For those of you who have been reading my little pieces on the rich history of Union and her students, you may have begun to notice that I am a bit of a nerd. That would be a 100-percent correct statement to make.
To add to my “geekiness,” I am a historical reenactor. Last week, I was not able to write an article because I was preparing to head off to Middletown, Va., to take part in the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Cedar Creek. A battle which, by its end, would cause a little fewer than 8,000 casualties.
Three Union graduates would be wounded during the battle and Class of 1860 Johannes Lefevre, captain of the 156th New York division, would die as a result of those wounds received during the fighting. On my way to Middletown, my former high school teacher and I stopped at the infamous Antietam Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Md.
The Battle of Antietam may be known to many of you as the single bloodiest day during the War Between the States. After taking a photo in front of Dunker Church and taking an eerie walk on Sunken Road, we came to a small stone bridge that connected a small, wooded flatland to a steep hill.
This once-insignificant bridge became a historical landmark named after the primary user of the bridge on Sept. 17, 1862: Union Army Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside. What connects Burnside’s Bridge with Union College has to do with the man who was attempting to stop and force the Union Army’s IX Corps, which was being led by Gen. Burnside.
The man in charge of the 450 Confederate soldiers from Georgia defending against Burnside was Union Class of 1828 graduate Robert Toombs.
Brig. Gen. Toombs was able to hold-off more than 14,000 Union soldiers for a little under three hours with his measly force of less than 500. Toombs and his men inflicted over 500 causalities while only receiving 120.
Greatly outnumbered and running dangerously low on ammunition, Toombs was forced to fall back at 1:30 p.m. and cover the rear of Gen. James Longstreet. The fighting for Toombs and his few men was not done.
Because he was outnumbered about two-to-one, Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia were taking heavy causalities and it appeared to many that Gen. of the Army of the Potomac George B. McClellan could have easily wiped out the Lee’s army.
But Toombs, after taking a beating at Burnside’s Bridge, was able to hold off the 51st New York and Pennsylvania divisions long enough to allow Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia to escape what seemed to be their final battle. Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet both agreed that Toombs “maintained (his) position with distinguished gallantry.” In fact, Toombs had become “the talk of the army.” His success at Antietam late in the afternoon of Sept. 17 may have one of the reasons the war would continue on for a few more years.
One year and 11 months later, on Oct. 19, 1864, the Battle of Cedar Creek was fought between the Union Army, under the command of Philip Sheridan, and the Johnny Rebs, led by Jubal Early. I walked upon the same ground on which over 52,000 brave souls engaged in bloody conflict, 150 years later.
In 2014, more than 6,000 reenactors took part in this historic anniversary. I did not wear the Yankee Blue or Confederate Gray, but instead wore a suit and portrayed a clerk to the sutler of the 2nd United States Volunteers. A sutler was a traveling store that was hired by the army to provide goods and products that Uncle Sam could not afford to provide. The benefit of being a clerk to the sutler Saul Goode was that I had the ability to watch the battles.
I stood on a small hill, looked across the valley and saw a sea of 2,000 men in blue in formation, with bayonets gleaming in the sun, waiting for the command to fire.
Across from them were hundreds of Johnny Rebs scattered and firing upon the Billy Yanks.
The blue sky was hidden by the thick blanket of gun smoke and 26 cannons were lined up, aiming into the valley, and were commanded to fire by piece.
Boom! Boom! Boom! The volleys of the cannons echoed across the battlefield and everyone watched in awe. The boys in blue were being pushed back by the Southern rebels and all seemed lost for the Union Army.
But then, without any notice, a man riding his horse with great haste and dressed as Gen. Philip Sheridan came flying through the Union Army.
The bravery and strength shown by their commander inspired the Union soldiers to fight on and push the Confederates back into a rapid retreat. As I stood in amazement, a shiver ran down my spine. There I was: A mere boy seeing the recreation of one of the most heroic moments from the American Civil War.
It was moment that I have read about countless times, and I was witnessing it unfold right before my eyes. It was as if I was a time traveler who was fortunate enough to see the beauty of a horrifying war.