My Recollections as a Skirmisher during the Civil War Centennial:
or, Confessions of a Blackhat
by Ross M. Kimmel
Chapter 3: 1962, Trunked and Trod Upon
By the spring of 1962, I was feeling myself to be more a seasoned member of the Blackhats, drinking beer at events and hanging out with Burt. There was a regional at Fort Meade May 5 and 6 where we first set up our authentic dog tents and barrels, and thought ourselves quite the cat's meow. While the shoot itself went as usual, we Blackhats engaged in our usual high-jinks, which I'll not bother to record, since it's all going to sound like episodes already described. On the 13th we went to another Centennial non-event in Richmond, some dedication ceremony at Ft. Darling on the James River. I recorded our main function as being to form a cordon along the edge of the bluff to keep the public from falling off. We tried to do a demonstration of Blackhat drill and firing, but no one much paid attention. I must have missed the Spring Nationals that year, for I recorded nothing about them.
The next big do was my first (and last) Muzzleloader Festival at Dearborn, Michigan, the Henry Ford "Greenfield Village" Museum.
Those of us going met at Gerry's house on a Thursday afternoon (it would have been June 21, 1962, just before my 17th birthday). I remember that a neighbor of ours, a young man several years my senior, volunteered to get me to Rolph's because my father was at work, and my mother didn't drive (I had my license then, but we only had one car). The neighbor and I had no sooner arrived at Gerry's than Gerry jumped down my throat about something or other, embarrassing me greatly in front of my neighbor, who had kindly helped me haul my weekend baggage down to the house. I reacted by hiding out in the garage until other Blackhats arrived. Then, loading a heavy box of ammo in Gerry's customized VW van, I marred the wood paneling, and Gerry jumped all over me again. That's how he could be. By late afternoon, the six of us going in this shift (Gerry, Bob Chance, Fred Davis, John Griffiths, a younger kid last name of Lee -- not Bobby Lee -- and I) folded ourselves and all our baggage and muskets into Rolph's van and off we went to the Detroit area, arriving early the next morning. I know who the six were because we had our tintype portraits made at Greenfield Village. (These are reproduced on this page.) Bill Magill was to drive out later in the day with Burt in the Morris Minor, but they never made it.
We spent Friday touring the museum and village. I recorded that we had expected to have all expenses while there paid, but it turned out not to be so, and I, at least, had to make the few dollars I had brought go further than expected. We were provided bunk space in a big dormitory, and pretty much had the place to ourselves Friday night. Saturday, however, all the farbs arrived. This was my first exposure to the costumed muzzleloading crowd in general, not just Civil War. What a bunch. Buckskinners, Indians, dandies, Revolutionaries, plainsmen, mountain men, and all varieties of yahoos. We marched in a parade, and were given box lunches. Since, as usual, we Blackhats hadn't registered to be in the Saturday individual matches, we had more time to cruise through the village, which really interested us more than shooting. It was at some point this day that we had our tintypes made. That night there was a ball, which I vaguely remember. Sunday's shoot was a lot of fun; we fired at suspended aerosol cans and small explosives. Chance and Davis each won a ham in individual matches. We field-cleaned our guns and spent Sunday evening driving back to Casa Rolph. I remember Fred taking me home Monday morning in his classic MG.
On the 18th of August we went to a -- now seemingly stupid, but fun then -- reenactment of a train raid at Vienna, VA. Here we first encountered the Potomac Field Music, whom I described as "very good." The reenactment consisted of the Confederate forces standing along a railroad embankment in a wood line while a modern engine pushing a couple of modern cars came chugging down the line, full of Yankees, and we blazed away at them, eventually capturing the train. I remember a skirmisher named Joe Bown, a member of Stuart's Horse Artillery, who played the role of comedian during this rather silly exercise. We all got medals and went home.
My next big experience was another of the key Civil War Centennial events, the reenactment of Antietam. Like 1st Manassas, it was held on the actual battleground, at the Sunken Road. It also represented a pivotal turning point in my and two other Blackhats' allegiances during the Centennial. Burt, John and I went to the reenactment, I think the only Blackhats to do so, with George Gorman's 2nd North Carolina. The Blackhats as a unit didn't go. Gerry, for some unclear reason, was swearing off reenactments; I think he only went to one more after the pathetic Vienna train raid. Perhaps he thought they were less-than-dignified, a view that, in my maturity, I share with him. But, when I was a teenage Civil War zealot, a big reenactment was hog heaven. We "authentics" were, of course, keenly aware of the general lack of authenticity of these things and most of the people doing them, but our quest was to participate in ways that would allow us to adhere to higher standards in our own little bubble on a sea of farbiness.
