Civil War comes to life in Greencastle for a weekend

Three members of the Greencastle Sesquicentennial Committee were in period attire all weekend. Joel Fridgen, Bonnie Shockey and Kirk Davis represented the north and the south as The Invasion of Pennsylvania, a statewide initiative, kicked off in town. Events concluded with the Confederate Army in retreat from Gettysburg.

The smell of gunpowder filled the air, along with a smoky haze. Rifle shots boomed through the quiet streets of Greencastle Saturday afternoon, as hundreds of 21st century citizens filled the quadrants of Center Square to witness 19th century Civil War soldiers engage in a small battle.

The Skirmish on the Square was a highlight of a weekend of activities commemorating the sesquicentennial of the war between the states. PA Civil War 150 kicked off in Greencastle, and in the following weekends events will be held in Chambersburg, Fairfield and Gettysburg.

The skirmish

As the sound of Taps faded away, the lone victim of gunfire, a Confederate soldier, rose and the re-enactors merged as the friends they were through their Living History experiences. Spectator Dylan Burns, 10, College Park, Md. could not contain his enthusiasm for what he had just seen.

In Greencastle to visit family, he bubbled, “That was one of the best things I ever saw in a war movie. It was so realistic.”

Pete Goetz, a long time Civil War buff, enjoyed the performance, which was held safely as Greencastle fire police rerouted traffic on Baltimore Street.

“It was great. They did a good job,” he said. “I thought the Confederates came from the wrong direction, though.”

The soldiers in blue advanced on the gray from South Carlisle Street, driving them north.

Jayson Mansir, 1, watched for a while from his dad Shawn’s lap, then started to cry from the noise. Ralph Wharton caught the episode by accident.

“I was in the barbershop and came out for a smoke, so I decided to watch,” he said.

Tyler Douglas, 12, knew what to expect if the soldiers reenacted the Dahlgren Incident.

“The Confederate unit captured Lee’s messengers and found reinforcement information,” said Tyler, who had been prepped by his father and his fifth-grade teacher at Greencastle-Antrim Elementary School.

While the units did not replicate the exact historical incident, Dahlgren’s name was popular during the weekend. He was one of a few people of that day whose names are etched into the history of Greencastle.

Eric J. Wittenberg, an attorney from Columbus, Ohio, was in town as the author of several non-fiction books, including Like a Meteor Blazing Brightly, which recounted Col. Ulric Dahlgren’s short but meaningful life. During research for other Civil War books, Wittenberg kept running across Dahlgren’s name and finally decided to investigate him.

“It was an interesting story that needed to be told,” he concluded.

Because of his father’s military career, Dahlgren as a young man had unfettered access to the Oval Office and President Abraham Lincoln. As a captain on July 2, 1863, he and a small band of men intercepted a courier in Greencastle bringing a note to Gen. Robert E. Lee, then fighting in Gettysburg, that President Jefferson Davis would not be sending reinforcements.

“That meant General Meade didn’t have to watch his rear. It was very important information. And mind you, this was done by three people 35 miles behind enemy lines,” stated the writer.

The next day Dahlgren led 105 men back into Greencastle to wreak havoc on the Confederates. They barricaded the streets near where Besore Library now stands, and “did a good bit of damage,” he said.

Dahlgren lost a leg during a battle in Hagerstown, Md. on July 6. However, he was fitted with a wooden leg and returned to duty as a Colonel, the promotion recommended by Lincoln. He died in 1864 during a raid in Richmond, Va. at the age of 21.

Family time

Ken Caufman brought his grandson Esdon Yeager, 10, to several of the weekend activities. They attended the Meet the Generals open house Friday at Allison-Antrim Museum, and checked out the Gone with the Wind exhibit. They were back in town the next day.

Tobias Geise and Emily Mottley brought their young son to the band concert of Civil War music Saturday evening. They and other family members walked to the Special Events Center from their downtown home, then returned to Center Square. “My mom wanted to see the luminaries,” Geise said. “And we want to hear Taps.”

They realized Greencastle was hosting the celebration from signs placed around town and participated in several functions during the span.

Galen West and Kim Laman took in the band and many of the other events. West found the cannon and infantry demonstrations by the re-enactors enlightening.

Cornet player Tom Naperkoski said the members of the 46th PA Regiment Band also became like second family as they traveled frequently to perform. The volunteers educated the public on the origin of the songs, and the role bands played during the war.

“They rallied the troops during battle,” he said. “They were very important.”

West Virginia cousins Rebecca Brannon of Hedgesville, and Katie Bailey of Martinsburg bunked at the Civil War encampment. The skirmish was one weekend event on a full schedule until December for the re-enactors. They slept on the ground in a tent, with tarp keeping them dry, and wool blankets keeping them warm. “We make it work,” they said.

As with most Living History educators, they could be Yankees or Rebels. In Greencastle they served with the Southern Rifles, but at other times represented the 8th Md. Company A. Brannon’s daughter Amanda Grove, 11, served as the camp writer, keeping a journal for the group.

What they said

Bob and Jeannie Johnstonmanned headquarters in the Conn Building and reported that both local and out-of-town visitors were delighted that the Borough of Greencastle hosted the multifaceted event. Some planned to attend the area celebrations all four weekends. Many asked for eating places within walking distance of downtown, and shopped in the stores.

Bonnie Shockey thought the weekend was a great kickoff for the progressive five year observance of the sesquicentennial. In June next year history returns to Greencastle for a major battle scene.

The Allison-Antrim Museum was the destination of many people.

“It’s been really gratifying,” said Shockey, president of the board of directors. “So many families with young children have come in. It’s greatly improved our exposure.”

Kent and Anne Ortz came down from Clarion for the full three days. They read about the skirmish in a tourist magazine, part of the Franklin County Visitors Bureau marketing campaign. Taking in just about everything, they were amused by the encounter of General Ewell, who tried to buy clothing from a Greenastle merchant played by Russ Clever. The businessman didn’t want to accept “worthless Confederate money”, but finally caved in.

“This has been fabulous,” said the Ortz’. “The planners did a wonderful job. People are so nice and helpful.”

They especially appreciated that one fire policeman had them follow his vehicle to find a site they wanted to visit.

At the closing ceremony, Lori Robinette of Walkersville, Md. watched with her sons Joe, 10, Ben, 9, and Rex, 7, and their friend Andrew Higgins, 9. The boys played with their rifles purchased from a vendor on the square.

“I homeschool so I like them to experience history rather than just read about it,” she said.

Kirk Davis, a Greencastle native who coordinated the efforts of the re-enactors, said the Confederate retreat Sunday afternoon signified the high point of the war. After that the citizens of the North and the South began again to become the United States of America.

“This celebration of 150 years must bring a renewed understanding of our country,” he said. “It is a celebration of unity, not death.”

He and the re-enactors were civilians devoted to American history, he said, and “we cannot wait to come back in June 2012.”