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Reenacting the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg

Reenacting the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg

“There’s so many stars up there.” “What?” I opened my eyes and watched the stars spin before my eyes and then come to a stop. The whiskey was still fresh on my breath.”Yea, its been a while since I’ve seen that many stars”Above me, dressed in blue pants, a checkered shirt, a long beard, and old eyes gazing at the sky, stood a Union Civil War soldier.

“Mind if I sit down beside you here.” “Sure, I was about to go to sleep, but I’m awake now.” He hit the ground, like a ton of bricks, and sprawled out on the grass next to the fire. I could tell right away he was hammered off his ass.

“I used to live in the mountains.” “Oh? Did you now” “Yea back in the sixties. A bunch of us moved into a cabin in Northern California. We grew our own food, our own weed, and we’d sit under the stars and trip out. I swear you could see the stars from the start of every skyline. Pure.” Yea, that would be pretty cool.” “It was. Now I live outside Philly and I hardly ever see the stars.” “Sorry to hear that. It’s kind of the same way where I live, after they built the baseball stadium.” “Yea. Sucks Man.”

He sat there silent and began to stare at the stars again. I soon realized that this drunken old-hippy, dressed as a Civil War soldier, was not going to let me sleep anytime soon. Although I respect the old-heads, I really wanted to go back to sleep, without some dude talking to me.

“Well man… I think I’m going to sleep now. I don’t want to kick you out or anything but..” “Oh shit sorry, I zoned out there. I’ll head out now and let you get back to that.” “Thanks.” “Peace Man.”

Peace at a, freaking, Civil War Reenactment. This contradiction started out my experience at the 150th Reenactment Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. During the actual battle, that had occurred on and around the same land I was laying on with close to 10,000 other reenactors who were dressed in authentic gear and sleeping in tents, some 51,000 actual soldiers died while fighting each other over political differences. The battle became one of the most influential and bloodiest battles of the American Civil War.

I’ve been reenacting since I was 8 years old, 15 years in total, so I have seen and met some of the weirdest people around. But I do have to say, that’s what makes the hobby so great. It takes those weird and out of the ordinary people, that seem to lack social consciousness, to go out in a hot July field in all wool and not only reenact a battle that took place 150 years ago, but live it for a whole weekend. For those wondering what reenacting is like… it is literally living and breathing the Civil War, for three days or more during a few weekends out of the year. We sleep in canvas tents, wear wool clothing in hot weather, drink whiskey and play traditional music all night. And lastly, we definitely don’t shower.

The smell of the gunpowder, the roar of the cannons, the adrenaline of playing war is all very exhilarating and meaningful to reenactors, but that’s only 1/3 of what takes place. This year’s Gettysburg Reenactment was no different. The first night, me and a few other reenactors around my age, drank beer and wondered from camp to camp meeting people from all walks of life. We met college students, Iraq vets, a whole lot of Vietnam vets, grocers, company owners, foreigners from places like Australia, Great Britain, and Germany. You name it.. they were probably there.

Every one is different, but the one thing that pulls all the people together, is their interest in history and their uniting knowledge that they are all a little weird. Anyone that goes to a reenactment and judges someone for being weird must have some sort of self-identity issue. Being weird comes as a must for the hobby and if your participating, your already weird.

Like always, we finished off our night with a late night trip to the Irish Brigade.  This group is notorious for, full-hardheartedly carrying on the Irish tradition of, drinking and partying late into the night. Usually making a trip to the Irish Brigade makes for a regrettable morning, which also sums up my second day of the Gettysburg trip.

7:00 a.m. I stumbled out of my cot and realized that, the night before, we had placed our tent right next to the Union headquarters. This is where the buglers tend to hang out. (And also where fat old commanders put ropes and locks on toilets to claim them as their own, because their fake position somehow gives them the authority to do so, but that’s a whole other story).

So after cursing the bugler, and hoping he would just keel over and let me sleep, we formed up for dress parade. Now normally, I hate dress parade, because it’s always way too early and it seems pointless to line everyone up, to watch the musicians march back and forth for no apparent reason. But, at this reenactment, I was glad I came out to see the sheer number of reenactors that had come, from all over the world, to participate in the reenactment.

After dress parade the normal day consists of wondering around camp, sleeping, or going to the sutlers (which are tent stores where reenactors can buy supplies). Usually, a battle occurs around one o’ clock in which we march out to shoot guns and reenact a battle that the confederates always seem to try and change the history of. Battles can be very fun. As reenactors we practice marching orders, how to carry our weapon, how to fire, and an array of other tasks that the average Civil War soldier would have known. So, when the battle comes, we usually know exactly what to do when our commanders shout orders for us to follow. To sum it up, a battle is a thousand person play that depicts a bloody confrontation, that occurred 150 years ago

By the end of the third day, after being away from television, running water, indoor plumbing, and all the distractions of the world, you begin to feel content with living outdoors. There’s something about simplifying life that tunes your brain into a different frequency.

The final day of this year’s Gettysburg Reenactment was Picketts Charge. Picketts charge was the last and bloodiest day of the Battle.  Of the over 12,500 Confederate soldiers who advanced over an open field that day, towards Union forces barricaded behind a long stone wall, only half made it back alive.

As a Union Reeanactor for this battle, I was placed on the stone wall. This battle was different from others I had done, because we placed four rows of infantrymen on the wall, while cannons fired over our heads as we lay down on the dirt. Normally, we are not as close to the cannons as we were that day.

I was amazed at how loud the artillery actually was. When the cannons began firing over our heads I could feel the wind in my body being pushed out of me. After the first barrage, I realized everyone had the same surprised look. The battle continued with the confederates charge across the field  and then being eventually gunned down as they reached a nearby fence. You can view my video of the rest of the battle here.

All in all, yes reenactors are strange people that get excited about things that a normal person wouldn’t. But, they are also the carriers of a tradition that started with actual civil war veterans, that reenacted with their old enemies to keep the history and honor alive. It is a great spectacle to watch, which is probably why thousands of people still travel across the world, to come see these reenactments. The hobby is starting to die off in numbers these days, but hopefully a new generation, like mine, who has an interest in history, will carry on this 150 year tradition in honor those who died during that awful time period.

p.s. This is dedicated to James Scott. My relative who fought, with the 149th Pennsylvania Bucktails, in the actual battle of Gettysburg.

 

 

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