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Condensing the Civil War is no easy task

McLEAN, Va. — The list of battles is daunting even for the most fervent Civil War enthusiast: Bull Run, Shiloh, the Seven Days Battles at Richmond, second Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Appomattox. And many more in between.

So when re-enactor Troy Fallin surveys the lineup of events marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, it is with both excitement and apprehension, especially since event organizers are condensing the historical calendar.

Fearing that they’ll only get one chance to make the most of the sesquicentennial fever, some historic sites are conducting re-enactments this year rather than waiting, making a big deal out of their 147th or 148th anniversaries instead.

The result is a packed lineup of full-blown events, from Fort Sumter’s opening guns in April 1861 to commemorations of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox in April 1865, all hitting this year.

“It’s going to be a lot of picking and choosing,” said Fallin, a 44-year-old in a mock Confederate regiment of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Trying to do too much too soon, Fallin said, will lead to burnout among participants and those watching, especially if events are poorly planned. Re-enactors in particular are sensitive to the quality of the commemorations, given the amount of time and money they invest.

If the events aren’t engaging for re-enactors and spectators, Fallin said, “It’s going to turn people off.”

Keeping up interest

The anniversary opened with hundreds of people gathered before dawn April 12 in Charleston, S.C., as some 30 cannons thumped in a re-enactment of the Confederate barrage on a federal fort that launched the war 150 years ago.

President Barack Obama issued a proclamation that day, taking note of the first shots that would stretch across four years of “tremendous sacrifice” and battlefields “whose names reach across our history.”

But after two or three years of large-scale commemorations and hoopla, of battles large and small, will the public still be interested in anniversary events occurring in 2014 and 2015?

“It’s a very real concern,” said Karen Hedelt, a tourism official in Fredericksburg, Va., about an hour’s drive south of Washington. That region was home to several key battles late in the war, including the Chancellorsville campaign in 1863 and the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in 1864.

In Fredericksburg, sponsors have begun staging annual re-enactments they hope will let them to take advantage of the initial enthusiasm and build up to the flagship commemorations in 2014. The re-enactments will be a little different each year, focusing on different aspects of the battles, said Debbie Aylor, supervisor at the Spotsylvania County Visitor Center.

She estimated that roughly half of the county’s tourism income is related to the Civil War. The county is home to the second-largest military park in the world, the National Park Service’s Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial, which covers land at several noncontiguous sites, including a Stonewall Jackson shrine and a grave site for Jackson’s amputated arm.

Another way to counter the impact of a late spot on the timeline, Hedelt said, is to focus less on the battles and more on other aspects of Civil War life that aren’t tied to a specific anniversary. A choral presentation of music from the Civil War era was a big hit earlier this year, for instance.

Make camp, not war

Fallin said re-enactors themselves are often least interested in staging battles and more into out-of-the-ordinary events. Earlier this year, for instance, enthusiasts re-enacted the Great Train Raid of 1861 near Winchester, Va., when Stonewall Jackson stole locomotives from the B&O Railroad and hauled them for miles by horse to a point where they could be put on tracks and sent to Richmond.

Portraying camp life, which gives re-enactors more time to interact with spectators, is also well received, Fallin said. Sometimes organizers don’t provide enough space to set up a proper camp, which can be discouraging to those like him who devote whole weekends to an event.

“I worry we could be calling on them too heavily,” Hedelt said of the re-enactors, who find themselves in demand across the country. “It’s a very enthusiastic group, very committed to portraying events accurately, but when you look at the volume of events in the mid-Atlantic, there are valid concerns” about overloading the schedule.

Take Tennessee, home to several key battles late in the war, including the November 1864 Battle of Franklin and subsequent Battle of Nashville that destroyed the Confederacy’s Army of Tennessee in the western theater. Planners there are hoping to grab history buffs’ attention and hold onto it starting with earlier events such as the 1862 battle at Shiloh.

“It’s very important for us to keep momentum going,” said Susan Whitaker, the state’s tourism commissioner. “That was one of our first things to think about.”

At Franklin, as in Fredericksburg, sponsors have started annual battle re-enactments to capitalize on the current enthusiasm and to get their commemoration established among re-enactors and enthusiasts.

Appomattox fatigue?

Even at Appomattox, where Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant in April 1865, there is some worry that the public will have tuned out after four years of sesquicentennial events.

“We’re all wondering what the burnout rate will be in such a large commemoration,” said Ernie Price, chief of education and visitor services at the National Park Service’s Appomattox site.

The park service, which does not sponsor battle re-enactments, has picked a few flagship events each year to commemorate, with Appomattox as the final event. Plans at Appomattox call for, among other things, a re-enactment of the stacking-of-arms ceremony that marks the surrender the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant’s Union army.

While Price said there are legitimate questions about whether the public will feel overexposed to Civil War commemorations by the year 2015, ultimately he believes that “the Civil War has enormous staying power. Of Appomattox, he added, “This is going to be a special place to wrap things up.”

That’s exactly how re-enactor Steve Blancard feels. The Fredericksburg resident said he has a special incentive to see the anniversary events through to their conclusion in April 2015: His great-great grandfather was a Confederate soldier who served at Appomattox.

“As we get into 1864, 1865, it’s going to be a little sadder for those of us who portray the end of the Confederacy,” Blancard said. “There were so few remaining soldiers at Appomattox; it’s going to be very poignant for me.”