Last Thursday I made my way to Pennsylvania with my good friends and fellow living historians Peter and Paul Luks. We were traveling there to attend the Blue & Gray Alliance Event commemorating the battle of Gettysburg. I’ve traveled numerous times to this small but important town before I could legally drive. But our journey this weekend was different. This year, in 2013, marks the sesquicentennial or one-hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the largest military engagement ever fought by or within the country.
This unpleasant distinction has given the rural town immense notoriety. Heck, even my mother (in all her wisdom) could probably get the $200 ‘What was the largest battle of the Civil War’ Jeopardy question correct. Recently, authors and historians have re-evaluated this history in light of the modern changes that have taken place since. For instance, the story of our country’s development was being told quite differently during the era of segregation and Civil Rights in 1963. Contrast those same interpretations half a century later, when we are all living in a society that elected the first African-American president to represent us.
That same concept of changing interpretation also drives the endeavors that our reenacting group (Liberty Rifles) passionately carries on. For those already in the know, my group is often called stitch-counters, campaigners, or hardcore for representing the Victorian period as authentically as possible. Again, there was not a large mindset to portray the hobby this way in the 1960s. And so from the beginning, I already prepared myself mentally and physically for the stress of army life. Three days of vacation, my ass.
I arrived on site and met-up with our coordinator, Rob Hodge, and fellow friends portraying Company I, 1st Tennesse Infantry. Most recognizably-known for being on the cover of Tony Horwitz’s Confederates In the Attic, Hodge got me started in the authentic stuff almost five years ago and so I was very honored and thrilled for the weekend ahead. After parking the car and gearing-up, we marched to the Confederate camps over a mile and a half away in the darkness of night.
The next morning I woke up to the incessant reveille of musician’s call. It’s at 4:30 a.m. Horrible. Our first-sergeant formed the company for morning roll call and everyone present reported-in. Then we got to cooking rations for the day, boiling coffee, and puffing on pipes to wake-up. The first scripted scenario (per the event schedule) was the Railroad Cut and McPherson’s Ridge commencing at 8:30 a.m. so the battalion was formed, arms were inspected, and then marched off fairly early.
Marching, marching, marching. Words cannot describe how agonizing that walk to the opposite end of the staging area was. I think of what Vermonter Wilbur Fisk entitled his memoirs, Hard Marching Every Day. We easily covered a mile of walking over the most unstable granite trail, through the Union camps as they jeered us (weird), and onto a hilltop with the sun already beating down on our necks. A brief pause was had before the column was moved down the hill and into an open field. There, Col. Owens formed the battalion’s battle line and we unfolded into a flat meadow. The federal artillery had already been thundering away from the distance and as we neared closer, dismounted cavalry troopers fired their sharps rifles no more than 100 feet away. Historically, the 1st Tenn. Regiment, whom we were portraying, encountered tough westerners of the Union army’s famed Iron Brigade on July 1, 1863. They fell back towards Willoughby’s Run to Herr’s Ridge while the Federals closely pursued. Over 200 Confederates (including Brig. Gen. James Archer) found themselves captured and surrendered.
But I was not privy to such actions. One question I constantly get pestered about at reenactments is “When do you know to die?” Per this situation, the result was obvious: when I’m too tired and uninterested in what appeared to be a very generic battle. So, I actually just sat down among my “wounded” friends as the rest of the battalion drifted away. Dramatic acting need not apply here, but it was nice to pull-off my sweaty coat and hat, nibble on more crackers, and enjoy a smoke. Guess I would’ve been considered more wounded than KIA.
That was the extent of my involvement; the battle for us was over. For the remainder of the afternoon, our group convened near the viewing area’s entrance and walked along the ever-present sutler’s row. Sutlers were traveling merchants that followed the armies during the Civil War and offered convenience items (e.g. cards, cigars, canned food) often sold at exorbitant prices. Under massive tents, modern day vendors display their wares in the hopes of making a quick buck. Nothing really caught my fancy, but our group was able to pose for artist and photographer Robert Szabo as Confederate prisoners.
Worn-out and incredibly sweaty, I lingered back to camp with one of the Psalms ringing in my mind:
This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.