One hundred and fifty years ago, newspaper headlines all across the United States were emblazoned with the surrender of General Robert E. Lee and his Confederate Army at the Appomattox Courthouse, no more than a two hour drive from here.
April 9, 2015 marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of the end of the U.S. Civil War, and for many around Radford the day will undoubtedly pass without one fleeting thought of what that means.
There are some, however, who understand the significance of what transpired here during the war, and who do their best to make sure the hard lessons learned are not easily forgotten.
“I think that so many things that we take for granted had their start in the Civil War,” says Geoff White, student media’s own assistant director, “… I’d like more people to just take a look and learn a little bit.”
“I read about the Civil War all the time,” he says, “and I’m always learning something new.” Like many of us, White grew up surrounded by historic civil war locations, battlefields, and monuments. Eventually, this lead to a fascination with the history and a hobby of reenacting on the very battlegrounds that he had read about.
“We’re going to be at Appomattox (this) weekend,” says White of his unit, “I’m also going to be presenting a paper about a soldier who fought in the Civil War that weekend, so I’ve got a pretty busy weekend.” For him, the best way to learn about the history is to participate in it.
White portrays a corporal in the 3rd U.S. Regular Infantry about one weekend a month, and does more than just dress the part.
“As reenactors, we call this our impression,” he explains of his 1860’s persona, “…and as close as can be reasonably expected, (we) try to live as a civil war soldier would have lived and present that to the people who are there to watch.”
White explained that this includes everything from living and sleeping in a period correct tent or ‘bivouac’, to digging fortifications and trenches, eating the same type of rations, and occasionally even entertaining his fellow troopers with some fiddle playing between battles.
As many know, Virginia was a key a location during the war. Not only was the southern capitol here, but troops and battle lines moved up and down the state constantly between 1861 and 1865.
Only a matter of days before the end of the war, the confederates had retreated from Richmond, burning their own capitol city down to its smoldering foundations. In a desperate attempt to reconnect with other rebel forces in North Carolina, Lee’s army was intercepted and beaten by General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, VA.
This wasn’t the only time the two armies had met near the New River Valley. In fact, in May of 1864, a battle occurred no more than a mile from the current site of Bisset Park, with troops firing at each other from both banks of the river.
“There are actually a couple of gun emplacements that are still there, that you can find,” said White.
What are now no more than shallow depressions on two wooded hilltops on the Fairlawn side of the river were once military outposts, set up with cannons to watch over the vital train bridge leading in to Radford. A plaque near the west end of Bisset Park documents the short battle between 6,000 Yankee soldiers and 2,000 Rebels.
After defeating the confederates, union soldiers set fire to the wooden structure of the bridge, and reportedly, the molten hot metal tracks fell in to the New River in a huge cloud of steam. By burning the bridge, they hoped to cut the confederates off. The stone bridge supports were left standing, however, and are still a popular sight for park visitors.
While the battle was relatively insignificant compared to many events of the war, there are still things that can be learned from exploring it. That’s just what a group of RU professors and their students are hoping to do by conducting archaeological and geological research at the sites of the two old cannon emplacements.
Dr. Bob Whisonant, professor emeritus of geology, has published numerous articles and books on the relationship between natural geology and key turning points in the war.
He’s also a civil war buff, and the one leading the charge on the examination of Radford’s forgotten gun pits.
“He got me, in physics, and Dr. Cliff Boyd in anthropological sciences, mostly the forensic science institute, involved so that he could do the digging, and I could do the geophysical exploration of the sites,” said Dr. Rhett Herman, professor of physics and adjunct professor of geology.
This may sound like a mouthful, but in short, the diverse team is working together to take scans, record data, and dig up any artifacts that may still be present under a century and a half of dirt in the old cannon pits.
“A couple of years ago, when I took a (geophysics) class out to do a survey over there (…) we applied ground penetrating radar to the area,” explained Herman. They hoped the GPR scan would reveal any buried objects, but it yielded no promising leads.
More recently, the group applied a magnetometer to the site, a device which can detect magnetic anomalies, like iron cannon balls or brass civil war buttons, in the ground.
“It showed a weird magnetic anomaly, in approximately a ‘figure 8’ outline that was exactly in line with the walls of the earthen fort,” Herman says. “That really set us off.”
After digging down in an attempt to see what was causing the strange reading, the team discovered it was possibly due to the type of soil used to construct the walls of the small fortification. No buried treasure, but this isn’t exactly a failure in the eyes of a geophysicist.
“If that is the case, then maybe (at) a lot of other places that have battlefields, magnetometery is the way to find hidden features,” Herman revealed, “Maybe there’s a lot more stuff down there that can be detected magnetically.”
This could be a large step toward learning more about the many battlefields that now lie covered in woods or subdivisions all up and down the east coast.
Whether you know little to nothing about the Civil War or spend your weekends in a bivouac and forage cap, the 9th is an important day for America and deserves to be recognized accordingly.
The Civil War left this nation with plenty of scars, but many important innovations as well, and the chance to reach out and touch the history is all around you. So take a little time to appreciate it in your own way, and you may find it more rewarding than you thought.