A BRIEF HISTORY By D.Kincaid and M.G.Kraus
Our gallant company sprang from one of the pioneer units in Civil War reenacting, a group known as "Sherman's Bummers." The Bummers began forming toward the tale-end of the centennial commemorations in 1965, but not until 1970 would they be seen in full force in camp and on the battle-field. The Bummers were among the first authentic reenactors, adopting the correct look and wearing original uniforms and gear that was, in those days, readily available, and carrying original muskets.
This was at a time when reenacting was nowhere near as sophisticated as it is now. Many units wore janitor uniforms from JC Penney--gray ones for the rebels, blue for the yanks--wore lady's hand-bags as cartridge boxes, and carried all varieties of bogus guns such as modern sawed-off shot-guns, Winchester repeater rifles and even plastic M-16's. Historical correctness was hardly a priority in these groups, as demonstrated by one unit, labeled the "Green Weenies" by the Bummers, who made up their own fantasy Zouave uniforms of bright green polyester cloth. It was during this time that the term "farb," meaning one who is not at all authentic, was coined. The exact origin of the word is now obscure, but one possible source related by an old veteran was a phrase often heard in those days--"far be it from me to knock anyone else, but......." The "far be it" being condensed to "farb."
The Bummers back then were more resented than appreciated, one reason being that other reenactors felt threatened by their emphasis on authenticity, claiming that the Bummers "took things too far." Another reason may have been that the Bummers tended to be more of the long-haired, counter-culture ilk, "historic hippies" as it were, who viewed their unit as a fraternity, and reenacting as a historic pursuit, as opposed to costumed pageantry. The unit was not based in any one place, its membership coming from Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, Ohio, Michigan and Virginia, and undoubtedly a few other states as well. In the Bummer's ranks were many who would be future members of the Irish Brigade, including Bill Williams, Dan Gregor, Spence Waldron, Mike Kraus, Craig Geppert, Pug O'Reilly, Pete Hall, Bruce Zigler and Mike Stiles. Eventually a Confederate counterpart, the 1st Virginia, emerged, encompassing principles similar to those of the Bummers. In its ranks were those who would either become future charter-members of the Irish Brigade, or be closely associated with it: Charley Graham, Don Hongell, Knee Deep, and Charley Childs among others.
Few could deny or resist the fact, however reluctantly, that the Bummers presented the most accurate portrayal of the Civil War soldier of the day, and represented the direction in which reenacting would inevitably be headed. They were the first to properly learn the manual of arms and company drill, and consequently win every drill competition they entered. Sherman's Bummers set many of the standards in Civil War reenacting which are today taken for granted, and to them a great debt is owed.
As with any group that is in existence for any length of time, however, factions can develop that may eventually lead to the splintering off of new groups. Such was the case with Sherman's Bummers. By 1975 some of the members began to feel that the unit was losing its spirit, and began to talk of forming a new unit, one that they felt had the elan and esprit de corps with which they identified.
The Irish Brigade
The calls went back and forth about which unit should be represented--historian Dan Gregor pushed hard for the Irish Brigade, which he felt had those elements that the Bummers originally had and were losing. This was agreed to by the new members, and a green Irish flag, procured and sewn by Dan Gregor and Bill Williams, was painted with the golden Harp of Erin and Shamrock Wreath by Mike Kraus.
The Bummers held an event every Easter weekend, a small camp and battle usually involving no more than thirty men. It was at this event in April, 1976, near the Schultheiss farm just outside of Gettysburg, that the members of the new unit went off on their own into the woods and held an unveiling ceremony for the new flag of the Irish Brigade. The moment of the unveiling was to all present a "magic moment," heavy with significance, after which there could be no doubt that the Irish Brigade would live.
Mike Fissel was selected by whatever loose process used to be 2nd Lieutenant and first commander of the company. Mike was a man of great charisma, with a rakish stance and a tough persona, a lady killer who would exemplify the character and personality of the new unit. John Davidson and John Jacobs were made 1st and 2nd sergeants respectively, and Mike Stiles and Mike Kraus both corporals.
Few, if any units at this time had a captain or a full compliment of NCO's and officers, none being big enough to justify them. The men of the Irish Brigade tended by nature to avoid such military authority anyway, being more of an artistic group that preferred cultivating an inspiring fraternal and fighting spirit, and creating historic atmosphere and ambiance to military drill. This is precisely what led to the split from the Bummers, they being in a more purely military mode, and the struggle between these two ideals would be prevalent throughout the unit's existence. Some of the other men to fill out the ranks were Gary Currens, Johnny Emmons, Dan Fissel, Steve Fissel, Mad-Dog Michaels, Harry Bentzell, Dusty Lustig, Phil Ward and Bob Williams.
