SHEPHERDSTOWN — As Dennis Frye drank iced tea at a table by a window at the Bavarian Inn here, the recent retiree reflected on his 42-year career as a historian and Civil War history expert.
The 60-year-old grew up in Brownsville, Md., in southern Washington County where the Battle of South Mountain took place in September 1862.
He got his professional start after he graduated from Shepherd University in 1979 and won work as a ranger/historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.
A decade later, he was named the park’s chief historian – a title he held until he retired from the federal government in June.
Frye had wanted to work in Civil War history from the age of 12. “Even then I knew I wanted to be a park ranger,” he said. “I was inspired by the history that surrounded me.”
He said he was also inspired by his father, John Frye, an unofficial historian of Washington County and curator of the Western Maryland Room of the Washington County Free Library in Hagerstown, Md.
He began volunteering in the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park’s blacksmith shop as a young teen and later became a paid summer employee with the Youth Conservation Corps there.
During his time with the park service, Frye said he focused on promoting and marketing the park as a Civil War destination. “Before that it was known as the John Brown park,” he said.
Over the years, he’s written more than 100 articles about the park that have appeared in Civli War-themed publications including Blue & Grey Magazine, which thrived for decades but ceased publication in 2017, and America’s Civil War, the history magazine that dates to 1987. Frye also contributes regularly to the Civil War Trust’s Battlefield Preservation Movement publications.
Frye said he gives about 50 different lectures on Civil War themes. He’d just returned from giving one in Kansas City.
Frye also has written 10 books on the subject of the Civil War. He discussed his latest, “Antietam Shadows: Mystery, Myth and Machination” earlier this month at a Historic Shepherdstown meeting at the Robert C. Byrd Center on the campus of Shepherd University.
He has also appeared on television on PBS, The History Channel, C-SPAN, A&E and Fox News.
Frye is one of seven founders of the Civil War Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and adding to Civil War battlefields. It has more than 60,000 members.
His future seems to mirror his past with more books, more articles and more lectures, especially now that he no longer has the a full-time job to take up his attention.
Frye and his wife, Sylvia, a retired curator at the Harpers Ferry Center Conservation Laboratory, live in a historic 1840 farmhouse off Harpers Ferry Road outside Sharpsburg, Md.
The house – which served as U.S. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s headquarters after the Battle of Antietam – has been Frye’s since 1988. Restoring it took a decade.
The Fryes, who do not have children, live with a pair of cherished Boston terriers – one named “Mister Lincoln” and the other “Bonnie Blue.”
“Historians can’t take sides so our dogs represent both sides of the Civil War,” he said.