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Putting an end to war

Since moving to Farmville, I’ve learned that Civil War recollections take center stage every April. During my school years in various classrooms located on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, I heard about the war where men in blue uniforms fought against those who wore gray. From the Southern perspective, teachers and texts talked about states’ rights and unfair economic policies. In the North, the narrative was all about freeing slaves. I was in high school when I realized that the War Between the States and the Civil War were names for the same historical episode. I remember the surprise of that revelation.

When I first encountered annual Civil War events in our area, I didn’t see their purpose. Celebrating a war seemed strange. I felt confused about why people would want to be reminded of tragedies surrounding an incident that had claimed the lives of some 625,000 people. To my original way of thinking, reenacting events was merely a way to recreate the horror, albeit in a safer setting.

I now realize that the remembrances are not intended as festive merrymaking. Reenactments are not costume parties. Instead, the annual observations serve as memorials, community expressions of mourning that honor the thousands of lives lost. Any celebratory features focus on the cessation of the fighting. The end of the slaughter. The inauguration of peace. Celebrating those concepts is something I can understand.

Several years ago, our region marked the 150th anniversary of the war’s end. This year marks the 154th year, an anniversary that apparently lacks a fancy, Latin-derived name like the term sesquicentennial that labeled the century and a half milestone in 2015. Nevertheless, a full slate of events remembering the final weeks of the war has been planned. Coordinated by Virginia’s Crossroads, an organization representing 11 localities in South Central Virginia, the occasion is titled “Experience the End: The Appomattox Campaign.” Running from March 30 until April 14, it features demonstrations, tours, interpretive hikes, and other presentations at various places from Petersburg to Appomattox. And, just as the war’s events unfolded in 1865, the experience will come to the Farmville region over the weekend of April 6 and 7.

On April 6, the experience will focus on the battle at Sailor’s Creek (and whether that is spelled correctly or if it should be Saylers Creek appears to be a question that remains unsettled). During that engagement in 1865, which was the last major battle of the war, more than 7,700 Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured. Union casualties numbered more than 1,000. The Hillsman House, located within the 341 acres that comprise Sailor’s Creek Battlefield State Park, served as a field hospital. For this year’s commemoration, a daylong program will feature costumed historians portraying soldiers and civilians who will lead activities for the general public.

Then attention will turn to the Battles of High Bridge, where the Confederate and Union armies clashed during a two-part engagement that culminated in the partial burning of the bridge. On April 7, High Bridge Trail State Park will host a day of historically themed events. High Bridge stretches for nearly a half mile over the Appomattox River and surrounding flood plain. During Civil War times, it carried rail traffic. A wagon bridge stood below it. On April 6, 1865, Confederate troops fought to protect the bridge so that they could cross it. The following day, efforts turned to burning it to keep Union troops from following. The attempt was only partially successful. As a result, the Union Army continued its pursuit, and two days later on April 9, General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House.

Appomattox Court House National Historical Park and the American Civil War Museum (also in Appomattox) will present post-surrender demonstrations and exhibits on April 13 and 14. For more information about “Experience the End,” visit the website AppomattoxCampaign. org.

The desire to mark the end of a war that concluded more than 150 years ago offers a piece of hope for the future. Perhaps someday all of humanity can join together in peace, and the concept of war itself will be relegated to the pages of history.

KAREN BELLENIR has been writing for The Farmville Herald since 2009. Her book, Happy to Be Here: A Transplant Takes Root in Farmville, features a compilation of her columns. It is available from PierPress.com. You can contact Karen at kbellenir@PierPress.com.