Burt, John and I, in company with Jeremiah (Jerry) Reen, another original skirmisher and member of the Blue Rifles, had gone to Gorman's shop sometime that summer, and it was probably on that trip that Burt, John and I decided to throw in with George for Antietam because it didn't look like we would be going if we waited for Gerry to sign the Blackhats up. We kept our intentions to ourselves. The weekend before the reenactment, the three of us went to Antietam to scout out a route whereby we could march to the battlefield with the 2nd North Carolina. The plan was to carry rations for the weekend in our haversacks, camp in the field, and do everything as much like Civil War soldiers as possible for the entire weekend. It was in connection with the Antietam adventure that I got my first pair of truly authentic shoes. At this point in the Centennial, it was apparent to us few Blackhats who were turning hardcore on the authenticity front that George had much to offer, including better shoes than Carter Kangaroos. Burt and Gerry had by this point made Yankee brogans for themselves, but there was no practical opportunity for the rest of us to do any better than C. K.'s. George had found a shoemaker who reproduced an original (supposedly Confederate, but who knows) shoe that George had. Even if it wasn't Confederate, it certainly was a period shoe, and rather crude at that. Anyway, I ordered a pair just before Antietam, and when they arrived, they were too small. I wore my C. K.'s to Antietam and told George the shoes he sent were too small. He ordered one of his guys who was wearing a pair of his repros in my size to trade shoes with me, which he did, and I had them for the march and reenactment. I kept them for years, and they are now on a Confederate mannequin at Gathland State Park. George had a relative, father-in-law I think, who worked in a woolen mill in Philadelphia, and George was able to come up with some pretty good cloth types for Confederate uniforms, better than the camp blankets and Charlottsville cadet cloth that we Blackhats used. George also had seamstresses making his boys' clothing, and they were looking better at this point than the Blackhats. I started making my clothes from cloth supplied by George.
I'm digressing; back to Antietam. Burt, John and I succeeded in mapping out a ten mile or so march over mostly period roads starting east of Keedysville and on toward the battlefield, basically along the line of march of the 1st and 12th Corps of the Union Army during the original battle. Pulling it off depended on one thing that George and his boys were not always good at, punctuality. I think we planned to get things started Friday night, September 14, by rendezvousing with the 2nd N.C. ironically at Gerry's; it being the only place local to Burt, John and me that George was familiar with. Gerry at this point I think was wise to what was going on. Anyway, George did not show up, and Burt, who was trying to coordinate all this while keeping Gerry as much in the dark as possible, picked me up very early Saturday morning and deposited me at Gerry's where John had come, then went off to find out what was keeping George. John and I bedded down on the Dobert estate trying, and succeeding, in eluding Gerry. (Why all the sneaking around? Gerry and George were obviously, to us, never going to get along. Gerry wasn't going to do reenactments, and while the three of us wanted to do stuff with George that Gerry wouldn't do, we feared the "Wrath of Rolph" if we appeared to be deserting Gerry.) Anyway, Burt succeeded in finding out that George and his boys had gotten, typically, a late start and were headed straight for Antietam, so he came back to Rolph's, picked up John and me, and we headed out to rendezvous with the 2nd N.C. at the Piper Farm, which is where we had decided to camp Saturday night. It was here that I got my shoes.
It being too late in the morning to attempt the full ten mile march, we nevertheless decided to do an abbreviated version. We parked Burt's car (I think at this point he had a Chevy Corvair) where it would be easy to get to from the battlefield and jumped in the back of a rented panel truck that George had used to convey the 2nd N.C. from Philadelphia to Antietam, and went out to a point on the march that would get us to the field in time for the reenactment, maybe a five or six mile trek. There were perhaps 20 of us in all. From my journal, September 15:
"The march began about ten or eleven o'clock in the a.m. on Mt. Hebron Rd turning off of Dog Street Rd. We followed Mt. Hebron through a wooded area, over a stream and into the little town of Keedysville. We found our way to the post office and sat down in front of it for awhile. Continuing the march we encountered an old gentleman who came up to his gate and smartly saluted to us; we promptly removed our hats and broke loose a cheer for the man. The town was decorated for the Reenactment; banners were strung across the main street and flags were displayed on nearly every lawn.
