By Craig Handel
Driving through the Natural Bridge Battlefield Historic State Park in Tallahasee, Ashley Alarcon’s imagination started to take off. Windows rolled down, taking in the beauty of the forest and nature, she wondered if this is what it looked like 160 years ago.
While driving by the St. Marks River and lighthouse, Ashley imagined Union soldiers landing, about to engage in battle.
What was it like for volunteers — Confederate soldiers, old men and young boys – when they met the Union forces at Natural Bridge and repelled three major attacks?
Then reality hit. When Alarcon reached the state park, she noticed there were few statues or weapons, or much of anything really, commemorating the Civil War.
“I was surprised and a little disappointed,” she said.
That’s why she followed fellow Estero High School graduate Sarah Schwartz in serving with the American Battlefield Trust, a nonprofit with a mission to preserve historic battleground sites and relics from the American Revolution, War of 1812 and Civil War.
It may seem an odd endeavor for a high school senior.
“I always had a passion for history,” Alarcon said. “When I did my research on American Battlefield Trust, I found out only 20 percent of the (battlefield) sites have been preserved. I thought it all would be preserved.”
The trust receives grants from federal, state and local governments and other donations enabling its preservation and education efforts. Alarcon applied to be on the Youth Leadership Team and received a one-year affiliation.
The Youth Leadership Team is a rotating group of young people, ages 15-18, who serve as the youth face and voice of the trust. Members initiate projects in their local communities and attend an annual conference.
During the pandemic, American Battlefield Trust expanded its youth team from 10 to 15 since all events were virtual and projects were done independently.
“My plans were to take a group of kids to a battlefield, but with COVID, it wasn’t possible to do that. So I incorporated pictures and videos to create a five-minute, educational video,” Alarcon said. She plans to post the video on the trust’s website and YouTube channel, and possibly the Lee County Schools’ website. “I’m hoping to educate as many people as possible and put it on a platform where it’ll encourage middle school teachers to show it to kids.”
Alarcon received a $350 stipend to buy camera equipment, a microphone and editing apps for video.
“By supporting this group of motivated young leaders, we hope to create a ripple effect for battlefield preservation, visitation and history education in our nation,” said Connor Townsend, manager of audience development at American Battlefield Trust. “Our goal is for young people to connect and empower each other to create change within their own schools and communities.”
Estero’s original promoter of battlefield history
Schwartz, 18, an Estero High grad who now is a freshman at Vanderbilt University, said she had a memorable experience as a member of the Youth Leadership Team. She made two trips to Washington, D.C., trained for “Lobby Day,” took part in Capital Hill meetings and toured a battlefield with her 10-member team. Schwartz managed digital media and social media accounts for American Battlefield Trust from July 2020 until February 2021.
Before the global pandemic, she received a stipend to take 20 Lee County students to Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park in Sanderson, the site of Florida’s largest Civil War battle. The park is located 50 miles west of Jacksonville and 15 miles east of Lake City, on U.S. 90.
“We emailed all the principals in Lee County, who nominated two–to–three students from various schools,” Schwartz said. “We rented three vans and had the event re-enacted.”
While she enjoys history, Schwartz said her first love is politics. Getting the opportunity to meet senators while lobbying for a bill now has her considering a major in public policy and economics.
Taking battlefield education online
Townsend said despite the adversities Alarcon faced from the pandemic, she persevered and proved to be an exemplary representative of the trust.
“Not only is she a dedicated history student, but she is professional, responsive and creative to boot,” Townsend wrote. “Above all, she has done all of the hard work associated with this program — keeping in contact, creating and executing her project, participating in training — and has not been able to enjoy any of the more fun aspects (travel, team bonding, lobbying on Capitol Hill) due to COVID. But she has not once complained or shirked responsibility.”
The Natural Bridge is the site of the second largest Civil War battle in Florida. There, the St. Marks River drops into a sinkhole and flows underground for a quarter–mile before reemerging.
Because the Tallahassee volunteers stopped three major attacks, the Union troops were forced to retreat to the coast, and Tallahassee was the only Confederate capital east of the Mississippi not captured by the Union. A monument at the site commemorates the Confederate soldiers who defended Natural Bridge.
This year’s reenactment of the battle was canceled because of COVID. Visitors can still enjoy picnic and fishing areas surrounded by woodlands.
“American history is very difficult to find in Florida,” Alarcon noted. “In New England, you only have to go about five minutes to find it.”
Alarcon wants to stay connected with the trust and possibly apply for internships. In the meantime, she’ll attend the University of Florida where her goal is to major in political science, which would put her on a pre-law track.
Her dream job is to work in Washington, D.C., preferably in the White House. And if she receives such a position, would Alarcon give her backing to preserving the battleground sites?
“Yes, definitely,” she said.
View Ashley Alarcon’s video about the Battle at Natural Bridge here.