Sunday, June 06, 2021

Bad guys to battlefields: In Valley, ex-cop relishes his new gig

Man at work: Former police officer Aaron Siever, clutching a weed eater, prepares to battle
his enemy near a monument that marks where two Confederate veterans were executed.

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On a sliver of land adjacent to historic Valley Pike in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, 36-year-old Aaron Siever deploys weaponry against a tireless enemy. His Exmark Radius commercial mower makes quick work of tall grass near a monument that marks where two Confederate veterans were executed by the U.S. Army in June 1865. Then he uses a Stihl weed eater to cut down a determined patch of thistle, the Iron Brigade of weeds.

"I hate the weeding," Siever tells me, "but I do it."

Humdrum work? Hardly. For this history-loving former police officer, his new gig as Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation resource management associate is almost heavenly. "My job," says Siever [pronounced S-EVE-er], "is to hang out at battlefields all day." Oh my, how some of us would give up our day jobs to join him.
Aaron Siever swapped a police officer's uniform
for one from the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation. 
For nearly 15 years, Siever was a police officer in three Virginia law enforcement agencies, including the Rockingham County Sheriff's Office. He saw some of the worst of society, working child sex cases, drug cases, and other ugliness. (Meth is a major issue in the Valley, he says.) It was gratifying but mentally taxing for Siever, who has a degree in law enforcement and history from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.

When he patrolled with law enforcement colleagues or trainees, Siever frequently steered conversations to what happened at such-and-such a place a century or more ago, earning him an eyeroll or three. "It got to the point where they’d say, 'OK, no more talking about the history,' ” he says with a smile.

Months ago, Siever decided he needed a change. The resource management position opened with the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, which preserves and interprets the region’s significant Civil War battlefields and related historic sites. The organization thought so highly of the history-minded Siever -- who maintains an excellent Facebook page about his Civil War travels -- that it offered him the job and made it a full-time position. One major stipulation: He must take a substantial pay cut. Siever consulted with his "amazingly supportive" wife, who enthusiastically agreed the job was worth making the leap.

Hello, battlefields, green grass, and often-splendid views of the Massanutten Mountains. Goodbye, office cubicle, desktop computer, and patrol car. Former colleagues were supportive: “That’s your passion," one of them told him about his new position. "Can’t fault you for that.”

Ex-police officer Aaron Siever stands on the war-time road trace
 at the River Road site on the New Market battlefield. 
(Courtesy: Jack Owens)
Siever's new office stretches through the Civil War-rich Shenandoah Valley, from Winchester to Port Republic, where the SVBF has preserved more than 5,000 acres of hallowed ground. (Here's where it wants to save more.) He usually works four 10-hour days a week, starting at roughly 7 each morning. Siever mostly cuts grass and battles weeds, but he aims to make other contributions (perhaps writing for the SVBF newsletter).

In the Valley in 1862, the audacious Stonewall Jackson ran circles around the incompetent Nathaniel Banks -- ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY NO RELATION TO THIS BLOGGER! -- and other Union commanders, at Winchester, Port Republic, Kernstown, and elsewhere. On Sept. 21-22, 1864, Union commander Phil Sheridan whipped Jubal Early at Fisher's Hill, where I have eluded scores of -- ahem -- "landmines" and once lost a staredown contest with a herd of angry cows, apparently despondent over the recent demise of one of their own. Fisher's Hill is one of the organization's major saves.

The SVBF's nerve center is the historic (and beautifully restored) Strayer House in New Market, several musket shots from Interstate 81. (Quick aside: No human should ever say something nice about gawdawful I-81, which slices through New Market, Cedar Creek, Tom's Brook, and other Virginia battlefields. "I-81 did more damage to battlefields in the Shenandoah Valley," a wise man once said, "than Sheridan.")

A cottonwood tree at the River Road site
at the New Market battlefield. Did it 
witness the battle on May 15, 1864?
At New Market on May 15, 1864, John Breckinridge's outmanned forces, including Virginia Military Institute cadets, defeated Franz Sigel's Federals. The famous "Field of Lost Shoes," where the youthful cadets suffered mightily, and other core New Market battlefield are owned by VMI

But the SVBF has saved important sections of the battlefield, too. The organization's River Road site -- where the 30th and 62nd Virginia Infantry fought against the 123rd Ohio -- is Siever's favorite. (The cadets later moved through this area.) There, on his first day on his new job, the former cop picked up trash at the uninterpreted site on the opposite side of I-81 from VMI-owned battlefield. Working at River Road on 157th anniversary of the Battle of New Market, Siever and a colleague distinctly heard the boom of cannon and firing of muskets by living historians over the roar of highway traffic.

"One of the most awesome things," Siever says of the experience.

On my River Road sojourn with Siever, I do what my wife says I do best: Watch another person work. Wearing goggles, a ballcap and a longsleeve shirt with SVBF logos, Siever rolls the mower from a trailer on a Dodge 4x4 and cuts grass for roughly an hour -- he circles around stumps and boulders, weaves near a huge cottonwood (presumably "witness tree") and war-time road trace, and briefly disappears behind a post-war house. I occasionally stare at the ground -- you know, just to see if something turns up.

The River Road site, nearly surrounded by trees, is hardly Siever's most challenging. At the SVBF's Third Battle of Winchester site, he maintains 640 acres, which makes me sweat just by typing that. Siever sometimes wonders what lies beneath the ground -- bullets, artillery shells, perhaps even bodies? No battle artifacts have turned up yet during his two months on the job, but he has found a Confederate round ball while digging for a rose bush in his yard in New Market.

Occasionally, Siever uses well-honed interpretation skills to educate visitors. Clearly, this job is a labor of love. (Oh, Lord, my junior high English teacher may hurt me.)

“I loved police work," Siever says, "but the stress level of this job is so small that it’s a whole different world."

At the River Road New Market battlefield site, Siever completes his task in roughly an hour. 
The war-time road trace is at left; the cottonwood (center) may be a witness tree.

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  1. Nice story....keep finding, writing and sharing them. Well-done.

  2. The SVBF is a great organization and has many low cost of free events in the area. They deserve support.

  3. A very enjoyable story. Connecting with our past while living in the present.