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RALPH HAPPEL: HISTORICAL RICHES
The Central Virginia Battlefield's Trust Ralph Happel Award is named for a National Park Service historian who left an amazing legacy.

 Ralph Happel interviewed Phenie Tapp on Wilderness Battlefield during the 1930s. Phenie, whose grandmother was the Widow Tapp who farmed the hardscrabble field where the famous 'Lee-to-the-Rear' episode unfolded, had been in some trouble with the law during Prohibition for selling homemade bootleg booze.
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Date published: 4/28/2007

EARLY IN 1972, 61-year-old Ralph Happel was on the verge of retirement after more than 35 years as a National Park Service historian, almost all of them on duty on the battlefields around Fredericksburg. I arrived that winter to take up the post of chief historian, as a Californian youth utterly devoid of the local roots so much valued in Fredericksburg in those days, but devoutly interested in Virginia's Civil War people and sites.

Ralph promptly introduced me to his friend, the incomparably knowledgeable and incomparably eccentric George H.S. King, whose cache of genealogical lore equaled Ralph's own historical expertise. For many years, both George and Ralph fed me bushels of priceless regional historical tidbits that still clutter my files in pleasing profusion.

When Happel first went to work on the battlefields in the 1930s, some few elderly veterans survived, albeit at an age when genuinely useful recollection had faded. The generation that followed them, though, bridged the years and maintained a high interest.

Ralph assiduously cultivated such folk, and extracted primary sources from them. He was on close terms with the member of that second generation who was the most important for purposes of Fredericksburg-area Civil War history--Massachusetts politician Fred W. Cross.

Historical bonanza

Across several decades, Fred Cross regularly visited the Civil War battlefields around Fredericksburg and systematically interviewed veterans of the fighting and civilians who had lived here during the 1860s. He drew maps and took photographs by the hundreds, documenting buildings that subsequently disappeared and sites fated for destruction.

Some of Cross' photographs supply the only surviving visual record of Civil War places. Ralph stayed in steady touch with Fred, and at Cross' death in 1950 he left to Ralph his Civil War books and manuscripts and photographs. The treasure trove of regional history remained in Ralph's estate, and was sold by Fredericksburg's Bill Beck to local collectors who now preserve that important archive.


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Enos Richardson Jr. will receive the Ralph Happel Award from the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust on Saturday, May 5, at the "Slaughter Pen Farm" on Tidewater Trail, as part of a celebration of the saving of that vital historic tract. The meeting and presentation will take place from 5 to 8:30 p.m. For details, call 540/907-0527 or go to cvbt.org.