Eric A. Campbell began working for the National Park Service at Gettysburg in 1987. Known for his interpretive skills, Campell added to his luster with his book “A Grand Terrible Dramma”: From Gettysburg to Petersburg: The Civil War Letters of Charles Wellington Reed (2000). Eric left Gettysburg in 2009 for Virginia, to develop programming and media for Cedar Creek & Belle Grove National Historical Park, site of the October 19, 1864, Battle of Cedar Creek, a Shenandoah Valley fight highlighted by Jubal Early’s surprise attack and Philip Sheridan’s dramatic, battle-winning ride.
Why did you make the move from Gettysburg to Cedar Creek in 2009?
I saw the job as a park ranger at Cedar Creek as an opportunity to start at a park that was literally brand new from the Park Service perspective The park was created in 2002, and it’s a lot different than Gettysburg. It’s a partnership park first of all, meaning that of what land is owned, less than half the acreage inside the boundary is actually preserved. Most of that is owned by nonprofit organizations, what the park calls its key partners. Groups like the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Belle Grove Incorporated, Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation, Shenandoah Valley Battlefield Foundation and Shenandoah County. These groups are not funded by the National Park Service or by the federal government in any way. They are all independent and self-sustaining, and they all have different management policies and goals. For example, Cedar Creek & Belle Grove National Historical Park is the only national park that allows a Civil War reenactment to take place within its boundaries. It attracts 5,000 to 7,000 reenactors and sometimes more than 10,000 spectators, and is a economic boon for the local community.
How is your research into the campaign and battle coming along?
The frustrating thing is, I spent 20 years at Gettysburg, and I got to the point where I felt fairly comfortable with the battle. I always tell people I’d never know it all, and I never would. I could spend my entire career at Gettysburg and never know the whole battle. There’s so much [to know] about it. Here at Cedar Creek, I’ll never even come close because I don’t have time. I’ve done enough research to get by, so I can present programs, the first National Park Service programs in the park’s history—but not at the level I’m satisfied with to know the Battle of Cedar Creek or the rest of the war in the Shenandoah Valley. I did a program, a battle walk, last year close to the anniversary of the Third Battle of Winchester. That was fun. Coming up in 2012 there are all these events being planned to commemorate Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign. We are going to offer interpretation on the actual anniversary dates, so we’re planning those—interpretation on the anniversary dates of the Valley Campaign battles. Believe me, I’m doing research. It’s not at the level I want, but I’m doing research.
Cedar Creek is a sprawling battlefield. Bigger than one might think.
It’s a real narrow but long battlefield. It was really two battles in one. You’ve got this incredible, audacious Confederate surprise attack in the morning. Against incredible odds, they launch a surprise attack that routs the Union army—which is vastly superior in numbers and entrenched in a seemingly impregnable position. But yet the attack is successful, routs the Union army, and then there’s a lull of several hours before the second battle in the afternoon, the Union counterattack.
Sheridan’s Ride was amazing.
Yes it was. He was in D.C. at a war conference—he had gone on October 15, and then he returned to Winchester the day before the battle, the 18th. His plan was to travel from Winchester back to Cedar Creek on the 19th. So he gets back to Winchester, which is 15 miles away, and that’s almost a day’s ride from Cedar Creek. He figured he’d spend the night there at his headquarters, get up that next morning on the 19th, eat breakfast and then ride back around noon. During breakfast he hears reports about a battle and artillery in the distance, but he still doesn’t think it’s anything more than a skirmish. He was just leisurely riding back to his camp when the reports start to come in that there’s a battle, and he starts meeting some stragglers.
That story sheds a fascinating light on the events surrounding the fight.
I think if he had not arrived on the battlefield, if he had delayed his arrival by one day, all his officers— who basically rallied his shattered forces—what they would have done was to order a retreat back to Winchester and Cedar Creek, which would have gone down in history as a Union defeat. And this was just two weeks before the election. Now that’s not saying Abraham Lincoln would not have been reelected, but can you imagine how much closer it might have been in the polls? Especially against a Confederate force that everybody felt was defeated.
What’s the most intriguing thing you have learned about Cedar Creek?
I still think that the Confederate attack that morning ranks up there with the most audacious plans in military history. Everybody goes on and on about Jackson’s Flank Attack at Chancellorsville, but I think that Early’s attack is much more audacious. They’re outnumbered 3-to-1, and they’re making an eight-mile march, all at night. With two river crossings, over the North Fork of the Shenandoah, and the roads were worse. At one point they were marching single file along a very narrow path. The men described it as a goat path. At night!
What interpretive events are you planning for the summer schedule?
I only have a staff of three, including me, that actually do interpretation, so we can’t offer a lot like a big park, but we do offer programs. One is called “Cedar Creek in a Box.” We take props out of a box and lay them out on the ground, then re-create the park in miniature and relate it to the landscape features that the people can see in front of them. The visitors can instantly relate what they’re seeing laid out on the ground to the landscape that they see all around them. Maybe four times a week this year we will offer a car caravan tour of the battle. We actually lead people on the tour. They follow the park ranger’s vehicle on a 10-mile, six-stop tour of the battle, a chronological tour of the Battle of Cedar Creek.
That sounds exciting. Any other upcoming projects of note?
Another thing I want to do is a concept I borrowed from Fredericksburg; it works great at their park, and hopefully it will work great at Cedar Creek. On Friday evenings in the summer we’re going to offer specialized two-hour programs around sunset that will allow visitors to visit areas in the battlefields they normally wouldn’t get to, an in-depth tour on a certain topic. Last year I did a program on the 8th Vermont Infantry monument. That regiment lost over two-thirds of its men. It’s one of the few monuments on the battlefield, but it’s on private property, and visitors don’t normally get to see it. We actually followed their route of march onto the field and right to the monument. I’ll also be doing a tour of the XIX Corps entrenchments owned by the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation—they’re some of the most well-preserved entrenchments of the Civil War.
Do you have a visitors center or a structure that visitors can use?
Well, we have an office, but it’s not a visitors center yet by any means. I’m also looking to figure out where we’re going to make this contact station. We hope to get a new office so we can display a new fiber-optic map that will walk visitors through the battle. Whether that will happen this year or next year I don’t know. That will include some exhibits and displays. But hopefully from there we’ll continue to grow. We’ll get some more staff, get a real contact station and eventually a real visitors center. And we’ll be a real park.
Originally published in the June 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.