Tag Archives: Living History

Walking a Mile in Their (Civil War) Shoes: The Perils of Living History

Biblical parables and shop-worn cliches aside, my feet hurt. I simply cannot imagine marching hundreds of miles with these medieval torture devices on my feet, only to be thrown into some of the most brutal combat our country has ever seen.

Civil War shoes worn by the author

Shoes of a Confederate Infantryman Worn by the Author

Ok, so I’m overstating the case. But, these shoes are not Nike Air Jordans (Yes, I’m dating myself here).  They are authentic recreations of the typical nineteenth century footwear worn by Confederate soliders on Civil War Battlefields during one of America’s darkest times. The soles are thin but hard, and they are fastened together by iron nails, as you can see in the photo.  The nails create the contact point with the ground, which makes the shoes slippery on hard, smooth surfaces (such as the ubiquitous hardwood floors of that era), as well as hard and inflexible on the bottoms of one’s feet.

After about 30 minutes of wearing them, my feet felt like I had hiked on a concrete path for 10 miles. The souls of the men that wore these on long marches and into battle had to be harder than the soles on their feet.

This, of course, is the point of Living History Civil War Re-enactment is much more than playing dress-up and fantasizing about daring adventures in the days of yore. Re-enactment is about treading where the people of the past have tread and experiencing what they experienced as best as one can with our modern sensibilities. In its purest form, Living History is about empathy and education. To an observer it may seem silly. To a participant, it is often quite serious.

I wore these shoes during a happy and light-hearted affair, but when I sat down after the fanfare was over, rubbing my sore feet while relaxing in one of our whirlpool suites, I reflected on the people that have come before. Something as simple as a shoe, and the very real pain it caused, was enough to help me appreciate the hardened force of will that must have permeated the armies of the Civil War, both Federal and Confederate. Tough men in tough times doing tough things.

This is why the work of those who would educate us about the historical mileu is so important. Mort Kunstler, for example, is a renowned artist of Civil War scenes. His work is authentic, inspiring, and evocative. He brings out the human and emotional element of some of the quieter but more poignant moments of the American Civil War.  We were honored to host this eminent artist at a reception in our historic inn, especially since the scene Mort Kunstler depicted in Unconquered Spirit occurred just two blocks from our house, which was standing at that time. In fact, only a few months after Generals Lee, Hill, and Longstreet came together in front of the courthouse in the Town of Orange (the scene from Unconquered Spirit), a number of Lee’s officers, including the famous J.E.B Stuart, attended a wedding party right in our parlor! Thus, with several folks (including Sharon and I) dressed in period-appropriate clothes, the reception took on a meaning and a flair akin to that of the Civil War wedding reception that, according to one contemporary diarist,  continued until 4 o’clock in the morning!  Town and County officials, local residents, historians, and friends celebrated Mr. Kunstler’s work with food, wine, and good cheer. The following day, Mr. Kunstler signed his prints on the historic steps of the Orange County Courthouse, which was the backdrop for his recent painting.

We would like to extend a special “thank you” to Steve Silvia of J.S. Mosby’s Antiques and Bill and Nancy Graham for providing authentic period clothing, as well as Brian Pratlow for serving as part of our honor guard and as a greeter. Our favorite local caterer, Chef Paul Diegl from Real Food provided some of the food. Also, thank you to Frank Walker, emminent local historian and Civil War tour guide, for helping to organize the event!

For anyone who is interested, we served wine from Barboursville, a popular Virginia winery. The Cabernet Sauvignon was the clear favorite!

James Madison’s Montpelier has some new cool stuff to do…

We are returning  to our Virginia Bed and Breakfast after a short vacation (first one we’ve taken in about two years). We are refreshed!  So, if you missed our blog last week, I’m sorry–but, even innkeepers need a sanity-preserver every now and then.

A skill that has taken me a long time to master is that of the Brain Dump.  When I go on vacation, I open the drain plug in my medulla and all overflowing data drains out of my skull in a mini-maelstrom of forgetful bliss.  Thus, upon returning to the inn, I began looking at upcoming events in our area to refresh my memory about what’s going on.  I’d be remiss if I did not pass some of the information along to our faithful readers!

President James Madison

James Madison at Montpelier, just 3 miles from our Virginia Bed and Breakfast! (photo by Jen Fariello)

James Madison’s Montpelier is hosting a number of fun things in the next few weeks.   One that really intrigues me is Weekends with the Madisons. Each weekend, two fantastic  James and Dolley Madison impersonators (or is “re-enactors” a more appropriate terms?) will greet guests at Montpelier.

According to the Montpelier Blog, “Guests may call on Mr. and Mrs. Madison in the mansion’s south wing. “Dolley Madison’s Salon” will be held on Saturdays from 11:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. Mrs. Madison, in full costume, will chat with guests about her husband’s role in crafting the Constitution. She became an expert on this subject during his retirement, when she helped James organize his papers from the Constitutional Convention.

“President James Madison” will be at home on Sundays, 12:00 Noon–5:00 p.m. and at leisure to receive visitors during the afternoon. Now, in the summer of 1810, “Mr. Madison” will be engaged in his oversight of the farm, while also attending to his duties as president while at Montpelier. He will discuss present concerns in 1810 as president, his work in drafting the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, his early life, and other topics of interest and concern to his guests. Visitors are encouraged to introduce themselves and should feel free to ask him questions; he has always enjoyed entertaining guests at Montpelier.”

I have seen these talented folks before, and can attest to their knowledge and ability. Apparently, the actress who plays Dolley has a PhD in Political Philosophy, and Madison’s writings were the focus of her dissertation. So, this is no frivolous enterprise!

One thing that very few people know is that, long after the Madisons had died, Confederate soldiers used James Madison’s Montpelier estate as a Confederate camp during the Civil War.  Local Civil War re-enactors have been steadily reconstructing this camp, using authentic 19th century techniques.  On Sunday, August 15th,  Civil War reenactors from the 3rd Regiment of the Army of Northern Virginia will continue rebuilding the huts occupied by General Samuel McGowan’s South Carolinians during the winter of 1863-1864. The reenactors will use the same construction techniques as McGowan’s men.

I always enjoy “Living History” and have visited this site while re-enactors were there to interpret their activities.  The encampment is a great reminder that history persists at a location long after the most celebrated events occurred there.

Finally, as a trained archaeologist myself, I must tell you about the archaeology programs continually happening at Montpelier. Montpelier regularly schedules programs for anyone who wants to experience real field-work and labratory work alongside trained archaeolgists.  There’s nothing like finding a piece of someone’s daily life that has not been touched by human hands for a few hundred years, and these programs are a great opportunity for education and excitement. If you want to get dirty here in Orange, Virginia, let us know and we will be happy to help you make the arrangements!