Skirmishing and the North-South Skirmish Association (N-SSA) have been a part of not only my life, but the lives of my family members across several generations. The notion of “camaraderie”, a feeling of belonging, fraternity, etc. is intangible, but it is something that is extremely powerful - appealing to virtually everyone.
Going all the back to the early days of the N-SSA in the 1950's my grandfather got involved with skirmishing. He enjoyed this newly emerging “sport” so much so that he and my father (at time a teenager an new member) set about to establish their own skirmish team, with the help of other interested members. His energy and enthusiasm was boundless when it came to skirmishing and his team, his second family. He and his unit would not only participate in organized matches, but they would also take active and highly visible roles in area reenactments around the Mid-Atlantic Region.
Eventually I came along. Given my family circumstances I benefitted from growing up as a "skirmish brat" in the golden-era of the N-SSA of the late 60's- early 80's. For me, the association's national range facility, Fort Shenandoah (outside of Winchester, VA) was a young boys "paradise". Not only did I enjoy the company of my god-brother/best friend during skirmish weekends, but I/we (and our collection of other kids of our age) had full and unfettered access to all that the property's +350 acres (barring the firing line) had to offer: a full stream, woods, a pond, rolling hills and grassy fields - and all the fresh air we could stand! Across the board, while at the fort, adults looked after one another and I'm sure they (especially the moms) kept a distant eye on the various and sundry bands of juveniles roaming about the Fort. What needs to be conveyed is that, in addition to the free amenities afforded adventuresome pre-teens, the fort boasted of an extremely safe and secure environment! As such, even the most worrisome of mothers gave little thought of allowing their cherished little angels “off the leash” to enjoy all that the property had to offer. Being on our own was not only a savored treat by me and my friends, but it also served as a well-earned respite for our parents.
Although I didn’t fully appreciate it as a kid, my friends and I always enjoyed the spectacles, open merriment, and “positive energy” that permeated everything, especially during the National matches. At these twice a year events, up to four to five thousand people: skirmishers, spouses, kids and guest would all converge on the fort from across the country in order to compete, unwind, and escape the real world for two days. It was (and STILL IS) utterly amazing to see how the entire body of humanity, which made up population of Fort Shenandoah, functioned like that of a large extended family! Skirmishers from different parts of the country, speaking with strange accents, coming from varying backgrounds, and social standings, would without hesitation exchange pleasantries, a joke or story or if needed, stop and come to the aid as the situation dictated of a complete stranger (but fellow-skirmisher nonetheless). Everyone was congenial, polite and upbeat. Aside from us kids, the adults too wanted to squeeze the absolute most out of every minute during skirmish weekends at Fort Shenandoah.
My routine and firsthand exposure to such open displays of camaraderie at skirmishes made a mark on me – just as it did to my father, and his father. It was something extremely personal, a beacon if you will that I could always look towards when life’s challenges began to build up. With something to look forward to, I could always muster the courage and endurance to make it to the next scheduled skirmish where I could “rest and refit” with my friends in the peaceful, safe and comfortable environs of Fort Shenandoah. Skirmishing, its members and the associated “culture” were things that I still cherish to this day. But the fraternal experiences and feelings garnered from the N-SSA were extremely hard to find anywhere else during the course of my life. The closest I ever came to finding anything similar was with my third family - the United States Marine Corps, but that's an entirely different story best saved for a future blog!
Over the years my friends and I grew up. As we became teenagers, we all looked on with envy as our older friends made grand transition from spectator to Skirmisher at the ripe old age of 15. As with any rite of passage, many of us were eager to join our fathers, friends and other relatives on the firing line and compete in skirmishes that for the previous decade plus we only casually viewed from the spectator area. But in making the transition in becoming card carrying Skirmishers, we became even more ingrained to the NSSA’s culture - something MUCH bigger than ourselves. As new skirmishers, with our brand new, spotless uniforms and shiny brass and leather gear, we were now active members partaking just like any other adult! Participating, competing, and learning (on and off the firing line) from the veteran skirmisher made us see and feel a whole new dimension of the camaraderie that was generated by the association. Just like my father and grandfather, as a skirmisher, I too could now sit around a camp fire and fully appreciate the tales and stories of exploits and successes on the Skirmish Line.
Fast forwarding to today, decades later, many of my “skirmish brat” cohorts are still active members in the N-SSA. Now as middle-aged adults, it’s still wonderful to see each other, now as busy dads, with their children at the Fort, enjoying many of the same things that we coveted when we were their age. As of last year, my own son signed up and participated in his first skirmishes, to include a National! At his first skirmish, shooting side by side with my son was something that I’ll look back upon for the remainder of my days! Of all of the things I have done, or given to my son, I know that exposing him to the NSSA, especially Fort Shenandoah, and it’s resident camaraderie is something which will undoubtable serve him in good stead, as he, “grows up to honorable manhood”. Regrettably Sean’s grandfather and great grandfather have passed away. I felt that he’d miss out on the same cross-generational experiences that I had on the Skirmish Line or around the fort. But I took notice of an entirely new feeling in my heart – the pride of a father seeing his son competing as a skirmisher, combined with the presence of my father and grandfather; all of us bound in the common bond of skirmishing and unbridled joy with having yet another generation begin their involvement with the N-SSA.
Four generations of my family have actively supported, and benefited from skirmishing spanning the last 60+ years. To anyone reading this blog who may be looking for something more than a “casual hobby”, i.e. something challenging and rewarding, but also something that literally gives back and enriches its members; then the North-South Skirmish Association, is undoubtedly an organization - and skirmishing a pursuit, which should be given VERY serious consideration!!! The half a day visiting a local skirmish, or if you can physically attend a National match at Fort Shenandoah, may very well change your life – for the better.
Robert Freeman is a 3rd generation skirmisher and has been a member of 2 teams in the N-SSA and has served as the PIO for the Potomac Region as well as the team historian for the WBR. He also has been active in producing many of the printed marketing materials for the N-SSA such as brochures, maps, and fliers. He is also a commissioned officer and a veteran of the US Marine Corp. The N-SSA has always been like a second family to him but he recently had the opportunity to skirmish alongside his son who joined the Blues in 2014. When he is not skirmishing, he enjoys lifting weights, running, reading, music, and movies.