A weekend in the Shenandoah with the ANV
By Michael Aubrecht, Photos by Thomas Aubrecht (4/06)

This past weekend, I had the honor and privilege of participating in a very unique Civil War event known as the Gathering of Eagles. Unlike other reenactments, this exhibition featured a series of public debates and Q&A sessions that were ultimately designed to enlighten all who desire to learn the true causes and effects of the War Between the States. Individuals educated in all aspects of the contest involved themselves in discussions that not only entertained the listener, but also educated and stimulated them to seek further knowledge of America's greatest crisis.

Presidents Davis and Lincoln discussed political issues that were prevalent long before the conflict began and that ultimately brought about the separation of states. Generals Lee, Longstreet, Jackson and others, along with Generals Grant, Meade and others, provided insight on their own wartime experiences and decisions of alignment while Mathew Brady educated visitors on his process for photographing the realities of war for future generations.

The event was held April 8 & 9, at the Rockingham County Fair Grounds, Harrisonburg, VA and was sponsored by: Col. D H Lee Martz, SCV Camp #10, Sprinkle Publications, Crossroads Country Store and The Village Inn Motel.

My father, Thomas Aubrecht, accompanied me and we lodged at The Village Inn, which was one of the nicest places that I have ever stayed. I cannot even begin to praise the facilities or the staff nearly enough, and I actually had to write on the back of their Comment Card in order to fit all of my compliments. According to their website: "The concept that eventually led to the development of The Village Inn started in 1928, when O.K. Early of Harrisonburg wanted to provide travelers with a comfortable place to stay on the busy road of U.S. Route-11."

I'm not exactly sure of the Inn's official opening date, but I'd bet a stack of Yankees baseball cards, that it looked virtually the same as it does today. Needless to say, I highly recommend them over any "4-Star" franchise.

The 2-day event was hosted by Lee's Lieutenants who are among the most respected portrayers in the entire reenactment community. Their organization, christened the "Headquarters Army of Northern Virginia" was formed in 2003 for the purpose of promoting and teaching the history of the war for Southern independence. To date, the group boasts ultra-realistic portrayals of Generals Lee, Longstreet, Jackson, Pickett, Early, Armistead, and others to include several of their staff along with civilian impressions.

Other groups representing the Sons Of Confederate Veterans, Daughters Of The Confederacy, Re-enactor's Mission For Jesus, Stuart's 1st Horse Artillery, various Civil War publishers, artists, authors, sutlers, and yes. even a great group of Yankees, rounded out the camp at the Rockingham County Fair Grounds.

Although the weather did not cooperate on the first day, it was still a tremendously successful venture as I was blessed with some wonderful new friendships and connections that appear to be evolving into mutually benefiting relationships.

The debates were lively and highly educating, the displays and demonstrations were excellent, and the conversation was second to none. In fact, the only other one there who may have had a bigger blast than me was the artillery piece that was fired every hour - on the hour.

One of the greatest benefits was meeting like-minded individuals like Jack Maples, author of "Reconstructed Yankee," and Maryland artist John Duke, whose paintings of Confederate legends were the highlight of the Exhibit Booth.

I managed to sell a few books myself and was also commissioned for several of my Wartoon caricatures by re-enactors looking for T-shirt designs. We may not have gotten rich, but we were definitely living the American Dream.

Both my father and myself had a tremendous time talking both 19th-Century and modern politics with many of the historians and we also enjoyed walking around the parking lot and reading all of the "un-PC" bumper stickers that plastered the vehicles of Americans who refuse to submit their history and heritage to a bunch of bleeding heart liberals. I have never seen so many Confederate symbols in my life and I was touched by the unwavering integrity of the participants.

All in attendance (on both sides) personified true patriotism, and shared a sincere pride in both God and country. I particularly enjoyed standing around the campfire discussing Constitutional issues with General Longstreet (Jay Vogel) and General and Mrs. Jackson (Jim and Kathy Pence) as well as the time I spent at Mathew Brady's (Wayne Ritchie) mobile photography studio wagon.

The goal of all involved was referred to as the 3-E's, which stands for "Entertain," "Educate," and "Enlighten." I did my best to contribute to the cause and was very impressed with the mutual respect given to representatives of the blue AND the gray. To be surrounded by so many living-historians, that share a passion for the War Between the States, was a wonderful thing to witness, and even better to be a part of.

Following the completion of the formal events on Sunday, I was able to discuss both past and modern day issues with many of the generals. All of them were very gracious in taking the time to pose for photos and answer my questions about their specific characters' experiences. It was almost surreal at times and I correlated the experience when emailing one of my baseball-writer buddies as standing in the clubhouse at Yankee Stadium.

Although the overall attendance on the first day was a disappointment, I still felt like a kid in a candy store and I can't think of anywhere else I'd have rather been. I mean... what could be better than spending the weekend in the 1800's surrounded by your idols? Honestly, I think my wife and kids are still surprised that I came back!

Deciding not to waste the rest of our weekend pass, my father and I packed up the Chevy and headed down the road to the New Market Battlefield. One of my favorites as a kid, it had been over a decade since I last visited. Much like the Village Inn, not much appeared to have changed since my last trip there in the 1980's. That's what I love about the Shenandoah region and my neighbors here in Fredericksburg could learn a lot from the valley's controlled growth as they actually practice that philosophy!

New Market's claim to fame was an event in which 257 Cadets from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) made the difference between the South's victory and defeat.

As part of his 1864 spring offensive, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ordered Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel to advance south along the Valley Pike in an effort to destroy the Virginia railroad at Staunton. Although outnumbered, Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge, former senator and vice president of the United States, was able to concentrate scattered forces to meet Sigel's army near New Market. Sigel was decisively defeated on 15 May 1864, and the Valley remained in Confederate hands until Maj. Gen. David Hunter renewed the Union's offensive on 26 May.

In addition to being an extraordinary museum, the surrounding views of the Shenandoah River are breathtaking, and the properties that still remain are amazingly well-preserved. The farm that was originally located on the battlefield is still standing and open to the public. Visitors can tour both the main house and its out-buildings. Known as the Bushong Farm, the residence is where Jacob and Sarah Bushong established their home in 1818.

Caught in the middle of opposing Federal and Confederate forces, three generations of the family found shelter in the basement as the battle raged around them. After the engagement, their house served as a field hospital leaving permanent blood stains in the Parlor.

After taking a ton of pictures in the Hall of Valor Museum, touring the Bushong Farm, and hiking the trails leading up to several Federal artillery batteries that speckled the landscape, we reluctantly got back in the truck and returned home to the 21st-Century hustle and bustle of Central VA.

Stopping at the local Food Lion, my father and I stood in line surrounded by the chaos and din of everyday life. With a collective sigh (NOT one of relief), we both turned to each other realizing that we had indeed, returned to the present. Thankfully, there will be many more opportunities this year to experience what we refer to as the "Real America" and our next trip (Gettysburg, PA) cannot come fast enough.

In closing, I want to thank all of the wonderful people who made this 33 year-old man feel like the 7 year-old kid who first discovered the Civil War at Gettysburg in 1978, as well my father who was present on both of those trips. Spending the weekend at the Gathering of Eagles will be something that I cherish for a long time and I look forward to returning in 2007 for an even bigger and better event. See you next year!

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