Return to War

Return to War

Reliving the Civil War at Fort Ward's Camp Day.

Smoke lingered on the battlefield at Fort Ward Park June 11 as Confederates and Yankees once again took up arms against one another. The cannon boomed as soldiers drilled, and visitors learned about what life was like during the late war.

In the officers' hut, First Lieutenant Edwin Owen explained how Fort Ward was prepared to defend the capital.

"If the fort was attacked, which we don't expect to happen, these are the weapons that we'd use to defend our position," said Owen, pointing to a stockpile of weapons lying on a cot.

The first lieutenant had been placed in charge while the presiding officer, Capt. Edwin Dow, was visiting military leaders in Washington. "While he's there, he'll probably visit the Smithsonian Institution just like modern-day visitors."

During Camp Day, Owen gave tours of the officers' hut — providing a window through which visitors could gain a glimpse of 19th-century warfare. When he's not fighting the Confederates, Owen is assistant director of Fort Ward Museum. Now — with about 200 visitors to the park — he has arranged the officers' hut to illustrate the life of a war-time leader. One of the captain's uniforms was hanging to dry in the corner because he had been caught in the rain.

Pieces of papers were rolled with red tape on the desk, arranged in the orderly rows of military precision. The captain's chest of luxuries boasted a freshly baked pie.

"This sash lets everybody know that I'm in charge while the captain is away," he said, pointing toward a red cloth draped over his chest. "Just by looking at me and how I'm dressed, the men know where the chain of command ends."

As for Capt. Dow, nobody knows why he traveled to Washington.

"He could be at the White House trying to get a raise for another regiment," said Owen, examining a box that had recently arrived at the fort. It contained an unusual explosive device known as a grenade. "I've never seen one of these before. I'll have to read up on this so I can teach the men how to use this."

ELLIOT STRINGER rested under a tree at the entrance of the fort. Because of an injury, Stringer liked to think he was part of the invalid corps — a group of men who became experts on munitions.

"I like to teach people what the war was really like," he said. "It's really amazing what these people went through. Can you imagine a hard march through miles of wilderness carrying several pounds of equipment in this heat?"

As visitors approached Stringer, he showed them his assortment of weapons — a collection that he has been accumulating for more than 20 years. As one child approached, Springer demonstrated how a paper cartridge worked. He explained how a Confederate soldier might bite the end of the paper, exposing the gunpowder, then use the ramrod to pack the bullet. Union soldiers had access to better manufacturing and didn't need to use paper cartridges.

"We are at the dawn of the metallic cartridge era," he said, referring to the 1860s. "But the Confederates still had to use these paper cartridges."

Stringer is a member of Company E, 33rd Regiment, Virginia Volunteers of the Stonewall Brigade — a group of men known as the "Emerald Guard." The company was originally formed in 1861. At that time, it was made up of Irish railroad laborers who had worked on the Manassas Gap Railroad who gained a reputation for heavy drinking and bravery on the battlefield. Today, the Emerald Guard interprets life in the Confederate Army during the war for schools, museums and preservation organizations. Stringer acts as a munitions expert to the Emerald Guard.

"When the war started, everybody was very busy converting flint-lock muskets to a percussion source of ignition," he said, modeling several weapons to explain weapons technology of the era. "People learn on a tactile basis, so it really brings it home for people when you put a weapon in their hand and they can look through the barrel of a gun."

ACROSS THE FORT, Wayne Arvo studied maps of Northern Virginia. A topographer by trade, Arvo has spent more than 25 years collecting antique map-making equipment. At Camp Day, he was interpreting a Confederate topographic engineer using a brass reproduction sexton, an 1850s compass and a staggering array of 19th-century drafting instruments.

"Maps were very important during the war because the general had to move huge numbers of men from one location to the next," he said. "So they would often rely on the topographic engineers to give them advice."

Arvo displayed his equipment and answered questions about the altimeter and the sexton. On a table in front of his campsite, he rolled out a map that he had recently made. The hand-drawn notations showed where the land's elevation changed.

"That was one of the most important features of maps from this period," he said. "Because the cannon couldn't be moved up a hill if it was too steep. So the generals needed to know these sorts of things before ordering the men to move."

He explained how forces in enemy territory would often invade the courthouse and steal every map that was available, desperate to learn about foreign lands that would become the next theatre of war. Some generals had photographic units that were responsible for taking pictures of maps that might become useful at a later date.

"It's sort of like being in a puzzle," he said, explaining that maps can be useful and confusing at the same time.

"Sometimes, what a map doesn't tell you is more important than what it does. Even today, as soon as a map is printed, it's out of date. So that's why you needed to have good leadership to know how to make the important decisions."

BACK in the officer's hut, a question is posed to First Lieutenant Owen. Kevin Moore, 6, had been enjoying Camp Day for several hours. But there was something he had to know. He ran into the officer's hut and looked at the officer with the sash.

"Did you win the war?"

"Why, yes, I suppose we did," said Owen.