"We rounded a bend and crossed the Sharpesburg Rd. and proceeded on another trace. This route was very hilly and what would have been a mile's flight to the crow was several miles march to us. We reckoned we were nearing the battlefield when we began to see mounted officers and couriers running about. About one o'clock we found ourselves at the upper bridge over Antietam Creek. Before crossing we settled down for a mid-day meal. A very poor widow and her children permitted us to sit under a huge oak on their property. We remained there about a half-hour and were curiously watched by at least 8 or 9 dirty-faced, uncombed children. They stayed on their little porch and gave us not the least bit annoyance . . . Burt, who lost his bayonet, borrowed mine to shatter coffee beans in his cup for a brew. We traded around what each of us found in his forage bag. . .
"We pushed on, crossing the Antietam at the bridge. I believe this is the bridge used by the 1st and 12th Corps of the Army of the Potomac in the opening hours of the battle. It seems rather ironic that this same bridge should be used by Confederates in the re-enactment. Beside being hilly, the road now skirted the boundaries of each farm making it windy and even longer.
"Our water was running awfully low and we made it to the battlefield just in time. There was a tremendous review of the units (which look worse than any I've seen) and the Saturday show got underway.
"We [2nd N.C.] took our positions on the Sunken Rd. (bloody lane). [I should point out here that the original 2nd N.C. was in the Bloody Lane. George claimed to be descended from Captain John C. Gorman of Co. B, 2nd N.C.] Burt and I went out as skirmishers and fell slowly back to the road. The Confederate lines formed along the Sunken road to oppose the Union line coming towards us. During the height of battle a gun exploded in the hands of someone [name of Springer] in Gorman's outfit. The musket broke at the grip and the victim's face was badly cut. It was a horrible sight made worse under simulated battle conditions. After the boy was removed [by a modern ambulance crew -- I think he may have actually been taken to a hospital for treatment], our enthusiasm over what we were about was quelled. We spent the rest of the fray sitting under a tree. [What actually happened in the gun accident was never clear to me. I remember that I caught the explosion out of the corner of my eye; it being an unusually bright flash and loud report, and Springer was down, gun broken, face bleeding. As I will tell presently, George put some pretty bad muskets (again, all originals) in his boys' hands, and unlike us Rolph-tutored Blackhats, the 2nd N.C. didn't keep their weapons whistle clean. Again I will state, as quirky as Gerry was, he was absolutely right about gun maintenance.]
"By and by, our position was overtaken by the enemy, so we pulled out and exited through a cornfield and pitched camp on the Piper farm. [All the other reenactors were billeted at Burnside Bridge, but we wanted to camp authentic, so stayed at Piper's.] We were tired and dirty so we paid the occupant of the farmhouse fifty cents to use her well and pump for water to clean up with. Once fairly clean & cool, we unrolled our bed-rolls and rested until dark came on. John & I started a fire and dinner was prepared slowly. I had some bacon and a fried potato for dinner tonight. I traded some prunes for an apple."
My journal reports, and I can remember, that several of us walked into Sharpsburg, which was full of reenactors and skirmishers who were partying pretty heartily, which they always seemed to do. Back in camp, Burt and I put down some straw from the Piper barn, one of our ground cloths, one of our blankets, then ourselves, then another blanket and ground cloth, to sleep Civil War spoon-fashion. It rained some that night.
The 16th was to feature some bizarre occurrences, which pointed up how much George Gorman was disliked among the N-SSA. I'll let the story unfold as I recorded it in my journal:
"We got up about nine this morning and a few of us went foraging for breakfast. We ended up down at Burnside's Bridge where all the other skirmishers are bivouacked and pilfered some buns, eggs, and milk from a supply tent.
"The rest of this morning was spent working out a system of battle maneuvers we [the 2nd N.C.] were going to use in the battle today. It was a series of facings and charging at a quickstep staying in step. Time came for us to move out and we went back through the cornfield and sat down just on the other side in a tiny wooded area. But before long a group of about 20 or 30 state police with a hound surrounded us and closed in. When they found we were the 2nd N. Carolina (all except Burt, John, & I) they told us to leave the field. Without asking questions we formed up and marched off with the police guard. We had not the slightest idea what we had done or where we were going, and they treated us rather disrespectfully when we asked what was happening (I believe it's our Constitutional right to know [these were the pre-Miranda days])! We were taken along the Sunken road amidst spectators and other units. Finally, Burt, who was calling cadence, called us to a halt and refused to move us any farther until we knew what we had done, etc. They didn't say much but we did find we were being removed to prevent trouble during the re-enactment. That satisfied us and we proceeded. (Burt & one of Gorman's men went to get the cars & truck.)
