With my dirty blue cap sliding down the side of my face, already a little too big for my head and not helped by my sweating brow, I take aim near Cemetery Hill at the lines of Confederate soldiers facing my unit: Company I, 4th U.S., USV. Standing shoulder to shoulder with my musket raised, the barrel hotter than a fire poker from continuous use, I hear our unit commander give the order that never fails to send tingles of excitement up my spine:
“First Company ready, aim, fire!”
The thunderous volley of more than 40 rifles is heard from either side of me, my ears ringing, my vision hazed by the plumes of smoke extending angrily in front of me, my nostrils occupied by the sulfuric stench of gunpowder. Immediately I reach for another cartridge and reload my musket, hectically pouring pre-measured powder down the upturned barrel and bringing the trigger back to my hip, listening intently for the next order. I glance down the line to see the rest of my unit as ready as me, arranged like pieces on a chess board before a match, standing uniform and noble.
There is a special sense of solidarity in moments like this. We have no delusion of connectivity with the dead on a level that would suppose a special understanding of their ordeals. We know we could never truly comprehend what it was like to fight at Gettysburg in July 1863, or any other battle. We have no ego-driven aim to add any fulfillment or meaning to our personal lives by imitating the actions of the fallen.
What is taken away from the choreographed battles, authentic attire, drills, oppressive weather and mimicked living conditions is a humbling appreciation of the hardships and sacrifices endured by those who experienced them without the security of knowing that home was only an air-conditioned car ride away. We know we can’t appreciate more than a tiny fraction of the real affair, but the effect of just that fraction can be profound.
Perhaps no period of the Civil War had more impact on its eventual outcome than the days of July 1, 2 and 3 at Gettysburg in 1863. Though fighting would continue for nearly two more years, it was the Union’s victory at that small Pennsylvanian town that arguably turned the tide of the war in the North’s favor. Both sides shared a reported total of more than 51,000 casualties, the worst of any American battle before or since.
Between the muggy, rainy days of June 27 and 30, 2013, more than ten thousand participated in the 150th Anniversary Re-enactment of the Battle of Gettysburg. Such a turnout came as no surprise, as Gettysburg is often the most well-attended re-enactment year-to-year. (A separate re-enactment by the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee, which runs the annual event, was held July 4 through 7). The reason for this, as I see it, is that unlike any other battle in the war, the events at Gettysburg encapsulate the desperation, weariness, sacrifice, confusion and toil of the entire war. To take part in the re-enacting of it is to expose oneself to the most intimate perspective anyone is capable of having after one and a half centuries worth of hindsight, and it is the honor of having that perspective which compels even occasional re-enactors like me to keep coming back.
The second day of battle had our company engaging in the skirmish at the Wheatfield, where, true to all accounts of the battle, we were to be eventually overrun by our corn-fed foes. The simulated conflict was wrought with confusion (as it had been originally) and involved intense action, with our company often having to march to a new position after firing only a few rounds.
During marches through the tall grass, our formation became staggered from the uneven ground and equally uneven steps of each soldier. Marching jointly in two parallel lines (or at least aspiring to), I’m not surprised when I’m poked with a bayonet scabbard, leaned into to correct someone’s balance, or outright shoved to afford others more elbowroom. We are just as often too far apart as too close, continuously correcting each other to dress left or right, sometimes as cleft as the Red Sea. With all the commotion of the other units’ firing, it is often difficult to hear our commander’s orders to wheel right or left, march in diagonals or even halt.
Suddenly, a fawn springs out from the tall grass directly ahead of us. The darling animal is trapped between us and two oncoming Confederate lines, clearly confused and frightened out of its wits. We initially stop, but are implored to keep up with our fellow companies. As we step tenderly through the drying green tufts, watching the pristine creature panic in a serpentine away from the confrontation, everyone’s eyes are transfixed on it. And just as quickly as our perspectives adjusted to the reality of the situation, they readjusted to the reality we were trying to re-create. It wasn’t until later that I realized how allegorical the situation was, with the innocent fawn representing the wholesome town of Gettysburg, unexpectedly caught in the middle of an overwhelming ordeal that lent no rhyme or reason to its arrival.
Safety regulations limit how close the opposing sides can get to one another in battle before being forced to shoot at the sky with feigned enthusiasm, yet my company and I were still able to see the opposition closely enough to discern their different faces; some more weathered and worn than others, and all of them intense and resolute. Toward the end of the day’s scrum, I find myself lying face down on the scratchy grass pretending to be dead, surrounded by the scattered remnants of my unit.
I lay there as the battle continued, the Confederate lines advancing past our prior position. I see their first line march right on through, but the second stopped right on top of me. Several men try awkwardly to find their footing while hovering over my sprawled frame, straining to keep from stepping on me. Although I’m not charmed by the clouds of dust emitting from their grey and brown uniforms, the shade provides me a brief respite from the hot sun until two soldiers quickly drag me out of their way.
After returning to camp from our re-created defeat, I sit silently around the supper-time fire, absentmindedly watching the flames as they lick the evening air. My shirt is soaked with sweat, but cools me just enough to keep the heat from dominating my other senses. My hands, grimy with gunpowder and dirt from the day’s events, polish my 1861-model Springfield musket, buffing away the rust caused by the extreme humidity. Meals are the most anticipated social events in camp, for which we spoil ourselves with dishes like home-cooked chili, pulled pork, hot dogs and even spaghetti and meatballs. We make sure to be authentic when it’s effortless, using period silverware, plates and muckets (large tin cups), but as this is a hobby and not a way of life, we take the liberty of keeping ourselves well fed.
On the third day of battle, our company saw no action. We did, however, have prime seats far behind the front lines of Gettysburg’s most famous offensive: Pickett’s Charge. For the actual battle, General George Pickett’s Virginia division constituted most of the Confederacy’s second corps, which, after two hours of heavy cannon fire (or for us, only 45 minutes or so), traversed a mile-long stretch of open ground to attack the center of the Union’s forces at Cemetery Ridge. Nearly 12,500 soldiers marched out from under the protection of a thickly leaved canopy toward the Union line – and only half returned. The defeat unofficially marked the turning point in the war, as afterward General Robert E. Lee, Commander of the entire Confederate Army and leader of the Army of Northern Virginia, was forced to retreat due to depleted ammunitions and infantry, allowing General George G. Meade’s Union Army of the Potomac to push the war back onto southern soil.
The view of the battle invigorated my sense of wonder in a strange way. Between the deafening booms of the cannons and the impressive scale of the affair, I saw the sides of a Janus nation confronting each other over a grand battleground, determined to taste victory at the risk of losing everything but pride. What I knew to be an imitation became real. The ground was shaking with each eruption of cannon fire, providing a matching sensation to go with the soundtrack of thousands of roaring guns and screeching rebel yells.
As the fighting concluded, I made special note of where I was, participating in an event where passionate people of both gray and blue loyalties came peacefully together – albeit loudly – to pay tribute to those who took part in the single greatest divisive event this nation has ever seen. It was a pleasantly ironic experience that represented and fulfilled the optimism hidden beneath the war’s motivations – deep, deep beneath. The act of so many people coming together in such a reverential fashion paid greater moral tribute to the purpose of those who fought for their beliefs than any monument or holiday intended to do the same.