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Reliving the Civil War

  • CHRIS PARKER/TIMES NEWS West Penn Township resident Robert Doerr in historically accurate, hand-sewn Confederate uniform, holding a working replica of an Enfield muzzle-loader.
    CHRIS PARKER/TIMES NEWS West Penn Township resident Robert Doerr in historically accurate, hand-sewn Confederate uniform, holding a working replica of an Enfield muzzle-loader.
Published March 03. 2012 09:01AM

His handmade Confederate Civil War uniform carefully packed, his muzzle loader polished and gleaming, Bob Doerr sets out from his West Penn Township home at 6 p.m. Sept. 16 for the three-hour trek to the Antietam battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Doerr's trip covers 165 miles through Pennsylvania and Maryland - and 149 years through history.

An ardent Civil War reenactor, Doerr joined with other men to retrace the grueling 17-mile march endured by Confederate Gen. A.P. Hill's regiment from Harpers Ferry, W.Va., to Sharpsburg, Md. for what would be the bloodiest battle of the war.

On Sept. 17, 1862, Hill's troops defeated Union Major General Ambrose Burnside's regiment, winning the battle. The battle of Antietam - or Sharpsburg, depending upon one's Union or Confederate point of view - was the first major battle to be fought on Union ground, and one that cost some 23,000 lives.

"For the boys of the 44th Virginia, reenactors like myself, to actually be where the battle was fought and to walk in their footsteps is an experience that is hard to put into words," Doerr says.

He describes the weekend at Sharpsburg, where the National Park Service had scheduled a series of demonstrations featuring Civil war reenactments.

He settles in at Dunkard Church, on the battlefield where the 44th had set up camp. Doerr introduces himself. He's a member of the 13th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry reenactment group, but is here on his own for this event.

He makes his way to the campfire, the hub of the camp and is offered a cup of coffee. Chatting Doerr breaks out his frying pan made from half a canteen and fries up a slab of bacon to eat the next day.

"With that done it was time to get some rest for the long march ahead. I laid out my gum blanket, covered myself with my wool blanket, and using my haversack for a pillow, fell asleep under the stars," he recalls.

Doerr and the others are awakened at 3:30 a.m. It's cool and damp as the men prepare for their day.

"While making coffee it felt good to be warmed by the fire," he says. "A quick breakfast of coffee, hardtack and bacon."

At about 4:45 a.m., the regiment is taken to Harpers Ferry. There, they formed up and began the march at 6 a.m.

It takes the regiment about 2 1/2 hours to trek the first eight miles.

"We were marching at about four miles per hour with a few short rest periods," Doerr says.

The regiment broke for a rest upon reaching the Bethesda Methodist Church, the same spot where General Hill's men also rested on Sept. 17, 1862.

"After our rest we gathered up our muskets and other gear, weighing about 35 pounds, and were back on the march. At this point, sore feet and blisters started to show up," Doerr recalls.

About four miles from the church, the group reaches Packhorse Ford at the Potomac River.

"The boys of Hill's division waded across the river at this point, but for us, because of the very wet summer and fall, it was decided that it would have been too dangerous for us to attempt. We headed north along the river for about 1.5 miles to Shepherdstown, W. Va., and crossed over the river using a bridge. We then headed south 1.5 miles to a point directly across from the original crossing," Doerr says.

After a couple of brief rests along the way, the regiment heads to the battlefield, just as Hill's regiment had done.

"The entire march was very hilly, and the last couple of miles were no different. But the end was in sight, so neither sore feet nor blisters could stop us now," Doerr recalls. "We entered the battlefield where A.P. Hill's men had marched 17 miles just in time to be thrown into the fight.

"We, on the other hand, congratulated each other for finishing the march and accomplishing something that was done 150 years ago by men willing to die for their beliefs. Also, because of the detour we had to take, our march was 20.5 miles," he says.

All of the men finished the march despite the warm weather and heavy backpacks.

For the love of history

Doerr, 70, geared up for the march by hiking the rails to trails route near his home.

"I can do four miles in one hour walking, or 10 miles in one hour on my bike. I did that the last three months before the march, so I was well-prepared," he says.

