Carry Me Back to Virginia: Revisiting a Cherished Site

By Kaylyn Sawyer ’17

It was one of the heaviest and most uncomfortable things I had ever worn, but I did not care.  The scratchy gray wool pants hung by suspenders from my shoulders, the sleeves on the oversized jacket came down past my hands, and the smell of mothballs was overwhelming.  The shiny buttons gave the jacket a certain level of dignity despite the humorous appearance of a man’s coat on a small girl.  I was in fifth grade, and I was proudly dressed in my grandfather’s uniform from the Virginia Military Institute to give a speech in character as General George Pickett. With fellow students portraying Civil War figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, and Thomas Jackson, I was not the most prestigious general in the room. I was, however, in my mind, the most dashing. I had never felt so authoritative or connected to my grandfather.

The author in her grandfather's VMI uniform. Photograph courtesy of Cathy Satterfield.
The author in her grandfather’s VMI uniform. Photograph courtesy of Cathy Satterfield.

Growing up, I travelled with my family to many different historical sites across Virginia. My first memory was of a trip with my grandfather to a place that holds special meaning to him and would come to have a similar meaning to me:  New Market. Now, most people are unfamiliar with the Battle of New Market, but it was a significant moment in the story of VMI. A battalion of cadets was summoned to assist Confederate General Breckenridge, who was facing Federal troops advancing up the Shenandoah Valley in May of 1864. The 257 cadets helped secure a Confederate victory, but suffered the loss of ten students. Today, VMI honors the lives and service of these ten cadets and continues to instill the principles of honor, courage, and sacrifice into current cadets. My grandfather, having learned and experienced this during his cadetship at VMI, decided that the Hall of Valor at New Market was an important place for me to visit. I am so glad he did. I absolutely loved it. As a 5-year-old girl, I enjoyed playing dress-up with the soldier’s uniforms that were available. The museum documentary was engaging even though I covered my ears during the battle scene. From that point, I was hooked. As I got older and continued to visit, I gained a better understanding of the events that took place there. I was struck by the courage and the story behind these young and untried cadets who were thrown into battle. However, these sporadic visits were never satisfying enough:  I always wanted more.

The Virginia Museum of the Confederacy. Photograph courtesy of Sarah Stierch via Wikimedia Commons.
The Virginia Museum of the Civil War. Photograph courtesy of Sarah Stierch (CC BY 4.0) via Wikimedia Commons.

Fast forward to this past summer, I went out on a limb and emailed the director of the Virginia Museum of the Civil War to inquire about internship opportunities. I did not expect anything to come of it, but was ecstatic when he replied positively to my email. This was my chance. The opportunity I had always wanted was right in front of me. After going through an interview process, I was given an internship at the museum. I could hardly contain my excitement! The prospect of working at the very museum that captured my imagination as a child and piqued my interest in the Civil War made me speechless. Over the summer, New Market became my home. I shared the visitors’ excitement as they came into the Hall of Valor, told me what brought them there, and asked about the site. Each time I started the documentary film, I would pause, listen to the music, and watch the opening battle scene with a smile as I remembered how I was captivated by the images. As a civilian interpreter, I experienced the battlefield in a new and more personal way.  I actually felt like part of the family caught in the middle of the battle whose story and home I shared with visitors. After hearing this story for so many years, I was thrilled to be the one telling it. I have never felt more comfortable than I did each time I set foot on the battlefield. It amazed me to see the transformation of how I experienced New Market, and how New Market shaped me. It began as a place that captivated the attention and amazed a little girl, yet became a place that fostered this college student’s desire to enter the field public history. I still love New Market and have an inexplicable affinity for VMI, and I love my grandfather more than words can adequately express. Yes, even more than a cannon-studded battlefield. Thanks, Pop-Pop.

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