Grandfather's Civil War exploits kindle writer's lifelong passion THE CIVIL WAR COMES TO WESTMINSTER

July 04, 1993|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Contributing Writer

If it hadn't been for his grandfather, a young 19-year-old who served in the 1st Battery Massachusetts Field Artillery and fought in both battles of Bull Run and at Antietam, and a mother who talked of her father's Civil War exploits, young George Kenney might never have developed an interest in the war that became a lifelong passion.

"I'm just nuts on the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and anything to do with American Indians," recalled the youthful 80-year-old resident the other day in the living room of his Charlestown retirement community home.

Mr. Kenney, who spent his professional life in the automobile business and once owned Harken Ford in Westminster, grew up Wilkes-Barre, Pa., the son of a merchant.

'Third' Battle of Bull Run

"After the Civil War, my maternal grandfather came to Wilkes-Barre from Lowell, Mass.," he said. "He was a butcher by trade and also served as constable.

"There was a man up on the hill at Bull Run Crossing, outside of Wilkes-Barre, who got drunk every Saturday night and beat up his wife," he said.

"My grandfather would go up there and break it up. Anyway, the man said if he came back again he would shoot him. Sure enough, on the next Saturday night he was beating up his wife, and up [my grandfather] went, and true to his word, he shot [him] in the arm.

"He was fond of telling people that he 'lost his arm in the third Battle of Bull Run,' " he recalled with a laugh.

His paternal grandfather was a miner and was caught up in the violence that swept the anthracite coal fields in the 1870s when the Molly Maguires moved in, an organization founded in Ireland in 1867 that aided its members during labor disputes.

"He refused to join because the Catholic Church forbade it," recalled Mr. Kenney, "and during that time there was great unrest between the Irish and Welsh miners."

Mr. Kenney's first piece of writing was a play, "Big Men of the House," written for the Catholic Theater Conference and based

on his grandfather's experiences in the mines.

Writing what he knows

Mr. Kenney, who was educated in the public schools of Wilkes-Barre and attended the University of Pennsylvania, Wharton School extension in Wilkes-Barre, turned to writing in the evenings after work as a form of relaxation.

"I never took any writing courses. I had quite an extensive library, was interested in history and decided to simply sit down and write about some of the things I had heard about all my life," he said.

It was during his years in Westminster when he was running the Ford dealership that he became fascinated with the skirmish known locally as "Corbit's Charge."

He decided to write a historical novel, "Fringe of Battle," a saga about the Lockweed family who lived on and farmed 200 acres near Bartholow Road in Eldersburg, and how the coming of the Civil War affected the family and 14-year-old son John. Mr. Kenney's main character narrates the story from the perspective of an old man on the eve of World War I.

The John Lockweed character is a pastiche, Mr. Kenney said, and contains elements from his own life, such as John's trouble with allergies.

"When I was young I had allergies and suffered just like young John," he said. "I also mention his fascination with an imagined alligator in the wallpaper of his bedroom. I imagined an alligator dripping blood in the grain of wood which lined a room in my boyhood home, so I put it in."

A stickler for detail, Mr. Kenney rummaged through historical societies and old newspapers, and read everything he could find on the Civil War to ensure the accuracy of his story.

He dedicated the book to those who were killed that afternoon.

"To the four men who lost their lives for what each judged to be an honorable cause, in the skirmish at Westminster, Maryland on Monday, June 29, 1863:

"St. Pierre Gibson, Lieutenant, C.S.A., John W. Murray, Lieutenant, C.S.A., William Vandergrift, private, U.S.A. and Daniel Welsh, private, U.S.A."

An eye for the details

Readers familiar with Carroll County and Westminster can easily detect many of the sites, still standing today, which Mr. Kenney employs in telling his story.

Though he deals with soldiers and historical personalities in a fictional manner, he has taken great pains to make sure that they, too, are believable.

"Obviously, the conversations with the Confederate raider Col. Harry Gilmor, who was born into a prominent Baltimore County family, is imagined. I have done the same thing with other historical characters," he said.

He writes in longhand on yellow legal pads, producing upward of 10 pages a day if it's going well.

His wife, Mildred, with whom he grew up in Wilkes-Barre and xTC married in 1942, handles the editing chores.

"I make suggestions and check his spelling," she said. "But he doesn't always take my suggestions," she added with a wink.

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