The Civil War is Relived - In Dirt and Patches

The Washington Post "City Life" section, October 31, 1960

By Marshall Andrews

Tradition can be a patch on your pants

The 15 young men who make up the First Maryland Infantry (Black Hats) carry that tradition even further than that. They are members of the North-South Skirmish Association but they resemble their fellow-members only in the bright Civil War rifles they carry.

Their guiding star is tradition and their highest aim is realism and they have followed both so far that the sight of them marching along would make you think the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz had been prolific indeed and all his progeny had joined the army. But if you're hep to the great war of 1861-1865 you'd rub your eyes twice; you'd see the Confederate Army of 1863 come to life again.

"Hard to get Dirty"

"A lot of people think we live like this," said Gerry Rolph, their commander. "But it has been hard to get as dirty as we want to look. We dyed ourselves dirty."

Only those shining muskets mark them as lineal descendants of those remarkable soldiers who carried a doomed cause on their bayonets for four dreadful years of war. Their pants are patched, their coats are frayed, their hair is long and stranger to a comb. It sticks out through the holes in their disreputable hats. But they planned it that way and they have succeeded very well.

The First Maryland Infantry, Companies A and B, were organized by Rolph back back in 1955 with four high school boys. The two companies now number 15, almost entirely high school students from the District, Maryland and Virginia. They meet once a week in their scarecrow uniforms to drill by the regulations of the 1860s or to make and put in disrepair their uniforms and equipment.

For they make everything but their rifles and their shoes and the old canteens, cups and frying pans that rattle at their belts. They are getting machinery together to make their shoes and most of their rifles are put together from parts of many weapons. Their long hair is accounted for by wigs they have made; all their leather equipment they have made themselves and they have a model of a wooden canteen which they intend to copy.

Uniforms from Blankets

Their rough gray pants are made from blankets and are liberally patched. Some wear uniform coats and some civilian coats recut to look like coats of the 60s. There is no question that they have attained their aim of realism.

Their commander is a teacher now working toward his Ph.D. in history at the University of Maryland. He has taught at the University and at Bladensburg High School. His organization of the Black Hats stemmed naturally enough from his interest in history and his zeal as a collector of military weapons.

The boys themselves are enthusiastic Rebels. One of them, John Griffiths, is a great-great-grandson of Union Lt. Gen. U.S. Grant; "the greater the better," said one of his raffish comrades. But the edge of his Yankee heritage is dulled by a distant connection with Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet.

Some members of the North-South Skirmish Association, with all its own insistence on authenticity in uniforms and weapons, think the boys have gone a little too far. Compared with with the usual run of blue and gray uniforms, they do look like poor relations. But the boys return the compliment with interest; to them the neat and sometimes gaudy uniforms of other Skirmisher units are not only a compromise with realism but a direct negation of things as they really were.

Follow Diet, Also

Not content with "dyeing themselves dirty," the Black Hats have experimented with parched corn, the staple diet of the Confederate soldier after the first year of the war. And one of them, Burt Kummerow of Chevy Chase, has stuffed a white chicken which he carries tied to his blanket roll.

"It was the first time I tried to stuff anything," he explained, "and I didn't do too well. It's getting a little ripe."

With all their charging behind the Stars and Bars with shrill Rebel yells, the boys take their organization seriously. They are well drilled and very well disciplined and are reliving history in a manner that no doubt would warm the heart of any old Reb if he could lift himself from his grave and see them marching by.

Photographs that accompanied the Washington Post article

  1. Johnny Reb: "John Griffiths, a great-great-grandson of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, portrays a weary Confederate soldier of a century ago. Hanging from his belt are typical rations of the retreating rebels - parched corn and a chicken foraged in a farmyard. John, also related to Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, is a member of the North-South Skirmish Association.
  2. Royce Franzoni takes a drink of water from a canteen of the Civil War period.
  3. Bill Magill of the First Maryland looks down the sights of a muzzle loader.
  4. Members of the Black Hats, First Maryland Infantry, take their ease during a break in battle. Standing at right is the group's commander, Gerry Rolph, of 5130 Wissioming Rd., Glen Echo Heights, Md. The photos were taken near his home where the Black Hats meet.