Welcome to Fort Shenandoah

by Tom Kelley

As the Spring weather finally rolls in to beckon us all to a new year of Skirmishing, it has occurred to me that in 10 years of writing about Fort Shenandoah, I've never taken you on a tour of the only range large enough to host a National Skirmish. This month, then, I'll guide you around the friendly confines of Fort Shenandoah. But to start, I must first extend to all the readers of The Civil War News a heart felt invitation to come and visit Fort Shenandoah during one of our Skirmishes and slip back 135 to 140 years in history to The War Between The States.

Fort Shenandoah is a great place to visit if you are interested in Civil War history. It is located in the northern part of the Shenandoah Valley, on the western slope of The Valley Northwest of Winchester, Va. It is only one hour from both Antietam and Manassas, and about 30 minutes from Harper's Ferry. If you are planning to visit any or all of those parks on a weekend, you might want to consider spending a couple hours at The Fort during a skirmish. On skirmish weekends, the range is open for visitors from 9 a.m. until dark.

Your approach to Fort Shenandoah will be on U.S. Route 522, either North from Winchester or South from Berkley Springs, WV. As you approach the rolling hills of Gainsboro, Va, slow down and prepare to turn North on VA Rt. 600. You proceed at about 30 mph on 600 North until you reach an intersection with a dirt road about 1 mile from Rt. 522. Turn onto the dirt road and proceed down that rustic, winding lane to The Fort. If you are visiting a National Skirmish, you will come to the Visitor Registration Booth (no relation to John Wilkes Booth). Register and follow the staff directions into The Fort. If you are visiting during a regional or Invitational Skirmish, you may proceed past The Barn and turn left down the hill.

As you drive down the hill, immediately ahead of you is The Bridge that leads all to and from the Rawls-Peterkin Range, the main range of the N-SSA. On your left is the Veterans Building, which may be open and is worth seeing, as the exhibits upstairs annotate the founding and growth of the N-SSA. On your right is Nirvana and Valhalla all rolled into one - Sutlers Row! At a National Skirmish, nearly 75 vendors will be squeezed into the friendly confines of Sutlers Row. Uniforms, drums, bugles, Minie Balls, Muskets, Carbines, revolvers and everything you need to compete with them are for sale at a National Skirmish. Many sutlers offer original arms for sale. Many regular visitors only visit in May and October, at the Nationals, and go home loaded down with reenacting and skirmishing paraphernalia. For years, Mr. Bilby and I have written about discovering new items and bargains on Sutlers Row, and you could do the same for yourself, especially at a National Skirmish. Many warm weather skirmishes find at least 4 or 5 sutlers open for business, so whenever you visit be sure to check out Sutlers Row. Take your time and bring lots of money.

After placing your sutler purchases in your vehicle, take a leisurely walk over Back Creek to the Rawls-Peterkin Range. If you are visiting on a non-National Saturday , in the morning you will be able to observe the completion of the Individual portion of the Skirmish. Each skirmisher has purchased his or her targets and they will be shooting in 20-minute "relays." You may see a Spencer Carbine shooting next to an Enfield Musket and a smoothbore. As the shooters measure each shoot with their spotting scopes, you may feel the intensity all the behind the safety line. Many medals are won or lost on the last of the ten shots.

Between relays on the main range, you may hear the sound of gunfire off to the West. If you follow that sound, you will come to the Pistol Range. Here, revolver shooters test their skill with 25-yard and 50-yard individual targets. A crowd may be gathering a little past noon, as the Revolver Teams prepare for their portion of the Skirmish schedule. After hanging their targets and loading, the teams steady hundreds of Colt Navy's and Army's, Remingtons and few other original revolvers as well. At the sound of the horn, the rapid fire is blended with the slap of targets breaking only 75 feet away as Revolver Teams fire as many as 15 shots in less than 30 seconds. The thick cloud of gray smoke lefts quietly upward to blend with the clear blue sky, and you begin to wonder what other sounds a cavalry skirmish would add. Swords clashing? Horses thundering and colliding together?

