The North-South Skirmish Association isn’t really fighting the war, but sometimes it looks (and sounds) that way.
Gunfire comes from somewhere beyond the woods to my left— so sustained and heavy that it sounds like I’m approaching a war zone. I’m driving down a muddy road just north of Winchester, Virginia, on a sunny October afternoon, heading to the North- South Skirmish Association’s fall nationals, a huge shooting competition conducted with Civil War–era weapons. The event brings thousands of black-powder enthusiasts and their families to a location the organization calls Fort Shenandoah.
Founded in 1950, the N-SSA has around 4,000 members, all belonging to various units based on real units from the Civil War. Not only do these skirmishers shoot Civil War weapons—originals and reproductions—they use real ammunition and some wear period uniforms. I figure this skirmish will be the closest I’m ever likely to get to Civil War combat.
Fort Shenandoah sprawls across some 500 acres at the north end of the Shenandoah Valley, which was hotly contested territory throughout the real conflict. Once past the main entrance, I discover something that resembles a huge Boy Scout camp, albeit one with lots of weaponry. Campers, RVs and tents jam the camping areas. Sutlers occupy a complex of storefronts, where you’ll find not just guns but powder, caps, bullets and other equipment.
On the far side of the creek running through the property is the main attraction: a shooting range more than a quarter-mile long, with a pistol range at one end. Shooters at the firing line face a wooded rise more than 100 yards away. The bottom portion, the backstop, is already denuded of vegetation, thanks to frequent barrages. It will absorb thousands more bullets over the next five days.
Hundreds of skirmishers are gathered at the range. Union soldiers mix with Confederates, joined by civilians, both men and women. Most competitors are tugging little two-wheeled pull carts piled with arms and equipment. Many wear protective earphones and glasses.
The guns they’re using would be familiar to Civil War soldiers. There are two basic kinds: smoothbore and rifled. Smoothbores are the older guns, weapons such as the 1842 Springfield. The insides of their barrels are smooth, which results in less accurate firing and a shorter range. Rifled guns have spiral grooves inside their barrels, which apply spin to their projectiles and propel them farther and with greater accuracy, like a spiraling football.
The 1861 rifle-musket and the 1853 Enfield were commonly seen on battlefields. Both were muzzleloaders, meaning shooters had to use a ramrod to stuff powder and bullet down the barrel before every shot. According to the drill manual, it took 17 separate movements to load and fire a single round in a rifle-musket—18 for an 1836 smoothbore. With a muzzleloader, three shots a minute was considered a good firing frequency.
Breechloading weapons, such as the 1859 Sharps rifle, were easier to load. The shooter could just snap open the breech and insert the bullet—without using a ramrod. It took only six movements to load and fire a breechloader, so soldiers could fire up to nine shots a minute. You could also load and fire a breechloader while lying down or hiding behind a tree, which made them ideal for skirmishers. Cavalrymen often used shorter breechloading carbines, which were easier to handle on horseback.
After setting up my tent I wander down to the line to watch the smoothbore competition, where I get to talking with Al Otash. He hails from North Attleboro, Mass., but belongs to the 4th Virginia Infantry, Company F, known as “Grayson’s Daredevils.” The original 4th Virginia belonged to the famed Stonewall Brigade, but the modern version has only two Virginians. Otash motions to one of them, a man sitting behind the firing line, and says, “He knows everything about the Civil War.” David Wright turns around and says with a slight drawl: “I thought I knew everything until I saw the politically correct movie they show at Gettysburg. Then I realized I didn’t know anything.”
When we start talking about the war’s causes, Wright doesn’t blame slavery. “It was the economic squeezing of the South,” he says. He admits slavery was part of the overall economic picture but stresses the significance of import taxes passed by Congress, which he insists forced Southerners to buy products from the North instead of European products that would have been cheaper.
I ask Wright about Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’ statement in his March 21, 1861, “Cornerstone Speech” in Savannah, Ga., that slavery was, in fact, “the immediate cause of the late rupture.” “That’s his opinion,” Wright says. “But he was the vice president of the Confederacy!” I protest. Wright shrugs. “The bottom line is that slavery was evil,” he says. “Evil, evil, evil.” But he insists the ordinary Southern soldier was not fighting for slavery. Wright, who has done research on 98 of the men who served in the 4th Virginia, found that at least 96 of them did not own slaves. “They fought for Virginia,” he says, adding, “I’m sure the big boys who had the money had their eyes on something different.”
Even though I don’t agree with Wright about the importance of slavery, I like talking to him. He’s full of information—and he’s willing to listen to an unreconstructed Yankee. He also talks a little bit about the N-SSA. “We’re honoring those that fought on both sides, blue and gray,” he says. “And we mix that honor with a love of shooting.”
Just then a horn sounds over the public-address system, signaling the start of the smoothbore competition’s next round. The guns begin firing, and clay pigeons up and down the line start exploding into orange powder. With all the crackling gunfire and rising smoke, it seems just like a real war has broken out.
