Connections: An overdue toast to the tag-alongs

Posted: August 20, 2013

For every Civil War buff who passes pleasant summer weekends pursuing this wicked addiction, there is most often a less-interested, long-suffering spouse or family member who feels as though he or she is being forced to re-enact that grueling war year after year.

During my own childhood, I recall summer vacations in a sweltering car before the days of air conditioning and the crunch of tires on gravel as my father pulled over at yet another roadside sign to read details of troop placements and battle movements aloud to the children in the back seat, while my mother (not-so-silently) fumed.

She would complain while he headed off with a few kids in tow, across battlefields like Shiloh, Pea Ridge, Chattanooga, Antietam and Gettysburg, where the fields and trees shimmered in waves of sultry heat. She usually stayed behind, with a baby to change and keep hydrated, with nothing to occupy her but a warm can of Dr Pepper and the occasional lounging museum cat.

I thought of this scene again Saturday while volunteering at the Kernstown battlefield just south of Winchester. Close observation of the faces of couples and families in the museum shop and on the tours of Pritchard’s Hill and the Pritchard House showed that this phenomena has not changed much over the decades.

Those “in tow” bear blank, resigned expressions that I imagine are similar to those of captured Civil War soldiers being marched off to enemy prisons.

This was Civil War Weekend, during which volunteers and staff at the various historic sites transform the Shenandoah Valley into a mecca of informative programs and tours. For devotees whose imaginations have been captured by a war that arguably did more to forge the nation’s character than any other time period, Civil War Weekend is a “can’t miss” happening.

With a houseful of company and these thoughts in mind, I was pleased to see this year’s calendar included a new event that appealed to a broader cross-section.

Historic Long Branch in Clarke County offered a viewing of Margaret Mitchell’s epic “Gone With The Wind” Saturday night on a lush, sloping lawn behind the mansion with a sweeping view of fences, former plantation fields and the Blue Ridge mountains.

As Executive Director Nicholas Redding pointed out, the bowl-like setting seemed the perfect venue, and it was the first such event Long Branch has hosted. Several hundred people with lawn chairs and blankets, many hauling coolers of food, and several with dogs, spread out on a cool, summer evening to watch the four-hour blockbuster. At the price of $8 per carload, it was a relaxed, family-friendly setting.

In opening remarks, Redding noted that about the same amount of time had passed between the Civil War and the debut of the movie in December 1939 as the period between World War II and now. He spoke about the vagaries of historical memory and how each passing generation finds new interpretations that are filtered through its own experience.

The depiction of contented blacks still devoted to Southern plantation owners after the war is a nostalgic paean that has since been transformed to a more honest view by the civil rights era.

But the painful conclusion of the war that shook the Old South to its cultural core still rings true.

For those bored by the intricacies of the military events that broke the back of an economic system, this was indeed a pleasant way for the battle-hardened tag-alongs to ingest what can sometimes be the bitter pill of history.