Van Raalte Civil War Muster gives 'real' history experience

The Van Raalte Civil War Muster provides an opportunity to travel back in time to better understand how this historical period determined the future of this country. 

More than a hundred Civil War military, cavalry, and civilian re-enactors are coming together at Holland's Van Raalte Farm Park to re-create the events of 1862.

“It’s like going back in time,” says event Chairman Rick Veenhoven. “The Van Raalte Farm is pristine for an event like this. It’s a real experience, because you don't see any commercialism. It’s like it was at the time.”

During the event that runs 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, visitors can walk through acres of camps where the re-enactors live, sleep, cook over campfires, play games, and relax until the Battle of Antietam is fought at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. 

Antietam was a clash of Union Gen. George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Sharpsburg, Maryland.

An authentic 1860’s church service will be held under the majestic maples at 10 a.m. Sunday at the Van Raalte House stage.

Nationally known talent

Last year, the Van Raalte Civil War Muster received a two-year, $51,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Hope College to expand the event. That investment paid off with record-breaking attendance of 5,000, including fifth grade students who attended on Friday, which is set aside for school groups. 

In 2019, attendance was 3,500, and the event was canceled in 2020 because of COVID restrictions.

The grant has made it possible for the muster to attract talent of national renown. 

One is actor Fritz Klein, who has performed as Lincoln in 38 states as well as internationally. He has appeared in films, documentaries, and plays, and performs at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois.

Although Klein bears a striking resemblance to Lincoln, it is his attention to historical accuracy, acting ability, and humor that helps him relate to audience members who walk away feeling they have been in the presence of the 16th president, Veenhoven says.

The muster will feature generals Meade (Union) and Lee, Jackson, and Stuart (Confederate) speaking about the battle. 

Princeton University Professor Allen Guelzo, author and one of the foremost scholars on the Civil War, will present. He is senior research scholar in the Council of Humanities and Director of the Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship in the James Madison Program at Princeton.

Guelzo was featured on a History Channel series about Lincoln. He has written more than two dozen books about Lincoln and the Civil war, Veenhoven says.

Other presenters include Frank O’Reilly, an historian with the National Parks Service at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. Pam Welcome portrays Harriet Tubman.

Adding to the ambiance will be the Volunteer Regimental Band of Holland, which will perform music of the day, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and “Dixie.”

Historic venue

The historic 160-acre park was once the farm of Benjamin Van Raalte, a Civil War veteran and son of Holland founder A.C. Van Raalte.

The city-owned property includes the original Van Raalte farmhouse and barns and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The event spun off the Holland Museum, where Veenhoven previously served as chairman of the board.

“We’ve had loyal corporate sponsors, many of them have been with us since day one when we started 14 years ago,” says Veenhoven, who is senior vice president of wealth management at West Michigan Community Bank. During the Muster, he becomes an army officer serving as an aide to President Lincoln.

The event lets people witness a field surgeon operating after the battle. There is also the Grey Barn Tavern, where visitors can get refreshments before and after the battle. The menu includes libations, lemonade, sodas, and authentic 1860s bar food in the 1850’s barn built by Ben Van Raalte, Civil War veteran. There are also Johnny cakes, bean soup, and apple crisp catered by North Holland Christian Reformed Church.

The event gives visitors an opportunity to tour the restored 1872 Van Raalte homestead at the top of the hill and learn about the Van Raalte family and about the Rev. Albertus Van Raalte, who founded Holland in 1847.


Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.