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Dennis P. Kelly

Jun 25, 2021

Dennis Patrick Kelly, retired National Park Service military historian, “authentic” Civil War reenactor, proud Airborne combat veteran, and loyal friend, died Jan. 29, 2021, of bladder and prostate cancer aggravated by diabetes, at his apartment in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, at age 75. A tough-minded, sometimes cynical individualist, he yielded to the pressures of changing times only when it suited him, which was rarely. He saw himself as a remnant of a passing era, and so he was.

Although a native of Darby, Pa., cheek by jowl with southwest Philadelphia, and a dedicated fan of the Philadelphia Eagles, he nevertheless long identified with the trials and triumphs of the Rebel army of the 1860s. Dennis attended Upper Darby High School in Delaware County, Pa., and Temple University, where he studied under the renowned Russell F. Weigley. In between he served in the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division from 1964 to 1967, earning a Combat Infantry Badge for participation in Operation Power Pack, the Johnson administration’s successful 1965-1966 initiative to stem the threat of Communism in the Dominican Republic. The experience of manning an M60 machine gun under fire led to an official diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder years later.

As an unruly teenager he fit in well with George E. Gorman’s rowdy Second North Carolina Infantry, out of Clifton Heights, Pa., one of the first units (some would aver the first) in the Civil War Centennial to represent with painstaking fidelity the image and mannerisms of the troops of 1861-1865, an effort later called the “authentic” movement. In the ranks of the Second he took part in the reenactments of the battles of First Manassas (Bull Run), Sharpsburg (Antietam), and Gettysburg before himself becoming a part of history when he enlisted in the U.S. Army.

After working in a variety of jobs, including as custodian of Gorman’s short-lived Antietam National Museum in Sharpsburg, Md., he became part of the staff of Manassas National Battlefield Park in 1975, where he immersed himself in every aspect of the two major clashes at the site with the passion and thoroughness that became his trademarks. From there he became historian at Stones River National Battlefield, at Murfreesboro, Tenn., where he shared his in-depth knowledge of tactics and especially the service of artillery, as gleaned from a close study of period manuals.

During his thirteen years as historian at Kennesaw Mountain, Ga., Dennis contributed in far-ranging ways. He enjoyed mentoring Living History volunteers who provided the public with dramatic demonstrations of the actions of those who suffered through the bloody repulse of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s assaults in 1864, in the process becoming an admirer of the general. With his trusty chainsaw he cleared areas of the park to restore them to their historic appearance. Evidence of the respect his expertise commanded is illustrated by his selection as president of the prestigious Civil War Round Table of Atlanta. Other highlights of his sojourn in the Peach State were his contributions to staff rides of the Infantry School at Fort Benning and authorship of “Kennesaw Mountain and the Atlanta Campaign: A Tour Guide.”

Dennis reveled in his Irish heritage, and several vacation excursions to the Emerald Isle culminated in his retirement in 1995 from federal service and removal to the land of his paternal ancestors, where he liked to point out the Kellys once ruled as kings. He became the skipper of a leaky houseboat (or “yacht”) on the River Shannon once owned – or so Dennis fondly declared – by Winston Churchill’s personal pilot. However, as time passed and the cost of the upkeep of his boat loomed large, he decided to return to America. Moreover, life in a small, left-leaning country had begun to pall. For a number of months he traveled on the European continent, visiting historic battlefields from Gallipoli to Waterloo.

Dennis had spent his early years in Secane, Delaware County, Pa, and it was to the family home there that he returned to attend to his ailing mother in her final illness. A lifetime member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, he became active in the VFW posts in that vicinity, leading efforts to honor the service, memory, and last resting places of local veterans. The comradeship of Civil War Round Tables such as those of the Delaware Valley and the Brandywine Valley offered a chance to lecture on P.G.T. Beauregard, the March to the Sea, and other topics, as well as participation in tours of Gettysburg and elsewhere.

Following the passing of his mother in 2012, Dennis settled in picturesque Shepherdstown, W. Va., a place he had come to love ever since his first explorations of the vicinity a half century before. He had once written an article published in Civil War Times on the fight at Shepherdstown following the Battle of Antietam, and elected to devote his talent and experience to the Shepherdstown Battlefield Preservation Association as a volunteer, working to clear and preserve the site until he aged out of that activity. He also revived his membership in the Harpers Ferry Civil War Round Table, where he had spoken several times in the early days of the group.

A self-described adherent of the Old School, Dennis shrugged off the Digital Age, signaling his disdain for the online world by laughingly dismissing everything that was “on the computer.” Both gruff and charming, open-hearted and ornery, he maintained a sense of humor in the face of life’s absurdities. Among his effects was a recent formal certificate for his successful completion of a course of radiation therapy, something that would doubtless have evoked one of his not infrequent chuckles. Never married, he is mourned by a host of those who knew him.

There was an interment ceremony at noon on Saturday, June 19, at Elmwood Cemetery, in Shepherdstown.