Gettysburg, PA November 23, 2013
It was the kind of Fall afternoon on the farms and orchards of Southern Pennsylvania that brought out the genius in artists like Andrew Wyeth — The azure sky painted with strokes of cirro-stratus and a 45-degree sun that threw tape-measure shadows on the stub of each scythed stalk of corn and wheat along expanse of the hallowed battlefield.
My Brogans, the standard issue boots of the mid-nineteenth century soldier, were in their proper ‘T’ position for standing at “Parade Rest”. The cold leaked through my wool gloved fingers strategically positioned on the barrel of my replica 1862 Springfield musket that was properly tilted to the left – faceplate out – in order to hide the rust spot so my Captain would not notice the ordinance infraction. The flag holders leaned into the wind that slapped their banners, the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy and Old Glory with its period-correct 34 stars. The lines of blue and gray uniforms with highly polished buttons and leathers faced each other. The late afternoon sun threw shards of light off the drawn swords of the officers and magnified the brilliance of the gold insignias on their hats.
Our line of Rebels stretched for 30 yards along the shin-high rock barricade that sheltered troops of the 95th Pennsylvania Regiment 150 years ago. They crouched along this wall, disguising their numbers as they awaited the converging Confederate advance. Facing us was an historically inaccurate smaller line of Yankees – fellow pot-bellied Civil War reenactors, some with dyed hair and whiskers, who Monday through Friday are software managers and coders, real estate agents, and retired school teachers along with many other careers. They, along with we ersatz Southerners, stood solemnly at the vortex of the battle’s last charge, honoring the troops who the country today remembers for their last full measure of devotion.
It was Remembrance Day at Gettysburg, the annual commemoration of Abraham Lincoln’s visit to this farm and college town to help dedicate a solders’ cemetery. The war-weary president, a last-minute invitee, came here months after the cataclysmic battle that effectively secured Northern cities forever from invasion by Robert E. Lee’s army. The cost was 52,000 casualties.
On the other side of the ridge from the stone wall on which we Civil War reenactors stood, Lincoln hoped to rededicate the country to the task of finishing the war. He wanted to inspire the nation with a 272-word address that proposed a new birth of freedom; but the speech was so short and ended so quickly that the only photograph of the occasion shows him returning to his chair. The address was a flop he whispered to Pennsylvania’s Governor Curtin.
A century and a half later, a reproduction Confederate colonel stood before us reading a 100-year old account from a local newspaper about the 50th reunion of Gettysburg battle veterans. (The Fiftieth Anniversary Committee spent $168 on toilet paper for the 1913 event, he said.) A local poet read her commemorative work in iambic pentameter, but few of us at the end of the line could make out an occasional couplet that successfully made it downwind. Certainly, the verses went unheard by those Yankees with hearing aids.
The highlight of the 50th anniversary came when a handful of actual Rebel survivors of Pickett’s Charge, all well into their 70’s and 80’s, reformed for their celebrated march across the mowed wheat field and up the grassy slope of what in July 1863 was a farm owned by the town’s butcher named Codori. The feeble gray line moved slowly, some of the old men stepping cautiously with the help of canes while others held tightly to the arms of companions who guided them though each gully, swale and rut toward the stone wall.
Waiting for them back then at the very spot where I now stood were equally old Boys in Blue, the same antagonists who fired volley after volley of cannon shot and bullets at them and who cut down by the thousands the comrades held forever young in the Confederates’ memories. As the Rebels neared, some Yankees, unable to contain their emotions, flung themselves on their one-time foes, not in anger, but to help them through the final steps. Amid hugs and handshakes, the ancient enemies stepped tentatively, arm-and-arm over the stone wall. For the old Rebels, the charge they and their long-dead comrades began a half-century ago was now complete.
Today it was our turn for Handshakes at the Wall. A tall, round and ruddy cheeked Union reenactor grabbed my sleeve and began to tug. Our hands clasped and he struggled to get his footing on the rocks.
“Co’mon, Johnnie. Help me out here.”
I stepped on a wide, flat rock that gave me the leverage to launch a fairly impressive hop over the barricade, my musket held firmly in one hand above my head still hiding the rust spot. I landed hard in a small knot of Yankees, hard enough to pump some breath out of me in an accidental growl.
“A true fightin’ Rebel to the end,” he laughed as his compatriots in blue greeted me with handshakes and pats on the back. “You get an ‘A’ for effort, Johnnie Reb.”
We introduced, identified our regiments and noted briefly their storied histories. We passed idle chatter, but eventually got around to addressing what the original Civil War soldiers would have called the camel in the parlor. It was the subject on everyone’s mind, namely, where does the hobby go from here?
The 150th Remembrance Day commemoration, along with the Sesquicentennial Battle Reenactment this past July were the zenith of our hobby. Many had devoted years to Civil War reenacting, some for decades. We all were hearing from colleagues that with the Gettysburg milestone behind us, it was time to move on, time to put muskets, uniforms and gear on e-Bay. Some suspect they will devote more time to their wives, to golf, maybe with the grandkids. Maybe.
We hard-core reenactors are worried. Surely, the hobby will survive in some form. There are other upcoming 150th commemorations to keep us interested – Chattanooga, Cedar Creek, Cold Harbor, Franklin, and Petersburg among others. The last will happen at Appomattox Court House in April 2015. There is, however, something deeper, more critical that troubles us.
Yes it’s a hoot to put on the wool pants supported by suspenders, the Richmond Depot ll waist jacket with brass buttons stamped with the great seal of our designated states, and the kepi with numbers above the brim signifying our regimental fidelity. Yes, we all get a kick out of spending weekends in canvas tents, cooking and kibitzing around an open fire, finding our way in the dark with candle-lit lanterns. Forming shoulder to shoulder in a battle line and watching flame and smoke shoot from our fired muskets may produce an out-of-time experience, but we are more than make-believe soldiers.
At heart, we are teachers. We deal with questions such as: Who are these men that left their homes and family farms to fight a war against their fellow countrymen? Was preserving the Union or preserving slavery the only reasons? What do you mean by “States’ Rights?”
What did the soldiers wear when it rained? Where did they sleep when it snowed? Aren’t the wool uniforms too hot? What did they eat? Why was bacon grease and candle wax as important to them as bullets?
Finally, what kind of men could march coolly into a line of trained muskets or cannon knowing that they likely would be sliced with hundreds of shrapnel fragments ,or dissected with tearing solid iron balls? Could I ever do that?
These are questions we usually get from visitors to our camps, especially from youngsters. It’s the children we reenactors worry about most. We see in young visitors an almost unquenchable thirst to know more of the war than what they are fed from the sanitized, politically-correct version parceled from government-approved curriculum. They hunger to know more about the people, their fates, their reasons, their tools of destruction.
And we use our hobby – more like our passion – to show youngsters the how’s, and we talk to them about the why’s of the Civil War. More often than not, our living history lessons open students’ eyes to the struggles, sacrifices and mistakes made by this generation that made war with one another over very different dreams for America.
More importantly, the hobby is about passing on the legends, the lessons and the demands of America’s place in the world that transcend time and place. It’s about the timeless questions of war and peace, democracy and tyranny, faith and faithlessness that each generation must answer for itself. We worry that there will be fewer of us to remind them that they share the same national DNA — the same courage, determination and willingness to sacrifice as the Gettysburg soldiers. It’s been our fathers’ bridge to eternity and can be theirs too. Like the handful of Pickett’s Charge veterans of 1913, we worry there soon will be too few reenactors to remind generations that they can still draw on this heritage to find their answers.
And that is what we are afraid of losing, not only in our hobby, but in our country.