Re-enactors in Gettysburg answer call for big events like 150th anniversary
By Mike Wereschagin
Published: Wednesday, July 3, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
GETTYSBURG -- Fireflies flash below the feet of statue of Winged Victory, perched atop the Pennsylvania Memorial nearly 100 feet over the battlefield.
The nighttime clouds, high and deep blue, break open. Stars flank the statue, its inky metal darker than the sky above.
The sun has set and the crowds have gone. No streetlights mar the paved paths through Gettysburg National Military Park. The only nearby light flickers from campfires and candlelit tables, where the mirthful chatter of weary, wool-clad men rises from the rows of canvas tents into the warm, damp breeze of Pennsylvania farmland in July.
More than 158,000 soldiers fought at Gettysburg July 1-3, 1863. The 150th anniversary is drawing tens of thousands of re-enactors to staff living history encampments in the park and take part in battle re-enactments scheduled before and after the three-day anniversary.
“It's very moving. The 150th. All of us have been looking forward to that number,” said Steve Hawkins 62, of Squirrel Hill.
He's among more than 200 Union reenactors camping on the field Monday through Wednesday. Beyond the tree line about a mile to the west, Confederate counterparts bivouac near a memorial to Confederate Gen. James Longstreet, the man who warned Gen. Robert E. Lee against attacking the Union-held Cemetery Ridge on the climactic third day of the battle, July 3, 1863.
About 10,000 reenactors took part in the first reenactment, which ended Sunday, and more are expected at the second, which begins Thursday.
“The hobby,” as many of them call it, can swallow thousands of hours and dollars. The price of this ground-level understanding of history includes long nights in the rain under open-sided tents that are little more than canvas sheets over wooden poles, and marches across muggy fields wearing wool coats in 90-degree heat. One set of clothes can cost $1,600.
“We're kind of nuts,” said Brandon Bies, 33, of Washington, D.C.
“You're being generous,” said David Golimowski, 49, of Baltimore, who encamped with Bies and other Confederate reenactors in Pitzer Woods, on the battlefield.
Bies works as a National Park Service site manager for Arlington House, Lee's former home. Golimowski helps maintain and operate the Hubble Space Telescope for the Space Telescope Science Institute.
Elsewhere on the field were a university carpenter, retired military personnel, fathers and sons, young husbands and wives, and the great-great grandson of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, John Grant Griffiths, 70, of Fredericksburg, Va. Griffiths' first reenactment was 1956.
“Back then, you didn't have tents, you didn't have good units, you didn't have reproduction weapons, you didn't have the level of interest you have today,” Griffiths said.
Bies and Golimowski spent part of Tuesday morning discussing different methods of weaving fabric used to make period pants. The camp's resident expert, Charlie Childs, explained the intricacies of blending cotton and wool, and how the word “jeans” referred to a type of weave before it was a kind of pants.
Childs, 61, of Paris, Ohio is credited by some reenactors with vast improvements to the accuracy of period clothing during the 30 years since he started making it.
Some of the period equipment can get pretty bulky -- Bill Smith's cannon, for instance. The captain of the 19th Ohio Light Artillery regiment based in Salem, Ohio, operates a 1,900-pound cannon forged just north of Philadelphia in 1862. It's unknown where the cannon -- specifically, the “tube” from which projectiles fire -- saw action because the building that held the record of this cannon's serial number burned down about 100 years ago, said Smith, 70, of Ellwood City.
More than 150 years after the cannon's forging, Smith's unit still uses it in shooting competitions held annually at a military artillery range in Michigan. Batteries using Civil War equipment take aim at a wooden target 4 feet by 6 feet set 10 football fields away, or more than 1/2 mile. Their last time out, they hit it 12 times in 15 tries. When it's firing a 10-pound ball, the recoil lifts the cannon into the air and pushes back between 8 and 10 feet, Smith said.
Monday, they set up on Seminary Ridge, where they fired empty barrels westward at 8 a.m. to commemorate the first shots of the battle, then again a couple hours later to commemorate the Seminary Ridge Museum's opening.
“It's just an honor,” Smith said. “This is the first time shots were fired from this position since 150 years ago. This is the exact position of the first day's battle. They were here.”
This connection to the past often links reenactors to ancestors they never met.
Jordan Hoffman and his father, Paul, portray soldiers in the 14th Tennessee Infantry. During the actual Pickett's Charge, a sergeant in the 14th Connecticut Infantry captured the Tennessee colors near the Union wall. A descendant of that soldier is a reenactor in the Connecticut regiment, and the Hoffmans' commanding officer arranged for him to leap the wall during the reenactment Sunday and follow in his ancestors' footsteps to capture their flag, Paul Hoffman said.
“It was pretty tear-jerking,” Paul Hoffman said.
Two of Steve Schnyer's ancestors fought with New England units in the Civil War. One of them camped not far from Schnyer's tent with the Union encampment near the Pennsylvania Memorial.
“I'm older than he was when he was here,” said Schnyer, 52, of Keene, N.H. He sat beside his tent, cleaning a replica Springfield rifle as dusk settled over the ground his family defended 150 years ago that day.
“Everybody's got a different reason for doing it,” Schnyer said.
One of his comes on the march, where his 6-foot-2-inch frame puts him near the rear of most formations. When the terrain is just right, the column in front of him dips, and then the leading element rises on the far hill, a flag-bearer in the lead, visible over the shoulders of the men in front of him. “You see the colors come up, and your heart goes right into your throat.”
Mike Wereschagin is staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at (412) 320-7900 or email@example.com.
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