The diminished Sherman's Bummers lasted another three years after the Irish Brigade began, but would fall in and fight with the Irish Brigade, eventually being absorbed altogether. In order to maintain their identity, some of the old Bummers would call themselves "Co. B," for Bummers, and the Irish became "Co. I," for Irish Brigade. It was not realized at this time that Co. I of the 116th PVI, was in actuality the Irish Brigade company from Pittsburgh. The Irish Brigade, wearing Irish harp insignia, at the time very rare, and carrying the Irish flag and decorating themselves with Irish symbolism, quickly became a very popular unit with the public. The reenacting community, on the other hand, alternately admired or reviled the unit, depending on who was asked.
The reputation of the Irish Brigade grew to almost mythical proportions in these early years, one reason being the immense esprit de corps that grew within its ranks, accompanied by a bold fighting spirit and fearlessness that intimidated others. Another reason being that they presented the most accurate visual impression of the federal soldier, its members looking as if they had just stepped out of a period photograph.
The myth had a dark side too, however, as many looked upon our men as a set of unscrupulous pirates, who would steal your women, your liquor and provisions, and whatever else to which the opportunity gave rise. Some of this negative feeling was owed to the fact that the Irish Brigade was very independent, did not attend official meetings and consequently was not included in the official scenarios. They showed little interest in other groups and camped off in the woods away from everyone else, yet they had great elan and their reputation for this only grew larger, as did the resentment and jealousy of other units. The Irish Brigade was usually blamed for every breach of rules or regulations, or for anything that was damaged or stolen. At times it may have been deserved, but most of the time it was not.
On one such occasion, night fighting had been officially prohibited at a particular event, but of course there were those who had to go out and try it anyway. The Irish Brigade was blamed, mistakenly so on this occasion, and threatened with expulsion. Under a full moon the unit fell in without arms, made their way toward the direction of the firing, and waited for the flashes of more shots. As soon as these were seen, the company charged and descended upon the perpetrators only to find them frozen stiff in their tracks like terror-stricken rabbits, and hauled them off to face the officials. These men probably thought they were to going to be lynched, but were instead brought in and the point was stressed to the organizers that the Irish Brigade went in without guns, and apprehended the real culprits.
The years between 1977 and 1979 were the "wild glory days" for the Irish Brigade, remembered fondly by all who lived them. These times were blackened only by the death of the unit's first commander Mike Fissel, who would sadly become the first of many tragic and untimely deaths in the unit. Dan Gregor was chosen to take over command and the lieutenantcy, to be succeeded by Mike Stiles later on. In those days rank was avoided, in keeping with the above mentioned aversion to military authority.
All involved in the unit of this era remember with pleasure Bill William's farm, just outside of Gettysburg. Bill's farm became the headquarters of the unit, and on his land was hosted the big annual event. Authentic winter quarters were built, and, a period tavern was fashioned called the "Red Stone," where many a night of merriment and good fellowship took place. The Irish Brigade did many living history events, had their own Black-Faced Minstrel Show, usually made up on the spot, which sometimes they would take to town and perform in the locals bars.
The camp of the Irish Brigade became legendary, as Bill would set up an entire mess area complete with a wagon, camp furniture, period cook-ware and meals. This made the camp so much of a home that one hated to leave, and opened up a lot of eyes in the hobby.
Will Hutchinson, back then a member of the Fifth New York, and presently the Adjutant of the National Regiment, recently paid tribute to the Irish Brigade of this era, saying that "the Irish Brigade were the first to have an authentic camp, and many things that are today taken for granted in reenacting can be directly attributed to them." By all accounts it was a great period for the unit, and a grand time was had by all.
No fire can burn at its brightest indefinitely, however, and in the early 80's things slowed down somewhat. There were several marriages, lives were changing, and the number of events attended by the unit diminished to the point that the men of the Irish Brigade saw each other as little as three times a year. In 1982 Mike Kraus was elected Lieutenant, replacing Mike Stiles who was seldom seen by that time. Spence Waldron, who had been absent from reenacting the few years previous, returned at this time and assumed the position of Orderly (1st) Sergeant, the rank he had held with the Bummers.
Fortunately, at this time a major revitalizing force came to the unit in the form of one man: Dick Vandall. Dick's contributions to the company cannot be overstated, and he recruited many of us who are still active today. Coming from another unit, the 4th US Infantry, Dick brought in many people from Pittsburgh, and in general set his mind at this time to recruiting in earnest. In March of that year, Dick organized a winter camp, and with ten inches of snow everyone enjoyed themselves immensely through a great experience. Dick never seemed to tire of promoting the unit to anyone and everyone, and during this period, under the force of his inexhaustible energies, the unit began to grow significantly.
