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South Mountain re-enactors portray "chaos" of Civil War skirmish

July 28, 2008|By HEATHER KEELS

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Cupping a hand to his mouth, the kneeling captain bellows, "Commence firing!"

Across the field, scattered shots ring out into the trees as clouds of smoke rise from the Confederate skirmishers' muskets.

The drill, demonstrated Sunday by a group of Civil War re-enactors at South Mountain State Battlefield, is one the real soldiers of the 5th North Carolina would have practiced many times before Sept. 14, 1862, when they were sent ahead to make the Confederate Army's first contact with Union troops at Fox's Gap.

"In the field of battle, with all the smoke that exists and all the chaos of battle, you don't have time to think," explained Kendall Stiles, an interpreter with the Stonewall Brigade living-history group. "You need to react. So these kinds of drills were done over and over again."

The demonstration was presented Saturday and Sunday in a field about 3/4 mile north of the site where Union Gen. Jesse L. Reno's corps attacked Confederate Gen. Samuel Garland's lines to begin the fighting at Fox's Gap, South Mountain State Battlefield interpreter Al Preston said.

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The action was part of the Battle of South Mountain, which preceded the Battle of Antietam by three days and dealt a major blow to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's Maryland Campaign, Preston said.

The re-enactors portrayed the 5th North Carolina, the regiment Garland sent ahead of his brigade as skirmishers at Fox's Gap, Stonewall Brigade member Tim Blackman said.

Skirmishing is a "probing action" used to find out where the enemy is or to draw the enemy out in order to reveal its strengths and position, Stiles said. Soldiers break into groups of four and spread out into intervals as they advance in a broad line.

"You're out there to find out what's in front of you," Stiles said. "We don't have helicopters. We don't have reconnaissance airplanes. This is our reconnaissance; this and the calvary."

After making contact with Reno's corps, the 5th North Carolina formed again into the brigade, which fought for about three hours before the Confederates were pushed back past Sharpsburg Road, Blackman said.

There was no enemy fire during Sunday's demonstration, but Stiles painted the scene by reading an account of the retreat by a survivor from another of Garland's regiments, the 20th North Carolina.

"As I pulled my trigger with careful aim, throwing a musket ball and three buckshot into them not more than 20 yards distant, I could see dimly through the dense sulfurous battle smoke, and a line from Shakespeare's 'Tempest' flitted across my brain: 'Hell is empty, and all the devils are here,'" Stiles read.

Sunday's demonstration drew a crowd of about a half-dozen spectators, but the living-history group's members said they didn't mind performing for such a small group.

"We like to come out to national park sites," explained Jerry Stiles, who played the captain Sunday. "It lets us do what we like, which is to be on the actual battlefield."

The full Stonewall Brigade group includes about 200 members from as far north as New York and as far south as North Carolina, he said. It is scheduled to present a living-history demonstration in Sharpsburg Aug. 15 to 17, according to its Web site, www.stonewallbrigade.com.

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