I’m chatting this week with my good friend, Terry Rensel, who’s been hired as the new executive director of the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust (CVBT). CVBT, one of the country’s premier regional preservation organizations, focuses on battlefields around Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Chris Mackowski: Just the other day, I had a conversation with Craig Swain, who has a great blog about artillery, To the Sound of the Guns. He talked about battlefields as being a kind of primary source, which was a neat way to look at a battlefield.
Terry Rensel: Yeah, that is. Quite honestly, that’s brilliant. That’s a brilliant thought—something that I’m going to steal as a talking point. (laughs)
When you and I were at Gettysburg recently, and we stopped by the Virginia monument, you said, “Go up this sidewalk, out onto the field, and you can see the landscape that Pickett’s Charge went across. And off in the distance there is a clump of trees. That’s ‘the’ Copse of Trees.” I was lucky, I had like five minutes out there where there was no one else out there with me. It was just me, looking across and seeing what those men saw on that day, and trying to picture it in my mind. And I pictured them coming back across the field after the Federals threw them back. There was a reenactment happening in the area that day, so you could hear some cannon fire off in the distance and everything, so it was all a very tactile moment for me, and it was one of the highlights of my day on the field.
That’s what battlefields can do.
CM: I assume you have had the chance to walk some of the fields around Fredericksburg. Can you tell me about any experience so far that has stuck with you?
TR: The Lee-Jackson Bivouac site. Here is, you know, the last time they meet before Jackson’s death, where they make their plan for the battle, and they part. And I would like to think, knowing full well that in war, any time you part might be the last time, but never expecting it to be that moment—and they part. Jackson goes off and gets wounded and dies, and the rest is history, you know. Lee’s Army and Lee’s ability to act changes with that moment.
Elsewhere on the battlefield, going to the Chancellor house and the crossroads there, and seeing what’s left of the ruins of the original house and the expansions, and knowing that this was the site that the Union Army converged on. It’s like another turning moment in not just the war, but in American history.
Those are all things that cause me to be very reflective about the moment and what I see and what I know and what I don’t know.
CM: You can sort of tap into the impact of the moment in a way.
CM: You mentioned the Lee-Jackson Bivouac site, and that’s sort of how your connection to all this got started a few years ago. Tell me about that.
TR: Well, I came here five years ago to Fredericksburg for your wedding. And as part of that weekend, you took a large group around the battlefield, kind of did a flying tour, as I called it—a little bit of time at various sites that were your personal favorites and keys to the battle. But the day after that, everybody left and I stayed an extra day because of the way my travel plans worked out, and you and I did more immersive Virginia history. We did some presidential history, but we also did the battlefield, and that was a site you and I went to five years ago.
CM: That’s right, we had gone to Monticello and Montpelier and visited Jefferson and Madison and then we went to the battlefield.
TR: Yeah, and I was deathly ill that weekend. I flew from Alaska and caught a bug on the plane. And the heat and humidity.
CM: And all that Yuengling that you drank.
TR: Yeah, and then to fly back across the continent.
CM: You cleaned up well, though.
TR: Yeah. Yeah. It all kind of hit me that Sunday morning, coming down with everything. But the passion that you have for all of this, and the way you are able to express it, whether it’s with a group of family and friends or just you and I, you know, kind of racing through it all, that was the thing that always stuck with me. And when I got back here two weeks ago, where was the first place I said we needed to go?
CM: Back to the Lee-Jackson Bivouac site.
TR: Because that’s where it all began five years ago, and I just felt that that was the appropriate way for this next chapter to begin.
CM: Ironically the most famous image of that is a painting called The Last Meeting, and here for you, it’s the first chapter.
TR: Yes. (laughs)
CM: All right, so you talked a little bit about Chancellorsville, I might as well roll through the other battlefields. So, did you have a chance to catch anything in Fredericksburg that’s really caught your eye?
TR: Not necessarily a part of the battlefield. I have not yet had an opportunity to walk the grounds there, but as part of the familiarization tour of the community, going through there and seeing the Confederate cemetery. And the arch there and all that. That’s just really compelling when you think about the National Cemetery in Fredericksburg and the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. I lived out in Louisville, Kentucky, for years and there’s a National Cemetery there where a relative of mine who passed in the Second World War has a tombstone—but he was a pilot and just never came back. So, there was never any remains, but there was a tombstone in that cemetery there for him and his whole crew. So, I think about those national cemeteries. To see one that is under the arch, a Confederate cemetery, which is just very, you know, striking to me.
Out at the Wilderness—this goes back to when I was here five years ago—the little cemetery where Jackson’s arm was buried.
CM: Out at Elwood.
TR: Out at Elwood, yeah. You know, that’s something that always stuck with me because you don’t think about that—why would someone bury just an arm? Especially when the person it came from—at that time, gravely wounded but still alive and expected to recover.
And then, you know, over at Spotsylvania, when I was here in April for the interview, they took me to Harris Farm, and it’s a very important site. It’s down the middle of a subdivision and the original farmhouse, which was used as a field hospital, is gone. But boy, the driveway is still there, and at the end of that driveway there is still like the brick facade gate that still has the little plaque on it that says, “Constructed in 1785,” or whatever year the original house was. And the house is gone. So, yes, there’s land there that’s preserved, but there was also a missed opportunity.
CM: The way that farmhouse just vanished overnight, that caught a lot of folks off guard—unpleasantly so.
Terry’s boots on the ground traveled a long way before they ended up on Fredericksburg’s Civil War battlefields. Tomorrow, he’ll retrace part of that route for us.