The Irish Brigade began doing hard core events, tough tacticals (events in which no historic battle-scenarios were being adhered to, requiring strategic skill, endurance and fighting spirit), and wanted to be known as a hard marching, tough fighting unit. During this time things became much more organized, calls were made back and forth, gear was lent out and busses were rented to get to events. Elements from other units began to fall in, and it was realized that there was strength in numbers, and with them one had power and wouldn't be pushed around. Military structure and rank responsibilities were for the first time emphasized, and the company began to march into the events together under full pack and accouterments.
The Irish Brigade began doing parades, always to a tremendous response that would ripple through the crowds like a stone in water. Often described as awe inspiring, The Irish Brigade would elicit teary-eyed salutes from old WWII veterans when passing by. Dick was very much into, and responsible for, stressing the "look" of the unit: 69 Cal. muskets, frock coats, Irish harps and 2nd corps badges, and a weather-beaten, hardened campaign look. "Pittsburgh Dick's" tireless efforts and generosity helped create the remarkable ambiance within our unit that has appealed to so many people, both within and without the confines of our ranks.
Mike Kraus became captain at this time, with Paul King as 2nd Lt., the unit having grown enough in size as to require a larger command staff. More NCO's were also needed, and Baxter Harding was added to the NCO roster as sergeant, Dan Gregor and Bill Williams as Color Sergeants, with Dick Vandall and Bob Connell as corporals. Reenacting in general was evolving quickly, with more information constantly coming to light, and closer attention being paid to every detail. It became clear that the unit would now have to take a designation more realistic to it's size, that a group of men of company strength could not be called a "brigade."
The 116th P.V.I., Co. I
The company was now, for all intents and purposes, a Pittsburgh unit, many of the old members having moved there, and a majority of the new recruits being from that area. The men wanted to be identified with their hometown, and Dan Gregor pointed out that Company I of the 116th Pennsylvania was the sole Irish Brigade company from Pittsburgh, and had as honored a reputation as any in the brigade. Its commander, Captain Samuel Taggart, a native of Pittsburgh and buried in Allegheny Cemetery of that city, was one of the most respected and well-loved in the regiment.
The new designation was greeted with resentment by many of the veterans of the old Irish Brigade, who, afraid of losing the character and personality to which so much time and effort had been devoted, preferred to hold on to their honored name. In the end, logic and the force of forward motion won out, and CO. I, 116th PVI, Irish Brigade, became the new designation. The unit did not, and still has not, however, let go of the notion that it represents the Irish Brigade as a whole, and from time to time, such as on St. Patrick's Day, the beloved green Irish flag is unfurled, and under its folds marches proudly in honor of those exalted heroes whose veins ran thick with the blood of the Gael.
By this time the 116th's star was rising, and the mythical reputation was only embellished with the accomplishments of its membership. Ours was the unit that had all the great stuff, the makers of the best period clothing and equipment ere in our ranks: Spence Waldron made the best uniforms, Mike Stiles-caps, footwear by Greg Connell, and Dick Vandall was himself a fine gun-smith, renowned for being able to restore even the most wasted pieces. To Spence Waldron also goes the credit of being one of the first to read the drill manuals and properly instruct a company in the school of the soldier and the school of the company. The unit became a self contained, self sustaining formidable force to be reckoned with, and its reputation as universally one of the best units in reenacting grew immensely.
By 1983, due to this reputation, Captain Kraus began to be asked to assume overall command of Union forces at many events. Some of the most memorable were the annual tactical events at Rowserville, Pennsylvania, beginning in 1984, where under his command and with the 116th in the center of the action, the Union forces always prevailed. At this time Garrett Hart was appointed to the rank of 2nd Lt., as Paul King had stepped down. The army would often go in expecting defeat, and come back flushed with victory. This period marked the beginning of a second Hay-day for the company, the 116th proving to be every bit as tough as its reputation. Throughout the 125th anniversary battles, beginning in 1986 and ending in 1990, Mike would be in command of the Union Army at all the major eastern events, with the 116th PVI at center stage.
The National Regiment came into being in 1985, started by Terry Daly, commander of the 5th New York. Membership was by invitation only, and by this time there were several authentic units, all of which wanted to get in. The 116th remained at the forefront, still the "bad-boys" commanding others respect, but no longer the only game in town. Reenacting had become very big, an industry to many, with companies such as Jarnagin actually accepting credit cards and publishing catalogs. The emergence of a genuine authentic movement was evident, and the National Regiment came at the right time, as it became clear that the idea of an independent company, fighting out there on its own, was neither realistic or authentic. The 116th had been part of battalion formations before, but never on this scale--the National Regiment provided the common goal of a Federal regiment comprised of the best authentic units. The war was fought by battalions, not independent companies, and the Captain and others felt that this was where reenacting had to go. As a result the 116th became a charter-member of the National Regiment.
