Sarah Kay Bierle is the managing editor of Emerging Civil War, which means she’s the daily living heartbeat of our organization. By day, she’s the assistant to the director at the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust in Fredericksburg, Virginia. We originally profiled her in our December 2017 newsletter. You can read her full ECW bio here.
What’s it been like, transplanting yourself from California to the heart of Civil War Virginia?
Exciting! The traffic is similar, summers are hot everywhere, but there are Civil War battlefields in Virginia. It’s been more challenging with the pandemic this year, and that has really halted my travel, research, and exploration plans for the year, but it’s also meant that I have the opportunity to really get to know the land, roads, and battleground close to my new home.
I imagine you get to experience history in an entirely different way being here rather than far away. How has that changed your understanding of the Civil War?
I had understood the importance of walking the ground to understand a battle and troop movements but having the opportunity to really take in the topography or return week after week has really helped. I particularly appreciate getting a better sense of direction and distances—some locations are much closer than I had realized, while others are significantly farther. Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania battlefields are great examples and by traveling on foot or by car, I’ve been able to gain a better appreciation for the scope of the battle and the wide areas used for troop movements.
Now that you’ve been on the inside of the battlefield preservation movement for a while, how has that affected your understanding of battlefields?
I think I’m even more aware of the hallowed ground aspect. When I spent hours advocating, writing, or researching land files and historical records, I go to the fields more equipped with the knowledge of what happened here. To slightly twist a line from the musical Hamilton: Who lived here? Who died here? How will we tell and preserve their stories? I also get more emotional at battlefields when I’m out walking or working on my own. Deeper meaning overall.
What’s your favorite part of the job working for Central Virginia Battlefields Trust?
Normally, I think I would say “events and visiting with our preservation partners,” but I haven’t really had that experience this year! Since so much of my job is happening with social distancing and remote access, I think writing is my favorite part at this time. I never dreamed I’d get to work in the history field with research and writing for part of my daily job. Getting out and hiking properties or researching new land opportunities is pretty awesome too!
Outside of work, are you in the middle of any projects at the moment?
Aside from sewing lots of masks for the community and working on some admin processes for Emerging Civil War, I’m pressing forward on some research and learning to write biographies! I’d hoped to have a new manuscript for the ECW series finished this autumn, but cancelled research trips and closed libraries have moved that goalpost. It’s a good challenge to see how much I can find and piece together from my desk, though, as I keep working the puzzle of primary sources to find the facts about those who fought or died during the Civil War.
Lightning Round (short answers with a one-sentence explanation)
Favorite primary source?
My Life In The Irish Brigade by Private William McCarter—a new favorite that I discovered this spring!
Favorite Civil War-related monument?
Sergeant Kirkland Memorial near at Fredericksburg’s Sunken Road. It’s great art and the memorialization of a timeless sentiment of compassion during difficult and horrifying hours.
Favorite unsung hero of the Civil War era?
I’ll go with heroines here: Kate Corbin Pendleton or Arabella Barlow.
What’s a bucket-list Civil War site you’ve not yet visited?
Missionary Ridge! Dave Powell’s book in the ECW series inspired me to start probing the western theater a little more.
Favorite ECWS book that’s not one of your own?
Out Flew The Sabres: The Battle of Brandy Station by Eric Wittenberg and Dan Davis. This is my current favorite (it changes!) because I used this book and the driving tour to explore Brandy Station for the first time this summer.