The completion of the Revolver Match has you thirsting for more, and you trace your steps back to the main range for the Carbine Match. As you approach, you find a shady spot under the trees down by the Playground provided for a friendly family atmosphere for the whole gang to enjoy their stay at The Fort. You watch the teams hanging targets in much the same way the Revolver Teams did, only this time it is at 50-yards or 100-yards. The sight of a 3 1/4" clay bird on a cardboard backer seems so small, and you wonder out loud how anyone can strike such small targets with a blackpowder arm. And there are so many clay birds! You just finishing counting the clays when the horn goes off, and a roar of thunder startles you into concentrating though the thick smoke left by the firing. You squint. Can it be? Those five guys broke four pigeons on their first volley. Hey, and that's a woman shooting over their on that team, and she just broke another. Firing continues in full for a minute then wanes as the teams finish the job at hand or the horn sounds. Look at all those blank cardboard rectangles that 300 seconds ago were filled with clay birds you say to your group.

Your visit might include a chance to observe artillery in action. Many skirmishes now include Mortar competetion, and four skirmishes a year at Fort Shenandoah include Artillery competitions. Friday night is the usual night for Mortar, and as the sky pails near dusk, the loud thud of the mortar firing is followed by the slow, parabolic flight of the mortar ball. You hear a crew yell fire, and you turn your head to see the flame shoot from the mouth of the mortar, followed closely by a little black sphere that climbs slowly into the sky, then falls just as slowly to nestle within feet of the target stake. How frightening, you ponder, to be in a trench at Petersburg or Vicksburg and watch those deadly bombs fall tediously from the sky. You have traveled only a couple hundred miles, but now you are transported back in time.

At the National Skirmishes in the Spring and Fall, and at the Mason-Dixon Skirmish and the Alexander-Wainright Skirmish, Artillery pieces live fire at 200 yard targets on Saturday afternoon. If you stand by the safety rope, you can actually feel the concussion of the discharge of the cannons. After watching a while, your eye becomes trained to find and follow the cannon balls as they arch down range to their targets. Such an awesome display of power and might, you muse, how could any general send his troops against cannon in the field?

If you are visiting on a Sunday, you will find the Musket Teams assembled on the line at 9 a.m., targets already hung and ready to receive the fire of the competitors. The teams assemble on the firing line, and then as the horn blast dies, the roar of hundreds of muskets shreds the air. This is not like a reenactment, these discharges are sharper, and followed by the sound of impact with target and dirt. This, you understand, is how it was for those brave men back then. They heard this sound, they made this sound come forth.

Once again, the accuracy of these "old technology" weapons in the hands of a marksman is spectacular, and you wonder if a 3 inch target can be hit at 50 yards, how far away would a 24 inch wide, 70 inch tall target be hit? 400 yards? Is it 400 yards you ask your companions? It is a thrilling yet sobering sight to behold the first time at The Fort.

The schedule for National Skirmishes is always posted on the North-South Skirmish Association website, (click here). Friday at a National Skirmish features Henry Team competitions, revolver matches and mortar matches. Saturday is reserved for Carbine and Artillery Matches. Sunday is always all Musket Matches, all day from 8 a.m. until at least 3 p.m. Regional Skirmishes usually offer smaller fare. Mortar is Friday night or Saturday night at regional and Invitational Skirmishes. Carbine and Revolver, if offered, is on Saturdays at Regional Skirmishes, and Musket is always shot on Sunday morning, followed by Henry Team competition, again if offered. So, come see what skirmishing is all about, and why we enjoy it so much. You're invited, so plan a side trip to Fort Shenandoah when you take that Battleground trip to the east. You'll be glad you did. Until the next time, promote responsible gun ownership, shoot safe and have fun.

2001 by Tom Kelley

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