Al Bumford and his son, Adam, of Southampton, Pa., are two of the 19 members of the 149th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, Company C. When I meet the Bumfords, their hands are still dark with powder from the smoothbore competition. Al shows me his weapon, an 1816 Springfield .69-caliber smoothbore, and Adam hands me one of the balls they use. It’s covered with wax and lies heavy in my hand. The real Bucktails might have loaded their smoothbores with “buck and ball,” a paper cartridge filled with a combination of three pieces of buckshot and a single .69-caliber lead ball. Given the short ranges required for smoothbore firing, such a charge could prove devastating.
Saturday afternoon brings competition with the big guns, the field artillery. Like the smaller guns, cannons come both smoothbore and rifled. During the war, artillery crews tended to use the more accurate rifled guns to knock out their enemy’s batteries, but when it came to killing enemy soldiers, they preferred smoothbores loaded with canister shot: A can contained hundreds of iron balls. Canister fired at close range would often tear bloody holes in advancing ranks. Union Brig. Gen. Alpheus Williams described one such incident at Antietam, when one of his batteries stopped a line of charging Rebels with canister: “They fell in the very front of the line and all along it apparently, stirring up a dust like a thick cloud. When the dust blew away no regiment and not a living man was to be seen.”
Before the afternoon shooting starts, I talk with Scott Lynch, a high school history teacher from nearby Berkeley Springs, W.Va., who belongs to the 27th Virginia Volunteer Infantry. When Lynch says he also does some reenacting, I ask him what the difference is between reenactors and the skirmishers here. “They look down on us because our uniforms aren’t right,” he replies. “We look at them and say, ‘You don’t know how to shoot your gun.’”
Lynch’s crew adeptly handles its gun, a 10-pounder Parrott. Lynch hands me one of the projectiles he’ll be firing, a hollowed-out piece of pointed, polished lead that weighs a little less than 6 pounds. Lynch himself casts them and notes the exact weight on each one. The charge he’ll use today is 51⁄3 ounces of cannon-grade powder.
During the competition I pay particular attention to Charlie Smithgall and his 3rd U.S. Artillery crew, which seems to be the team to beat. Charlie, the former mayor of Lancaster, Pa., has been a member of the N-SSA for 50 years now. Not many people know more about Civil War artillery than Smithgall, who’s served as the artillery consultant for the 1993 film Gettysburg and several TV shows.
The artillery bug bit Smithgall in the early 1960s, when he attended a national N-SSA event. The target was a 1938 Plymouth. The announcer asked the gunners not to shoot out the rear axle, so the hulk could later be towed to the junkyard. Smithgall remembers watching a member of the crew smile, then look over at the announcer. “He adjusted the gun and took the rear axle right out,” he says. “I was hooked.”
So Smithgall went out and bought himself a mortar. Then he bought a cannon. Then another cannon. And another. Now he keeps his collection in a warehouse. He also has a collection of nearly all the small arms the U.S. has used from the Revolutionary War through WWII.
For the first round of shooting, Smithgall and his crew fire a 3-inch ordnance rifle, one of four he owns. Designed by John Griffen, this rifled piece was an extremely durable, dependable and accurate weapon with an effective range of 2,000 yards—but could reach 4,000 in a pinch. Today’s competitors will be firing at targets 200 yards away. They will have 12 shots, with the best 10 counting toward the score. One target is a standard bull’s-eye target. The rifled guns have a 24-inch bull’s-eye with a 12-inch V-ring in the center. (Smoothbores, which are less accurate, get a larger target.) The second is a “counter battery,” a front silhouette of a cannon.
Smithgall spends a long time lining up the cannon’s sights, then yells, “Load!” Ned Friedenthal trudges forward from the cannon’s limber, a box on wheels that holds the charges and projectiles. The powder, a 6-ounce charge, is in a plastic bag wrapped inside aluminum foil that Friedenthal carries in a leather satchel over his shoulder. At the cannon he takes the charge from the satchel and hands it to James Murray. Murray rams the charge down the barrel, then follows it with the projectile that Friedenthal hands him. Next Donald Brubaker takes a metal vent pick and sticks it though the vent hole near the breech to pierce the charge. He inserts a fuze into the vent. Once it’s ready, Smithgall hollers, “Fire!” Mark Gehron, Smithgall’s son-in-law, touches the fuze with a bit of smoldering rope wrapped around a wooden pole. Seconds later the cannon explodes with a thunderous roar that sends it lurching back a foot or two. Amid the smoke that belches out of the barrel, pieces of aluminum foil scatter like confetti.
The first shot is just to the left of the center of the V-ring. Smithgall peers into the site and makes tiny adjustments with the elevating screw at the barrel’s base. Frank Potts pounds lightly on the right side of the cannon’s stock— the wooden base that extends behind the carriage—with a mallet, to adjust the side-to-side position. They go though the loading routine again. The next shot is just a hair above the first; the rest are equally impressive.
Smithgall’s team finishes with the highest score, earning it the Pelham—an award named for Rebel Major John Pelham, J.E.B. Stuart’s horse artillery chief. The team also takes first place in the howitzer competition. Not a bad day’s shooting—and not a single casualty.
Tom Huntington is the author of Pennsylvania Civil War Trails: The Guide to Battle Sites, Monuments. For more information on the N-SSA, turn to “Resources,” P. 78.
Originally published in the October 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.