Twenty-five Years! An Interview with the Executive Director of the BGES

Len Riedel, BGES Executive Director
Len Riedel, BGES Executive Director

Len Riedel is the tirelessly working Executive Director of the Blue and Gray Education Society. He is the architect of the BGES’ diverse programming and of considerable preservation accomplishments in the nonprofit community. As the BGES heads into its 25th year, we asked this hardworking Civil War devotee a few things about where the organization has been and where it’s headed. He has a few opinions, for sure.

BGES Blog: This is the 25th anniversary of BGES. Tell us a little bit how it all started.

Len: Back in the late 1980s, after six years overseas, I wanted to connect with the Civil War, as it had been a long-standing interest of mine. I went to a tour with the Civil War Society and Kent Masterson Brown and found it was exactly what I was interested in—great people, great fun, and great ideas. A few years later, as I began to transition out of the Air Force, I asked, How could I make a living doing this? A new organization, the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites, had just cropped up, and so, after speaking with A. Wilson Greene, their executive director, we agreed there was a need for them to buy the land and for us to tell the story. I conceptualized the BGES around that and incorporated in April 1994. We conducted a joint tour with Wil Greene’s group in October and we were off and running.

BGES Blog: What was one of the greatest moments along the way?

Len: Well, they say you always remember your first triumph, and for us, the first real thrill was spending $600 to erect a site sign at The Coaling at Port Republic. About 20 years later, we erected a total of 75 signs in one year distributed between North Anna, The Bermuda Hundred Campaign, and Perryville.

BGES Blog: What brought you into the Civil War world? Was there one moment when you totally fell in love?

Len: I loved to read and in fourth grade in Norfolk, Virginia, I read Virginia history and remember a cartoon drawing in the textbook of the VMI cadets charging the Yankees at the battle of New Market. I started reading everything Civil War after that, and as the centennial was just starting I had the good fortune of collecting Civil War trading cards and reading The American Heritage Picture Book of the American Civil War at my grandpa’s house in New Orleans. I remember reading the features in Life magazine and National Geographic magazine that appeared between 1961 and 1965. Recently I added those magazines to my personal library.

BGES Blog: For you, what is the most poignant Civil War battle? Why?

Len: Each has real pathos associated with it, but I think the one battle that continues to intrigue me is Second Manassas or Second Bull Run. Why? Well, it was the first guided tour I ever took, so with folks like Bill Hassler, Kent Brown, Will Greene, Gary Gallagher, Alan Nolan, and Bob Krick I was just entranced. Later I purchased some cassette tapes of the lectures and listened to them endlessly. When John Hennessy wrote Return to Bull Run, that was the pièce de résistance. The field is a complete battlefield, and the individual actions, be it Confederates out of ammunition throwing rocks at their attackers or the massive flank attack of James Longstreet the battle, just has everything for me. I enjoy leading tours there myself and am looking forward to Scott Patchan’s presentation of the battle this fall.

BGES Blog: Which is your favorite BGES tour and why?

Len: Without any question, it is “The Bayou Expeditions” tour that Parker Hills and I worked up some 12 years ago as part of an eight-part, 32-day series on the Vicksburg Campaign. In the early eighties the legendary historian, Ed Bearss, had done a three-volume, 2,600-page campaign study that was published by Morningside Books. Until we came up with this tour, the only tours done of Vicksburg were three-day tours that covered the last 64 days of the campaign. We went surveying and found forgotten locations that still bore the scars of more than 145 years of indifference. Yet what remained, from the 19th-century levees that had been damaged to the discovery of vistas that had been done as woodcut drawings in Harper’s Weekly 143 years before, was too sublime for words. Now we exclusively take groups there as part of our four-year campaign study. Folks love it and we still get a thrill every time we burst out into the vista and see folks go “Ah hahhhh!”

BGES Blog: Is there any particular Civil War story that haunts you? A story that somehow touched you personally?

Len: The recent removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue from Lee Circle in my hometown of New Orleans devastated me. My identity and youth were tied up in seeing that lighted monument. While you would rarely notice it during the day, at night and when my family was leaving New Orleans at 5 AM to drive back home to Norfolk, I could see the monument as we approached the Mississippi River bridge from the West Bank. There was something reassuring that Lee was above the fray with his armed crossed, looking patiently over my city. I believe it was removed for all the wrong reasons, and I am not sure I can forgive New Orleans for doing that. They have torn out a piece of my heart.

BGES Blog: What Civil War historian and/or storyteller inspires you the most?

Len: While I am fortunate to have met so many great historians, Ed Bearss stands head and shoulders above all of them. I have seen the scars of the hideous wounds he suffered in World War II and have seen the selfless manner in which he devoted himself to the preservation and telling of history. There is just no one like him, and it may not happen again in my lifetime, but I sure am happy to know him and to have worked so closely with him. He will soon be 95. I hope he lives to be 105!

BGES Blog: What are some of the plans in the works for 2018?

Len: We really like to dig into one-of-a-kind projects and relish our ability to get them done on time and budget. We are just undertaking the final restoration of the courtroom at Fort McNair, where the Lincoln Conspirators were tried. We also know and hope to mark the precise spots where the gallows stood and they each fell. That is likely to cost some $50,000. We are also looking forward to our 12th season of Wounded Warrior tours for America’s heroes. We have been taking wounded warriors from the hospitals at Bethesda and Fort Belvoir for 12 years now, and it is really inspiriting to be with them. I am planning seven tours with them starting in April. I’ve also got my eyes on one or two other projects.

BGES Blog: What are you personally really excited about for 2018?

Len: Every day I get up and I am pumped about what we are doing. You would think that after nearly 24 full years I might be a little tired, but I am not. I recently made arrangements to take one of our wounded warrior alumni on a site survey of a tour I am leading in August on Stoneman’s Raid. Jesse and his wife inspire me. He has both legs off from an IED at the hips; but, he has a great outlook on America and the future. It reminds me of a great quote Stonewall Jackson made in 1862. Looking out over his footsore soldiers marching toward Manassas, he said with a slight smile,”Who could not conquer with such men as these?” Jesse, here is to you and all the other men and women who make America great! I look forward to the private time with you.