A member of the 13th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry reenactors, Doerr studies details of battles before the events. He carries his replica Enfield muzzle-loader. The weapon is capable of firing real bullets, but shoots powder-filled paper cartridges during reenactments. Each soldier carries 40 rounds.

Civil War reenactments happen virtually every weekend. On March 11, the 13th New Jersey will join Co.C 81st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry in the annual St. Patrick's Day parade that winds through Jim Thorpe.

"We fire two rounds per block (during the parade)," Doerr said. The unit also fires a salute at the former Carbon County Jail in honor of the Mollie Maguires hung there in 1877.

Authenticity is key for re-enactors. Doerr, who also sometimes portrays a Confederate soldier, had his Union jacket hand-sewn by Arthur Stone, of Browns Mills, N.J., who serves as First Sergeant of the 13th New Jersey unit.

"We try to be as authentic as possible with our uniforms, whether it be Union or Confederate," Doerr says, adding that Civil War soldiers had just one uniform.

"They wore it until nothing was left of it," he said. "In the infantry, everything you needed, you carried with you, so they made it as light as possible. You wore that uniform day in and day out, week in and week out, month in and month out, until there was nothing left of it."

The reenactors use wood ash to polish their brass, and subsist on the same rations that nourished Civil War soldiers. Hardtack, a dried flour-and-water cracker, was the mainstay. Doerr's wife, Patricia, turns out batches of the rock-hard concoction for Doerr's events.

"We have a hardtack cutter," he says.

"Water, flour, that's it," Patricia Doerr says.

She bakes little hardtacks for students when Doerr does presentations at schools.

"During the war, there were usually weevils in them because they were stuck in a warehouse," Doerr says. "So these guys would make their coffee, and they'd put a hardtack in the cup, and when the critters came to the top, they'd scrape them off. Then they'd eat the hardtack and drink the coffee."

Patricia Doerr also makes corn dodgers, a staple for southern soldiers.

"Corn meal, flour and bacon grease," she says.

Joining up

Reenactors come from all walks of life, from teachers to jazz musicians, tree trimmers to hospital executives.

"We would like to get some of the young guys out there," Doerr says. "Most of the stuff we do is not taught in school. In school, it is battlefield dates and generals. What we like to portray is the common soldier. Inferior food, the clothing was bad a lot of times they didn't have shoes. The Confederate Army used hairs from horses' tails as sutures."

It was in 2000, when Doerr was 59, that he really got serious about re-enacting.

"Guys like the Civil War. There was just something about it it was right here at home," he says.

He remembers some age-related trepidation upon sending in his application to join the 46th Pennsylvania unit.

"I thought, 'Oh, boy, they'll send it back'. Well now, 12 years later, I'm still in it," he says with a grin.

Doerr's interest in reenacting Civil War battles was triggered by the experiences of a former co-worker.

"I knew nothing about it, but he would tell me that the night before some of the big battles, they have a ball, with period dancing. I thought, boy, that's pretty neat," he says.

Then, he discovered that another friend was also a re-enactor. "He started telling me about it. That started me out," Doerr says.

He began researching various re-enactor groups, eventually joining the 46th Pennsylvania regiment. The units are not based in any one geographic area. Instead, members travel from all over to reenact battles.

Doerr is now with the 13th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry, a Union regiment. The original regiment was organized on Aug. 25, 1862, in Newark, N. J., operated under the command of Col. Ezra A. Carman and mustered out on June 8, 1865.

The reenactors' regiments are loosely organized. Members don't attend regular meetings.

"In the 13th New Jersey, there are guys from all over. You don't go to meetings, you meet at the events," he says.

Doerr is also in the color guard for the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

"When you do both (Union and Confederate), it's called 'galvanizing,'" he says.

Now, Doerr is anticipating doing the march all over again this coming September, this time in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and of the death of a young Union soldier named Jimmy Clader, who served in Co. C, 46th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, and whose grave Doerr tends.

Clader was born on July 24, 1843, and died Sept. 17, 1862 at 19, in the Battle of Antietam. He's buried in Union West End Cemetery, Allentown, the city of his birth. Clader is one of 724 Union soldiers who are buried in the cemetery.

"I feel like this guy was like my brother. I'd love to know more about him," Doerr says.

Anyone interested in joining the reenactors is welcome to call Doerr at (570) 386-4994.

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