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Reliving history at Gettysburg — again

The participants aren’t just “playing soldier,’’ as critics often say. As one of my comrades explained at Gettysburg 10 years ago, he re-enacts “because I want to honor my fallen.’’

For the people who choose to do it regularly, re-enactment is a way to really live history.
Photo by Catherine Watson

I’ve been at this battle before, and it wasn’t in my imagination.

Ten years ago, I was invited to join a group of military re-enactors at Gettysburg in honor of the 140th anniversary of the battle. This spring, my old unit – I love saying that – invited me back for the 150th, and I said yes.

The real battle took place on July 1, 2 and 3, 1863, but because of Gettysburg’s significance, there are two huge re-enactments this year – one before the anniversary, one after. Organizers expect 10,000 re-enactors at each, plus thousands of spectators. The unit I’m joining will be in the first one.

I already know the drill. We will all be “in period’’ for the duration. That means dressing, eating and sleeping as much as possible the way Gettysburg’s original combatants would have. When spectators wander through, the encampment has to look perfect – like a Mathew Brady photograph come to life.

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This commitment to authenticity makes re-enacting a sort of very heavy camping. Coleman stoves, rip-stop nylon and freeze-dried ice cream lie 150 years in the future – exactly 150 years, almost to the day. (You’re allowed to munch Fritos and eat Hormel chili and drink Coke at reenactments, but you have to hide the evidence, usually under your cot.)

There are military reenactors for all the wars of America’s past – including the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II. But the war that draws the most re-enactors is the war between the states. 

The participants aren’t just “playing soldier,’’ as critics often say. Re-enacting is a sincere hobby, and a hard one.

For the people who choose to do it regularly, this is a way to really live history, and it goes much deeper for re-enactors whose ancestors actually fought in the battles they replicate.  As one of my comrades explained at Gettysburg 10 years ago, he re-enacts “because I want to honor my fallen.’’  

My own Civil War ancestors did not fall in battle. They were wounded several times, but they managed to make it home and survive into old age. They were my Missouri-born grandmother’s favorite uncles, and she told me their war stories all through my childhood:

How Uncle Bill McDonald “took a Minie ball through the wrist and pulled a white silk handkerchief through it to clean the wound.’’ How Uncle Bill and his brothers “went all through the war together’’ and farmed together afterward. And how ‘‘they always kept their uniforms tacked up on the farmhouse wall.’’

The McDonalds were cavalrymen, like the unit I’ll be with this week. Like my unit’s, their uniforms were gray. 

I won’t be in uniform, gray or blue. I’ll be depicting the same person as I did at the 140th – someone I could actually have been in 1863: a civilian war correspondent embedded with the Confederate cavalry. Even though I’m a Minnesota Yankee. Even though I’m a woman. Even though I still can’t ride a horse, despite having had 10 years to learn.

I know, going in, that my tent will be canvas, my jacket and trousers will be wool, my boots will be calf-high leather, and I will sweat them all to smelly dampness every day. I also know I will get chiggers. (In case you’ve missed the pleasure, those are tiny red mites that lurk on grass and lay eggs in your skin. They’re so nearly invisible that you don’t know they’ve joined you until the eggs start to hatch, which in my memory takes about a minute and a half.)

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battlefield smoke
Photo by Catherine Watson
I remember feeling the ground shudder under the horses’ hooves when the cavalry pounded by and the sting of gunpowder in the air.

So why do it? Or in my case, why do it again?  

What drew me back were moments –  sensory snapshots, really –  from the 140th.    

I remember feeling the ground shudder under the horses’ hooves when the cavalry pounded by, the sting of gunpowder in the air, the racket of rifle fire and the boom of explosions out on the field,  the swirling colors of the distant clashes, and how it felt later, hanging around the campfire, listening to my comrades’ stories.

But the image that has stayed with me longest came one warm night when I was walking through the darkened encampment alone – nobody else in sight. Around me, rows upon rows of small white tents stretched silently away. It made me think of an old Civil War song, “All Quiet Along the Potomac Tonight,’’ and in the instant I remembered its tune, I felt the boundary between past and present blur.

Why do this? Because it is as close to time travel as I will ever come.

Catherine Watson is a travel journalist and writing coach who lives in Minneapolis.

150th commemorative events

At Gettysburg:

At Gettysburg National Military Park, the National Park Service has scheduled special events for the actual dates of the battle, July 1, 2 and 3, including encampments and demonstrations of military life during the Civil War and ranger-led hikes of the battlefield, including – on July 3 – one across the field of Pickett’s Charge. 

Other commemorative events continue at the park all year. For details, go here and download the National Park Service’s Commemorative Events Guide 2013.   

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Civil War battle re-enactments take place every year on battle anniversaries but not on the hallowed ground of the original battlefields. Instead, they are held on nearby farmland, and at Gettysburg this year, there will be two: One just before the 150th anniversary of the battle fought July 1, 2 and 3, 1863, and one just afterward. An estimated 10,000 reenactors, both blue and gray, are expected at each.

For more information on related events around Gettysburg this year, go to the website of the Gettysburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In Minnesota:

In addition to its stunning exhibit, “Minnesota and The Civil War,” which continues through Sept. 8, the Minnesota History Center is offering special events and lectures about Gettysburg, the key role played by the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry – the first unit to be offered to President Lincoln when the war broke out – and the war’s effect on the development of the City of St. Paul.  

The day after the Union victory at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Miss., surrendered to the Union commander, Ulysses S. Grant, putting the Mississippi River back into Union hands.  This July 4, the history center will honor both events with a Gettysburg/Vicksburg Anniversary Commemoration Family Day, including living-history depictions, an ice-cream social and other events.