"We were taken out to the Sharpesburg road where we were watched by police until Burt and Chandler met us with transportation home. While we waited, the police took our names, addresses, etc. We talked to them and found that someone had 'tipped' them that the 2nd N.C. was planning a riot (of course, this is a lie) and was going to burn Piper field (also a lie). They were only doing their duty when the police removed us but I can't help thinking (and doubting) about what the N-SSA (apparently, it was a N-SSA group that tipped the police) is coming to."
Thus ends my journal commentary on the incident. I will add some additional thoughts. I was with the 2nd N.C. from Saturday morning until the police ejection. There was no talk about starting a riot or burning the Piper cornfield. As I remember, we picked up additional scuttlebutt later that George had done at least one influential skirmisher dirty in a relic deal, which is a totally credible story. That individual (I could tell you his name and unit, but won't because it is hearsay; I'm pretty sure he, like George, has long since gone to the great skirmish in the sky) wanted revenge, and got it. Fact of the matter is, George had applied for 2nd N.C. membership in the N-SSA, and was ultimately rejected, partly because of his reputation as a dirty-dealer. Also, George's boys were a pretty rough-hewn set. I think they haled mostly from working class families and liked to affect a street-wise swagger, which reminded me of the bad boys, like Mickey Rooney, you see in 1930's movies. It was their way of relating to George, who egged them on. They were, indeed, a bit intimidating, and I am sure this too, besides George's reputation, didn't go down well with the N-SSA.
There were two more events that fall in which the 2nd N.C. was to cooperate with the Blackhats, and the results show more how troublesome the former group, particularly George, could be. Apparently, the 2nd N.C. had not yet been blackballed by the N-SSA because they were to join us at the Fall Nationals at Fort Meade, October 8 and 9, 1962. Only four of the 2nd showed up Saturday, and George was not among them. Before letting them shoot, Gerry insisted on stripping and inspecting their muskets, only to find out that the weapons were "junkers," and Gerry wouldn't let the guys shoot them. One 2nd N.C.er in particular, last name of Rapp, who was more Burt's age, i.e., a young adult, was highly incensed that George would have sold him a gun unfit to shoot. We Blackhats commiserated with the forlorn four and concluded that George had to be watched carefully when dealing with him. I recorded that we decided to steer clear of the Blue-Gray Ball so as not to offend any skirmish pooh-bah who might have it in for the 2nd. On Sunday, we Blackhats started teaching basic Civil War drill to the N.C.ers, that too being something George was not too fastidious about. George finally showed up with some more of his people, but whether they shot, I didn't record. Apparently, too, I suppose in recognition of our drill proficiency, Gerry had been pointed parade marshal for the N-SSA, and oversaw the traditional Sunday march-on. The Blackhats' shooting was, as I recorded, "fair, I guess, but there is still room for improvement."
I also mentioned "Zook's Field Music" again as having played well. Perhaps I should explain that it wasn't so much Roger Zook's Field Music as it was Bob Miller's. Bob was an original, or certainly very early, skirmisher, with the Washington Blue Rifles, and, who, like Ernie Peterkin, was a first-rate gentleman. I believe it was he who master-minded the concept of a N-SSA fife and drum corps. He called it the Potomac Field Music and Roger Zook, an accomplished rudimental drummer, became lead drummer. The other musicians were boys. Among the fifers was Denis Reen, and among the drummers Jeremy Reen, sons of Jerry Reen, and skirmishers yet with the Blackhats. Most of these guys would later become the fifes and drums of the Revolutionary War 1st Maryland Regiment which we formed in the mid-60's. They still play at shoots.
One other fact I recorded about the Fall Nationals that year was a long conversation Burt, John and I had with Mrs. Minnie Welch, previously mentioned, about Yankee overcoats, we three wanting to make them, and she having developed patterns from originals. Also I should record that I traveled to the shoot with Bob Chance in a Model A Ford pickup truck, which was a real gas.
