Va. Guard and VDF support 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg

Civil War reenactors portraying Union troops cross a bridge assembled across the Rappahannock River by Virginia Guard Soldiers from the Bowling Green-based 189th Engineer Company, 276th Engineer Battalion Dec. 8, 2012, during the observation of the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg. (Photo by Cotton Puryear, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — Soldiers from the Virginia National Guard’s Bowling Green-based 189th Engineer Company, 276th Engineer Battalion provided the latest in military mobile bridging technology in support of Civil War reenactors during the observation of the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg Dec. 8, 2012. Members of the Virginia Defense Force also supported the event with traffic control and visitor assistance, and the 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team provided a color guard and howitzer for the weekend’s final events Dec. 9.

Virginia Guard Soldiers from the Bowling Green-based 189th Engineer Company, 276th Engineer Battalion assist Civil War reenactors portraying Union troops through the water and up the river bank after the reenactors crossed the bridge the Soldiers assembled across the Rappahannock River Dec. 8, 2012, during the observation of the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg. (Photo by Cotton Puryear, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

“This is a great training opportunity for the Soldiers of the 189th to be able to assemble the bridge on a flowing river,” said 1st Lt. Marianne E. Heldmann, commander of the 189th. “This mission also required coordination with multiple civilian agencies which is what we do when we are on state active duty. We are glad to be able to support this important community event that provides great training for our Soldiers, and it will make us better prepared if we are called to either state or federal active duty to perform our bridging mission.”

Soldiers assembled most of the bridge on Friday, then completed the final structure early Saturday morning to be ready for the event. The final bridge spanned approximately 100 meters and consisted of 12 bridge bays and two ramp bays, and the mission was executed successfully and safely.

“Anytime we can conduct a major training exercise without any injuries, accidents or damage to our equipment, it is a success,” Heldmann said. “I would like to thank the event committee and all involved who allowed us the opportunity to conduct a very valuable training exercise for the benefit of the community. This was a great morale boost for the company, and they will never forget this event.”

The bridging system used by the 189th is officially known as the Improved Float Bridge (Ribbon) and it consists of interior bridge sections about 22 feet long and almost 27 feet wide. The interior bridge sections are linked together, then special ramp bays are connected at either end to allow vehicles and personnel to enter and exit the completed bridge. Bridge and ramp bays are carried by special M812 military 5-ton trucks that can launch the bridge sections into the water, then Soldiers use propulsion boats to maneuver the bridge sections in the water as it is assembled. In addition to being used as a bridge to span a body of water, the bays can be assembled together as a free-floating structure that then can be used to ferry personnel or equipment across the water.

According to event organizers, the bridge helped recreate the first amphibious landing under fire in American military history and allowed the Union army to once again cross the Rappahannock and assault the city.

A member of the Virginia Defense Force assists a visitor at the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg Dec. 8, 2012, in Fredericksburg. Approximately 30 members of the VDF Military Police Battalion volunteered their time to provide support for the event in the form of traffic control, area access and visitor assistance. (Photo by Cotton Puryear, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

Approximately 30 members of the VDF Military Police Battalion volunteered their time to provide support for the event in the form of traffic control, area access and visitor assistance. The battalion headquarters is located at Waller Depot in Richmond, with subordinate companies in Petersburg, Powhatan and Bowling Green, but VDF members from across the commonwealth took part in the support mission. VDF members were on site from Dec. 7 to 9.

“These missions will be performed after long coordination with the event organizers plus other local, state and federal partners holding event responsibilities,” explained Lt. Col. (Va.) David W. James, commander of the MP Battalion before the mission began. “Participation in this event will assist in honing the VDF Military Police command and control element in a joint environment and will provide a real-world test of its personnel in a dynamic deployment setting. This volunteer force has personnel hailing from a variety of backgrounds, but all with the goal of providing resolute and responsible assistance to their neighbors and visitors.”

The VDF is an all-volunteer force authorized by the Code of Virginia and organized under the Virginia Department of Military Affairs reporting to the Adjutant General of Virginia. The VDF is organized into a headquarters with three brigades and units at 32 locations across the commonwealth.

On Dec. 9, Soldiers from the Sandston-based Battery A, 1st Battalion, 111th Field Artillery Regiment, 116th Brigade Combat Team and the Fredericksburg-based 116th Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 116th Brigade Combat Team also participated in the sesquicentennial celebration of the Battle of Fredericksburg with a howitzer firing and color guard. Elements of the New York-based Company A, 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry and the color guard from the 116th BSTB greeted each other on the Sunken Road where they met 150 years ago, then as enemies, today as friends.

Soldiers from the Fredericksburg-based 116th Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team participate in the sesquicentennial celebration of the Battle of Fredericksburg Dec. 9, 2012, where they greeted elements of the New York-based Company A, 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry on the Sunken Road where they met 150 years ago – then as enemies, today as friends. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Rebecca Petrie, 116th IBCT Public Affairs)

The ceremony ended with a canon salute fired by Battery A and the playing of Taps. Afterward attendees were invited to lay flowers on the wall in honor of those who fought during the Civil War.

