Kentucky native participates in annual New Market Civil War battle reenactment

Story by Jason Clampitt

Photos courtesy of Tiffany Knupp

Gunfire and smoke haunt the New Market battlefield, as the two armies charge at each other from across the field with their guns and the sounds of the cannons fire behind them. The only difference between the real battle and this one? In this one, it’s modern day. The “armies” are reenactors who fight to preserve the history of the Civil War.

“… Once Terry’s on the field, he tries to portray a general officer in a battle in the Civil War,”  Lt. Gen Troy Marshall, site director for the Virginia Museum of the Civil War said. “Behind the scenes, you’ll see him in his tent, he might be sitting there with his vest.”

Terry Shelton has participated in over 300 reenactments over the years. The 62-year-old Barbourville, Kentucky native now resides in East Bend, North Carolina and appears in reenactments as a commanding officer for the Confederacy. Shelton got involved because of his love for history. He participates in the New Market Battlefield reenactment, held every May to honor the New Market battle that took place on May 15, 1864.

As a kid, Shelton’s favorite history show was “The Gray Ghost.” He watched the show when he came home from school. Shelton recalls reading “Across Five Aprils” is what got him hooked into history.

“The generation I grew up in, we were exposed to a lot of historical media, if you will,” Shelton said. “There were a lot of TV shows that were historically oriented, TV series, so many things were about history. I became an avid lover of history at a young age, not just the Civil War but many periods of history.”

Shelton first got into reenactments in the early ’90s after he moved to Virginia. After attending several reenactments, he joined an artillery unit for Purcell Battery.

“I was in the army, at first I was in the Kentucky National Guard in the infantry unit in my hometown,” Shelton said. “I went on active duty in the army, I was infantry in the army. I’ve always enjoyed the infantry.”

Shelton said a few of his co-workers at the time approached him and asked to start their own unit. They started the first Kentucky regime in the state of Virginia and he was the company commander for Longstreet’s Corps for 22 years.

In addition to the annual New Market reenactment, Shelton has participated in reenactments along the east coast in states such as West Virginia, Kentucky Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia.

Marshall has known Shelton for years and has been in some reenactments with him.

Marshall and Shelton got into reenacting around the same time. However, they didn’t meet until Shelton was named the Confederate Commander. Marshall considers Shelton a friend and both work hard on scheduling the event.

Marshall and Shelton discuss the set up of the reenactment such as troop movements and adjusting the area of the reenactment if it is unsafe for the reenactors. Marshall says Shelton works hard to make sure the event is historically accurate, including checking weapons for safety and making sure other reenactors are drinking enough water.

“He has a passion for history, as we all do,” Marshall said.

Being involved in a reenactment is voluntary, and the reenactors aren’t compensated. They pay a registration fee to participate and take care of their own expenses.

Shelton participated in reenactments in the past, and said his son’s first reenactment was when he was “a couple of weeks old.” Shelton’s ex-wife was an avid reenactor and he says that’s how they met.

The goal for all reenactors is to accurately portray the battle scenario as it played out. There are protocols that reenactors must follow, and  if they don’t they could be reprimanded by their commanding officers and not invited back to the reenactment. Shelton says that reenactors don’t touch the flag of another group out of courtesy.

“I actually saw a fight one time when a unit tried to physically take a flag from another unit,” Shelton said.

Shelton’s favorite moment of his reenacting career was participating in the Cedar Creek Battle reenactment —  it was the first event he ever did. Shelton states he was like a kid on Christmas morning at Cedar Creek. The Cedar Creek reenactment is similar to the New Market reenactment, as both are held on their respective original battlefields.

The New Market battle is best known for the historic role young Virginia Military Institute cadets played during it. During the reenactment, the story is told to visitors. The cadets were ordered by Gen. John C. Breckinridge’s Confederate to fill the gap in the line, when Union troops had broken through the Confederate line. The cadets helped closed the gap, forced the Union troops to surrender and secured the Valley for the Confederacy.

“It wasn’t that they were superhuman, but you take 15-year-old and you expect them to fight as a man, you don’t expect much chance of success,” Marshall said. “But the cadets stood their ground, they were resolute, they were stubborn when Breckinridge needed them.”

Marshall is in charge of setting reenactments, as well as other programs at the museum. He states that VMI honors the ten cadets that were in the battle annually on May 15, during the New Market ceremony.

“After each one of them they will say these words, ‘Died on the field of honor sir,’ and the reason why they do that is because six of the ten fallen cadets are buried at VMI under a statue called Virginia Mourning her Dead,” Marshall said.

Sarah Mink runs the historical interpretation department at VMI and sets up historical tours, field trips and tours for the parks. She also works with Marshall to set up the reenactments by coordinating the volunteers. Mink says she tries to look at the reenactment as an educational event, not just the show.

“We’re doing a how to dress a lady 101,” Mink said. “We’re going to have someone standing there in her period correct underwear, and we’re going to dress her from the bottom up. Why you would wear these things, what the style was at the time, what fabrics you would have used.”

Shelton says the New Market reenactment is important for the community because it shows them what challenges people faced in the community 155 years ago.

“Virginia had the largest number of engagements than any other state, that became entrenched in the community,” Shelton said. “When you formed a company for a particular regiment, most of the time those guys came from the same community. It’s woven into the fabric of the community.”

Contact Jason at clampijt@dukes.jmu.edu.