The last Blackhat event of 1962 was another MOVIE! This one was called "Stonewall Jackson's Way," and I'll leave it up to the reader's powers of deduction to guess what it was about. Again, the Blackhats' efforts were to be in concert with Gorman and the 2nd N.C., and once again, the latter's cooperation left something to be desired. For some reason, I neglected to record the dates, but am pretty sure it was late October, '62. The place was the Watt House, a landmark on the Cold Harbor Battlefield. I am sure that other skirmish units were involved in this production, though may not have been at this particular weekend's shoot. I did record that we were in the company of boys from a military academy who had been sent out to work off demerits by being in this production. They were outfitted in terrible Confederate uniforms and carried wooden muskets. We set up a huge, for us, camp of about two dozen tents to give the impression of a larger camp, then filmed some stock marching and field-of-dead scenes (in the latter of which I wore a Yankee uniform). The only member of the 2nd N.C. to show up that day was Michael P. Musick, yet a good friend of mine and a top Civil War documents specialist at the U.S. National Archives. He was a freshman at Roanoke College in Salem, Va., and had gotten a letter from Gorman saying "Be there!" so he hitch-hiked up, arriving about dusk, the only 2nd N.C.er to make it that day. I will have more to say about Mike as this memoir proceeds; he became a soul-mate of mine during the Centennial. I recorded that we spent the evening in Richmond "at the house of Col. Batey's daughter and her husband." I remember the evening, but have no other recollection of who Col. Batey was. Evidently, his son-in-law as interested in Civil War artillery, because I recorded a long conversation he and Gerry had on the subject.
That night in camp I remember as being unusually cozy, each of us in our own tent, quite frosty out, with a roaring fire casting an eerie light in the tents. I slept particularly well.
The next morning at breakfast in a country restaurant, in sauntered George Gorman and Burt with the rest of George's crew. Back in camp, some camp scenes were filmed, including Stonewall in his tent with Gerry, as a Confederate officer, conveying some intelligence to Old Bluelight. I remember one scene where, without being asked to, I calculated to get into a scene where my face would be recognizable. We had our barrels set up in the camp with a plank between them to form a work area. I realized that the vignette would be in the near background of a scene they were setting up and by standing at the plank making like I was doing something, I'd be in the scene, so I did so, and no one asked me not to. Sure enough, I ended up recognizable in the final product. I suppose I had learned my lesson on celluloid visibility at the "more schmoke" movie of two years previous. A rainstorm put an end to the filming and we broke camp early. Burt and I went to the Confederate Museum in Richmond with George and his boys. Then to Gerry's late in the evening where, I recorded, "Gorman and Gerry tried to work out a merger of our two units. But after Gorman's past performances, nothing was resolved."
I don't remember the name of the actor who portrayed Stonewall, but Burt tells me he owned a resort of some sort in New England and was associated with the N-SSA, in fact, advertised his resort in The Skirmish Line. Burt and John visited it once.
By this time, I was a high school senior, was making decent grades, had a driver's license (though no car of my own) and was functioning on a more mature level than when I had joined the Blackhats. A number of my contemporaries in the unit had fallen by the wayside: DeMik, Magill, Robillard, Franzoni and others. Tom Province was still around, and would be for a few more years. There was a newer crop of younger boys, Larry Alexander, Skip Lee, and a few others, though I have a less distinct recollection of them. There was another older guy, married, named Jack Shefler, who became proficient at leather working. I think, too, that the unit must have been shrinking by this point. Whereas we had often turned two shooting teams, I think we were down to one from here on out. I tried recruiting school friends, but with no success. I made a poster, like the one that had attracted me to the Blackhats in the first place, and put it in Bill Prince's relic store window in Wheaton. It brought Terry Roach, a Montgomery Blair student my age, into the Blackhats, though he only lasted until we went off to college. (He since as gotten back in touch and is in my living history group, the Baltimore Light Artillery, CSA, which does artillery demonstrations in battlefield parks.)
I also began operating more independently of Gerry, and became good friends with Burt. It seemed our interests, especially in being authentic, was getting out beyond Gerry's. Around Christmas of that year I made myself yet another Confederate jacket, this one of a coarse brown wool I had gotten from Gorman. When Gerry saw it, he huffed to Jerry Reen that it was made of "slave cloth," which (he claimed) wouldn't have been used for a Confederate jacket. Burt, John and I were making regular trips to George's and trading things like leather goods we made to him for his guys in exchange for cloth to make our uniforms. By and by, George, then Burt, turned out as officers in the 2nd N.C., George nominally in charge, but Burt, who knew how to command in the field, actually ran things at reenactments. The 2nd N.C. was growing, sometimes turning out 30 or more men. There was a contingent from North Carolina under Luther Sowers (well-known now as maker of excellent edged weapons and armor) and another from Michigan (Clarke Ball and Greg Heppe), ultimately under Jim Quinlan. I still see Greg around occasionally.
Ross Kimmel's narration continues with his account of 1963, click here.