Sixty-eight hearty and determined regional visitors, bundled against the encroaching cold, came out on a brisk November night to honor America’s veterans on Saturday, November 5th at Sailor’s Creek Battlefield Historical State Park.
Initially warmed by an old fashioned campfire at the park’s “overlook” site, the visitors—young and old, men and women–quietly hiked down through field and woods to Sailor’ Creek and then up the slope again as the chill crept into their bones under a near full moon over the battlefield.
Luminaries line the trail at Sailor's Creek Battlefield Historical State Park
Along the .8 mile trail were 500 candle lit white bags—one for each of the fallen there long ago. Guided by park ranger escorts assisted by volunteers, the hikers trundled down the pathway to stop and huddle ever so often at a candle-lantern lit spot just off the trail. In the faint circles of light stood solitary figures clothed in gray or blue, wearing the obvious accouterments of war. The lantern rose up vertically from the ground until a bearded face emerged out of the dark and past.
“Good evening youse guys” or “evenin’ ma’ams or sirs,” depending on the color of the clothes each wore, the voices would speak. Some were tired and weary; some, excited and nervous. But all spoke of a common experience of war and the violent struggle that occurred on the late afternoon of April 6, 1865, along the banks and up the slopes of a creek the name of which now is synonymous with violent, desperate, and final struggle. The voice would then end the account of its part of the narrative and the lantern would slowly lower back down to the ground in silence. The figure would disappear into the dark and the past from which it briefly came and returned. The hikers move on.
Historians in period dress greeted park visitors along the trail
Nine times, the experience occurred along the walk: some in woods, some in fields, some on slope, and some by the running cold creek. The voices even included that of a grieving widow. The hikers trudged on down into the creek bottom and then up the slope back to the waiting campfire. Yet, the journey was not complete until the tenth stop. This time, a visiting Virginia State Park district person, chosen by the park staff for her enduring support to the park’s mission from afar, spoke. She summarized what had been seen and heard and linked it with U.S. veterans’ service in all of America’s wars, those who survived and those who did not. Then, she turned and pointed behind her. There, further up the slope, in neat rows only a military cemetery could muster, were 50, candle-illuminated white bags, one for each state. Each was marked with a name by a park visitor, some of whom came by previously during the week or just that day to the park’s visitor center to remember a loved one, a father, uncle, brother, son, or daughter.
Then, hauntingly, a bugle clearly and slowly pealed out over the “cemetery” the familiar, solemn refrain, TAPS. It is the bugle call that summons all to rest–for the night or for eternity. Hushed and somber the visitors paused their cold stamping of feet and temporarily forgot themselves to listen. Out of the dark woods, invisible to eye but present to the ear, the bugler intoned his notes, crisp and clear. Then it was quiet.
Slowly, the visitors moved on up the slope to the friendly fire before leaving the park. Their duty done.
The voices in the lantern light? What about them? They were volunteer re-enactors and park staff from throughout the region, from Appomattox to Petersburg and Chesterfield. By the light of the same lanterns, they too slowly trudged up the slope, summoned by the same bugler who blew “Assembly” to signal the end of the program. They had stood out in the cold dark night for nearly 3-1/2 hours to render their part of the narrative of Sailor’s Creek in honor of the fallen. They walked up past the flickering campfire at the top of the slope, gave it a friendly look, and then walked on into the darkness, their duty done, too.
Volunteers play an important role in the luminary event
In the night chill, now grown bitter cold, the battlefield resumed its deep, respectful silence.
Sailor's Creek Battlefield Historical State Park is located at 6541 Saylers Creek Road, Rice, Va. From U.S. 460, take Route 617 (Saylers Creek Rd.) to Sailor’s Creek Battlefield State Park. From U.S. 360, take State Route 307 (connecting highway between U.S. 360 and U.S. 460) to Route 617 North (Saylers Creek Rd.).
Drive time: Northern Virginia, three to three and a half hours; Richmond, one to one and a half hours; Tidewater/Norfolk/Virginia Beach, two and a half to three hours; Roanoke, two hours.
Click here for a Google map. Latitude, 37.305194. Longitude, -78.22764.