Fort Frederick Comes Alive on 150th Anniversary of the Civil War
By Jack Speer
Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011
BIG POOL, Md.- On the sesquicentennial of the Civil War reenactors have come to the sprawling fields and granite walls of Fort Frederick, Md. to show what might have taken place here decades ago. The reason it's not entirely clear what role this historic structure played in the Civil War is that some of the details have simply been lost to time. Fort Frederick predates the Civil War, having actually been constructed during the French and Indian war fought decades earlier. The fort was the scene of no major Civil War battles, but it played a pivotal role in the war between the states. Some of the key battles of the war were fought not far from here, including the battle of Bull Run and one of the bloodiest days in U.S. military history, the battle at Antietam.
On Christmas day of 1861, early in the war, historical documents contained in the National Archives at College Park, Md. confirm there was a skirmish on or near the forts grounds between Union and Confederate forces. It's that skirmish the reenactors have come here to recreate. A group of men, a few woman and at least one boy, 13 year old Allen Tolbert of Shippensburg, Pa. are just waking up after spending the night sleeping in period correct tents. Allen, who is playing the role of a civil war bugler, is dressed for the part." Musicians are sort of the unsung heroes of the Civil War", he tells me as he shows off his period correct uniform. Allen and the others are here because for many Americans the Civil war is rapidly fading from the countries collective consciousness. The last known Civil War veteran died in 1959, yet these reenactors continue to be fascinated with the events that threatened to tear the nation apart so long ago.
Dennis Rohrbaugh is playing the role of captain on the Union side."Basically what it was is a skirmish. First Maryland had been deployed along the canal and the river to guard the various locks and accesses and so forth, as well as the railroad...keep the Confederates on the other side of the river," he says. By the time of the Civil War the old fort had actually been sold to a freed slave named Nathan Williams. Not much is known about Williams or his family, though it appears likely that he was all too happy to have Union troops on his farm with Confederates massed on the other side of the river in what as then Virginia. According to the historical accounts Union officers actually bunked in the Williams homestead. Cattle were roaming in and around the by then abandoned forts tumbled down walls
The reason the site was important to the Union forces was that Confederate troops at the time were making hit and run incursions across to the northern side of the nearby Potomac river. Rob Ambrose is a park employee. Though on this particular day he is playing the role of Confederate commander and lecturer to a group that has come to watch the reenactment. " More than likely what happened is Union troops were down by the canal, Confederates be they militia or whatever, decided they were going to tear up the B&O Railroad. While they are there Union troops open fire. They return fire and the Confederates go away.",says Ambrose. He says the job of Maryland company H, the Union forces commanded by Col. John Knely, was to keep the rebel troops at bay.
At the Crossroads of History:
Col. John Knely, Nat. Archives
In terms of Fort Frederick, the Union forces would only remain in place for a brief time before moving on to other battles. Within a week or two of the skirmish documents show Knely and Company H were called to help troops under siege in nearby Hancock, Md. But almost 150 years later it's remarkable how when the reenactors take the field and fire at one other using replica black powder rifles, absent the bullets, you can see what it must have been like for the nearly 3 million Americans who fought on both sides in the war.
On this beautiful fall day the reenactors are less caught up in the politics of the whole thing than many Americans still seem to be. " I think the thing is people are more focused on the politics part and that's a shame, because it detracts from what their own descendants sacrificed, that's why we are out here,"says Ron Miller whose playing a nameless Confederate private. When the smoke has cleared on the battlefield unlike during the real Civil War, the reenactors on both the Northern and Southern sides get up, dust off their period correct uniforms and walk away. Something that would not happen in the actual Civil War,where an estimated 600 thousand Americans fought and died before the war ended in 1865.