Along with the positive elements, the National Regiment brought with it several negative qualities which many in the company found to be restraining. Like any big organization, the NR had its bureaucracy and politics, which often times did more damage than good. At the 125th of Antietam in 1987, for example, the NR refused to go due to a political disagreement. The 116th is an autonomous member, maintaining the right to act on its own, and with Mike Kraus as Federal commander, the company went to the event and experienced one of the best events in its history.
The weight of these bureaucratic tendencies was also felt in camp and on the battlefield, where under the command of the NR's staff, a sense of urgency and realism were often absent in battle scenarios, and their insistence on every camp being "garrison" style, or laid out in neat tent streets in an open field, as opposed to the "bivouac," was the cause of great frustration among our ranks. These complaints were eventually brought to their attention, and to their credit the National Regiment took positive steps to make the necessary changes, and on those scores things have improved considerably. The National Regiment, for whatever faults it may have, remains the best battalion-size organization in reenacting.
During the 125th anniversaries the company not only grew in reputation but in size, numbering more than 100, the largest ever, by the time of the Gettysburg event in 1988. The events had also grown to mammoth proportions, and the count of reenactors at this one would be upwards of 15,000, in contrast to the early events of when the total of both sides was often less than one hundred. Company I was usually the biggest company in the regiment, and on a few occasions had to be split into two companies.
Garrett Hart was promoted to 1st Lt., and under the rank of "Brevet Captain" commanded the company throughout most of the 125th anniversaries, while Captain Kraus was in command of the Federal Forces. Mike Stiles again appeared and continued as 2nd Lt., with Bob Lucas being promoted from the non-commissioned officers to 2nd Lt. toward the end of this series of events. In the period leading up to, and during this time, to the list of NCO's were added the names of Sgts. Mark Hart and Bruce Zigler, Corporals Ray Brown, Mike Finnegan, Craig Geppert, Davey Kincaid, Scotty Mehaffey and Phil Ward.
There were many glorious moments during this period, both on and off the battle-field, and the unit's morale and esprit de corps were never at a higher level. These events brought the veterans of the old Irish Brigade together, along with a host of new recruits, and together they made many a gallant charge, and many a brave stand. Countless nights were spent reveling in the warm fire-light of their camp in the woods, enjoying grand comradeship, and singing the songs of the heroes of old. The memory of these times evokes images beyond imagination, and will be forgotten by none fortunate enough to have lived through them-- "No times like our times e'er was made, Oh, By the rollicking boys, for war, ladies and noise, the boys of the Irish Brigade, Oh!"
Following the last 125th anniversary event at Saylor's Creek, VA, in April of 1990, another lull descended upon the company. Attendance slowed down considerably, and some members, as was to happen several times throughout the company's existence, splintered off into other groups. For some, the character of the 116th was too wild, desiring to be in a unit that was more "family oriented." For others, the company had taken on too much of a professional military air, and the unit's time-honored struggle between "military protocol" and "renegade fighting-spirit" again showed itself. Only the small handful of major events brought out significant numbers to the ranks during this period. There would again be changes in the company's NCO's and Officers: Spence Waldron, after having served so honorably for ten years as 1st Sgt., stepped down in May, 1992, that position being filled by Davey Kincaid. Don Hongell rose to corporal in 1993, with Scotty Mehaffey becoming 2nd Lt. in the fall of 1994.
Eventually, however, many of those lost members began to wander back into our ranks, and coupled with new recruitment, the company showed signs of yet another resurgence. The 135th of Antietam in September 1997, brought out more than 65 men, as did Gettysburg in July, 1998.
Much like the Irish Brigade toward the end of the Civil War, the spirit that has driven our company is reverently guarded by a small number of devoted men, and not likely to disappear in the perceptible future. After so many years, revered traditions of our own have become established, such as the St. Patrick's Day Parade and Annual Meeting in March, in November the Gettysburg Remembrance Day Parade and ceremonial gathering at the Irish Brigade monument, honoring not only the dead of the original Irish Brigade of the Civil War, but those on our own Roll of Honor. The unit remains dedicated to presenting the most authentic portrayal of the Union Soldier, and to striking the most realistic and appealing balance between the characteristics that made up the Irish Brigade: fearless fighting spirit, honor to duty, courage and discipline under fire, and an uproarious ability to have fun. All glory to the old 116th, Irish Brigade, past and present!
ROLL OF HONOR