the park protects 300 acres of the core battlefield site. Yet it has not been totally preserved, nor is it immune from development. In fact it is now bisected by Interstate 81, which was constructed in the 1960s.

The threats from development are far from over. The park staff, which includes seven full-time and 10 part-time employees, remains concerned about planned widening of the highway, which would put 30 acres of parkland at risk, Harris says.

Harris is looking onto the possibility of acquiring additional land for the park from neighboring farmers, one of whom harvests hay from the fields.

Harris says that "in many ways the park is a renewable resource, and we strive to be responsible stewards of both the land and the history it represents."

The park staff considers its mission to be the interpretation of the battle and all who fought in it, with emphasis on the VMI cadets. They also interpret the impact of the Civil War on the Shenandoah Valley and Virginia in general.

The Visitor Services department orients visitors, takes admissions and handles sales in the museum store.

The Department of Historical Interpretation presents educational programs and tours to general visitors and groups, particularly to groups visiting on school field trips. These programs include living history programs which take place on the battlefield, at the Bushong Farm and in a military camp environment being introduced this spring.

The maintenance department takes care of the buildings and grounds, including maintaining several miles of split-rail fences.

Two museums have been constructed in the park to give visitors more information on the battle and its context.

The Virginia Military Institute Museum in Jackson Memorial Hall commemorates the 257 VMI cadets who fought in the battle. This museum closed early this year to begin a renovation project that will cost approximately $3.3 million, take three years to complete, and double the size of the museum to 13,000 square feet.

New exhibits in the museum will include the story of alumni contribution to American history. In addition, the entire Henry M. Stewart Antique Firearms Collection will be exhibited for the first time.

The Hall of Valor Museum, which opened in 1970, offers the opportunity to tour a Civil War battlefield, experience Shenandoah Valley farm life in the 19th century, and discover the role of the Virginia Military Institute cadets in the Battle of New Market.

While exploring the battlefield, visitors discover the Bushong Farm site with its eight outbuildings.

The Bushong house, which served as a field hospital after the battle, is open during the summer. A special exhibit gives a brief history of VMI and introduces some of the 257 cadets who fought in this battle.

A 15-minute film on the battle of New Market also helps explain the role of VMI in this battle.

Katherine Denoyer is a senior majoring in journalism at Loyola College in Baltimore. This article was written as part of an academic internship with The Sun.

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