I take lots of photographs, not that I’m any good at it. I’m entirely a point-and-shoot photographer devoid of technical expertise or serious artistic talent. Sometimes I surprise myself. The stars and the moon align on rare occasions and I actually capture an image that speaks to me on a personal level. I’m sure any professionals out there would smile as they offered constructive feedback, letting me down gently for something perhaps a bit pedestrian. Nonetheless I like this image for reasons that extend beyond its purely technical and artistic merits.
As is so often the case with me, it’s that remarkable alignment of geography and history that captures my imagination. It feels like I’ve pulled a scene straight from the 1864 Valley Campaign and dropped it into the present.
This beautiful spot corresponds to the small hilltop loop shown on this map, just off Slate Hill Drive, south of Front Royal, Virginia. The camera points towards the northwest.
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The image of Civil War cavalry reenactors perched along a Blue Ridge rim reminds me of that turbulent period when conflicts raged throughout this corridor. It wouldn’t have been unusual to see Union cavalry mounts within the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians even though Virginia was Confederate territory. It is claimed that the town of Winchester, twenty miles further north, changed hands more than seventy times during the war. Forces from either side could have occupied this spot depending on the moment.
This reenactment group chose to portray the Loudoun Rangers, an independent cavalry unit fighting for the Union cause. Loudoun is a Virginia county but its northern extreme had been settled by German immigrants who held little regard or loyalty for the Confederacy. They represented a counterintuitive instance of Union forces being drawn from inhabitants of Confederate territory. That’s an interesting twist one doesn’t hear about often.
That mountain on the left side of the photo is, I believe, Signal Knob. Well, that’s what we were told at the event. They could have been blowing smoke for all I know. However if it’s actually Signal Knob, then another Civil War theme weaves its way into the image. As befitting its name, both armies used Signal Knob for communication and battlefield observation while it remained under their respective control. It’s not too hard to imagine these Union soldiers on horseback peering across the valley floor as they followed orders relayed on distant waving flags.
I guess I should explain briefly why I was here. Actually these grounds belong to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoological Park. This is the location of their remote Conservation and Research Center (CRC) in Front Royal. They open this facility to the public one weekend each year. It was once the site of a U.S. Army Cavalry Remount station, thus the horse exhibitions, albeit from a later period than depicted by the reenactors
There was much more to this visit and I’ll provide a link when I add it to my permanent site. Hopefully the video will suffice for now. It provides an overview of the grounds as well as some simulated combat.