It was a knee-vibrating, teeth-clenching, eye-scrunching sound. I tasted something acrid and felt grit on my tongue as smoke enveloped me. Several cannons had just fired 12-pound balls.

My goal had been to hear what Civil War soldiers heard when several cannons were firing at once. I got my chance the first weekend of this month at the North-South Skirmish Association's semiannual competition at Fort Shenandoah, the group's headquarters just outside Winchester.

This was not the soft sound heard when blanks are fired at battle reenactments, but a real, sharp-edged baroom sound that lasted about eight seconds. I watched from the safe distance of 25 yards as an intense orange flame and a heavy metal ball were propelled from the dark mouth of a cannon while thick, silver smoke poured onto the ground.


The missiles traveled 100 yards and burst through plywood-backed targets, bounced a few times and rolled to a stop. The smoke clung to the grass and then swept slowly upward into a blue sky the color of a faded Union jacket.

The experience was fascinating, riveting, horrifying and exciting.

"This is close as you can get to the war," said association national commander Earl "Jerry" Coates of Gettysburg, who closely resembles Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee even though he wears a Union uniform. "The noise, the bark and the whack. This is totally simulating actual fire."

Most of the competitions are conducted by teams, usually eight men and women who have trained together and wear the uniform of a particular Civil War unit, such as the 1st Pennsylvania Rifles or Duff's 33rd Texas Cavalry Regiment.

Individuals cannot join the association; only organized units can apply for membership. However, families regularly attend the meets, and at the one this month, there were babies in strollers, young boys climbing atop stationary cannons and girls and their mothers dressing up in period costumes.

Winning in any of the contests means hitting the most clay pots or clustering the most holes or hits in the correct part of the target in the shortest time.

For the cannons, which were surprisingly accurate, each team had one hour to fire 12 balls, with three minutes rest between shots to allow the artillery to cool. Each had two targets to hit, one with a bull's-eye and the other with a drawing of a cannon.

Sherry Myers of Pittsburgh attended the skirmishes as a child because her father was a member of the association. She joined in 1991 when women were admitted. Now the association is a major part of her life. She met Bob Myers at a match and they married in 1995, spending their honeymoon at the national competition that year.

"When you are out there, there is nothing else," she said. "You are a Civil War soldier. To me, I have done reenacting, but out there, it's different. You must rely on the person next to you. You have to work together. The unit must work together. You rise or fall together."

In every category -- rifle, carbine, musket, mortar or revolver -- the weapon must use black powder. If the weapon is not an original piece from the Civil War era, the reproduction has to be built to stringent standards set by the association.

Winners take home medals and the unit name is engraved on one of a dozen large trophies kept at Fort Shenandoah. The 600-acre former farm has few buildings. An old house is home to the property manager; other buildings include a barn used for period dances, a snack bar, museum and a modern, one-story building where statistics are compiled after each match.

There is a sutlers row, as vendors are called, where guns, ammunition, T-shirts, baseball hats and earplugs are sold.

Most members attending the competition stay on the property, camping in tents or trailers.

The 4,000-member association was formed in 1950 by a group of World War II veterans to commemorate the heroism of men who fought on both sides of the Civil War and to encourage the preservation and display of Civil War firearms and artillery. The group does this by holding two live-fire national competitions a year and numerous regional matches.

The national meets are open to the public, one in the spring and one in the fall.

I expect I will be going again to hear the cannons. It's as close as I can get to the war.

Linda Wheeler can be reached at 540-465-8934 or