The Frederick News-Post
WALKERSVILLE, Md. - Joe Collins was always interested in his family history, and for years he collected whatever information he could get his hands on.
It wasn't until after the Pittsburgh native retired in 2000 that he had time to dig into the stacks of documents he had compiled with the help of his brother, Harry, who assembled an extensive genealogical catalog before his death. But Collins said he wanted to dig deeper.
"It's a big skeleton, as I call it," said Collins, 75, of Walkersville. "There's no meat on the bones. So I said `I like history, and you like genealogy. Why don't I put the meat on the bones by finding out what went on during the time frame these guys were around.'"
Collins' efforts have yielded two books, "The Farmers That Helped Shape America," and "The Battle of West Frederick: July 7, 1864." Both follow the Civil War actions and sacrifices of the Van Sickle family, which originally settled in what is now Garrett County in the late 18th century and later moved to Pennsylvania.
The books center largely on Isaac Van Sickle, Collins' great-great-grandfather, who joined the 133rd Pennsylvania Regiment along with brother-in-law Jefferson Davis in 1862 as nine-month soldiers.
"At the beginning, everyone thought it was going to be a short war," Collins said.
The two were stationed in Frederick during the Battle of Antietam, then sent to Sharpsburg to help clean up the battlefield. Van Sickle became ill and was sent back to Camp B, on what is now Shookstown Road in Frederick, to recover.
During that time, Collins said, Van Sickle served as a steward -- helping out in the hospital, breaking up fights and preventing desertion. His unit was sent to Fredericksburg, where Davis was seriously wounded in battle and spent the next nine months in a Philadelphia hospital.
After they were discharged and returned to the family farm to finish up the year's crops, Van Sickle and Davis re-enlisted with the 3rd Potomac Home Brigade.
The brigade's job was to quell unrest in Baltimore, as well as protect the C&O Canal and B&O Railroad. But when Confederate troops moved into the Frederick area, they went into the fight, participating in a battle Collins said has been largely forgotten by history, one he dubbed the Battle of West Frederick for his book.
The battle was fought mostly in the area of modern-day Butterfly Lane and resulted in Union troops thwarting the plans of Confederate Gen. Bradley Johnson, a Frederick native, to take and occupy the city. Collins said the outcome was crucial in shaping the events of the next day, when the Battle of Monocacy, often referred to as "the battle that saved Washington," was fought.
"Had he occupied the town on July 7, it's doubtful that the Union reinforcements would have arrived in time to stop them on July 8 from occupying Monocacy," he said. "There's a good possibility that there never would have been a Battle of Monocacy."
While the books focus on Collins' ancestors, their stories are tied to those of many other American families who made similar sacrifices during that dark time in the nation's history. He said those stories deserve to be told today more than ever.
"People are not as interested in what happened in the past, which I think helped shape what we're doing today," he said. "You learn from your past. I'm a firm believer in that."
In addition to his research and writing, Collins volunteers two nights a week - - as a docent at the Frederick County Historical Society and in several roles at Frederick Memorial Hospital -- and is a fixture at his grandchildren's sporting events.
He also holds an annual golf tournament in memory of his wife, Nancy, who died of cancer in 2000. Proceeds from the tournament benefit Frederick Memorial's Cancer Patient Assistance Fund, neonatal intensive care unit and general development fund.
Collins said he would not trade his busy schedule for anything.
"There are people I know who spend all day up in their units watching TV," he said of life at his retirement community. "Life is what you make out of it."
Information from: The Frederick (Md.) News-Post, http://www.fredericknewspost.com
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