During the river crossing mission Dec. 8, the rising tide of the Rappahannock River resulted in a wet crossing at the far end of the bridge, and Soldiers from the 189th helped reenactors through the water and up the riverbank.

“We were never able to conduct a full bridge enclosure at that site prior to the actual event so we were not exactly sure where the ramps would sit once the bridge was put in place,” Heldmann said. “Additionally, the tide had more effect than we originally planned for, and after the bridge was put in place it fell short of the City Dock side, but not short enough to fit in another bay. The Union Army was able to cross the Rappahannock, even though they may have had a bit more water in their boots than they would have liked.”

Heldmann explained that after the Union reenactors crossed the first time, Soldiers from the 189th ran to a local home improvement store, purchased some lumber with funds from one of the event volunteers and built a 30-foot gang plank to enable Union troops to cross the river without stepping into the chilly Rappahannock River.

“They key training lessons my Soldiers came away with are that we need to be and we are adaptable and ready for anything, at any time.” she said. “They learned to expect challenges, but plan ahead on ways to overcome them.”

The 276th Engineer Battalion, the higher headquarters of the 189th, traces its lineage and honors to the 1st Virginia Regiment, and the 1st Virginia has campaign participation credit for Confederate service at Fredericksburg.

The Virginia Guard bridge effort drew praise from the reenactors who took part in the crossing.

“I too would like to thank the men and women of the Virginia National Guard for building the pontoon bridge and helping us … up and down the river banks,” wrote Clint Johnson, one of the reenactors, in a Facebook post. “You did a wonderful job and the experience will be remembered by all of us reenactors.”

Tracie Wilkins wrote on Facebook, “I owe a debt of gratitude to the Virginia National Guard … my husband, son and friends were on that bridge and you helped them man by man to wade through the fickle Rappahannock, carrying my son’s drum and even rescuing our Lieutenant’s sword from the depths.”

Jim Batchelder, a native of Bay City, Mich., who now lives in King George, Va., has been a reenactor for 25 years and does film and historical work. He appeared in the films “Gettysburg,” “Glory, Gods & Generals” and “Lincoln,” and his great-great-grandfather served as a first sergeant in the 24th Mich. and crossed the bridge 150 years ago.

“Well it absolutely fills part of your history because you guys carry the lineage of what went on here,” Batchelder said of the Virginia Guard’s involvement. “This is the first time it’s been done, and you’re doing it again, and you’re doing it the first time in the same location. I think history’s being made as part of your history, and what we all celebrate is the honor of portraying what the men did here for real.”

Heldmann acknowledged the efforts of a number of Soldiers in the 189th, including Staff Sgt. Jon Faulkner and Spc. Cristal Irvin for their hard work and continued effort through all aspects of the event, making it safe and successful. She also recognized Sgt. Robert Kinson, the noncommissioned officer in charge at the launch site, for launching and retrieving all of the bridge equipment with no damage at an abnormal launch site, and Sgt. Daniel Corbin for staying at the bridge site both nights to ensure the 189th’s equipment was secured, including retrieving a bay that had come loose.

Also making a significant contribution was Sgt. Donald Dale, the bridge commander on Saturday morning. “He was able to successfully and safely construct a full enclosure bridge within the given time frame on a river with a current and substantial tidal changes, which he had never done before,” Heldmann said.

“It’s a very honorable thing, and I feel great pride in being a part of something like this, bringing old and new together, celebrating the men who fought here, what they stood for and how it eventually came to form our bonds and our country,” Dale said. “Ultimately I feel like it’s our duty, giving back to society and to the people that we pledge to protect. It reminds everybody that we’re citizens just like them and we’re part of the community and I think it gives us a great opportunity to remind everybody that we’re here to serve them.”

Sgt. Daniel Robinson, one of the 189th’s boat operators, also had a positive experience. “It’s kind of cool just seeing history being replayed, and you get to learn a little bit and see what these guys are about,” he said. “I think it’s important for us to be seen in a positive way. A lot of times we don’t really get seen, so it’s good for us to be able to give back to the people who give to us.”

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Additional reporting by Lt. Col. Eric Atkisson, Staff Sgt. Terra C. Gatti and Staff Sgt. Rebecca Petrie

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View more photos on Flickr:

Fredericksburg honors sacrifice made 150 years ago — Dec. 9, 2012
http://www.flickr.com/photos/vaguardpao/sets/72157632213459951/

Va. Guard engineers support Battle of Fredericksburg reenactment — Dec. 8, 2012
http://www.flickr.com/photos/vaguardpao/sets/72157632201701500/

Va. Guard engineers prepare to support Battle of Fredericksburg reenactment – Dec. 7, 2012
http://www.flickr.com/photos/vaguardpao/sets/72157632195202882/