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After Pickett’s Charge: Gettysburg re-enactment a moving, disorienting experience

A week after getting home from the Civil War, I’m still not back to normal. I’m out of synch here — as if I forgot something, or left something behind.

Defeated Confederates straggle back from their re-enactment of Pickett's Charge.
Photo by Catherine Watson

It’s been a week since I got home from the Civil War, and I’m still not back to normal. Home doesn’t feel like home. I’m out of synch here — as if I forgot something, as if I left something behind.

I thought at first that this was because I miss my brother Steve, who had driven 10 hours north from his home in South Carolina to join me at Gettysburg, Pa., for the 150th anniversary of the decisive, three-day battle.

Steve has been a Civil War buff since he was 9, and walking around the vast battlefield park with him wasn’t just a sibling reunion, it was a crash course in American history:  He  explained events, commanders’ personalities, grand mistakes and individual acts of heroism as if he’d been there, and showed me isolated monuments I’d never have tried to located on my own. 

But while I missed him, there was more to my vague sense of displacement.

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Maybe I was just missing the people I’d camped with for a few days before Steve arrived. They belong to Jackson’s Corps, a group of dedicated re-enactors who depict a Confederate cavalry unit. They had invited me to join them 10 years earlier, for the 140th Gettysburg, and asked me back for this one.

I chose to depict a more politically neutral civilian — someone not much different from who I am in real life — and  became a Civil War newspaper correspondent embedded with a Rebel force.

We camped “in period,’’ meaning we dressed, slept, cooked and ate as much as possible the way original Civil War soldiers had. About 5,000 Union re-enactors were camped nearby, also in period. Ten thousand people sounds like a lot, but the re-enactors totaled less than  a tenth of the 160,000 who  fought here in 1863.

tents photo
Photo by Catherine Watson
We camped “in period,’’ meaning we dressed, slept, cooked and ate as much as possible the way original Civil War soldiers had.

Despite the uncomfortable realities of re-enactor life — the simmering summer heat of rural Pennsylvania;  abundant woodticks, heavy clothing and the steep, muddy road we had to climb to reach our canvas tents — I had enjoyed being with them. But while I missed them, I still couldn’t explain my vague sense of detachment from my own life.

So maybe it was reliving Pickett’s Charge — and doing it not once, but twice.

On July 3, with thousands of other visitors, I had followed National Park Service rangers across the field to the point where the war turned, where the hopes of the Confederacy reached their heights and then began to ebb.

The park service normally doesn’t allow this kind of thing on the hallowed ground of  national battlefields — which was why my re-enactors were camped on a farm a few miles away.

But for this once-in-a-lifetime anniversary, the NPS organized a memorial walk across the open pasture where Pickett’s Charge took place 150 years earlier, not just to the day but to the hour.

It was the same route that  Robert E. Lee had ordered George Pickett’s division to follow: From the shade of trees on the Confederate side, across an open field in hot sun and then uphill — uphill! — to a low stone wall where the Union soldiers once stood massed to stop the advancing 12,500 soldiers.

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Most of the people making the march with me were regular tourists in tank tops and shorts, ball caps and athletic shoes, but some were re-enactors, wearing tattered gray and brown uniforms and carrying so many battle flags that it looked like a parade.

The park service had cut pathways through the long grass, but the ground was lumpy. We weren’t running, but we were walking so fast that I had to keep watching my feet so I wouldn’t trip. When the flag bearers reached the Copse of Trees — a small grove known ever since as the High Watermark of the Confederacy, as far into Northern territory as Lee’s army would ever go  — the march stopped, and buglers played taps. The whole thing took only about half an hour.

I expected to be choked up at the end of it — but all I’d been aware of was the lumpy ground, the blur of people around me as I walked and the crowded confusion at the end. My brother, who met me at the Copse of Trees, said that was how the real war would have felt: Foot soldiers didn’t get an overview.

The strange thing was that this memorial Pickett’s Charge on the actual battlefield had less emotion to it than the pretend version I’d seen three days earlier, on an ordinary farm pasture during the re-enactment. And when I remembered that, my sense of dislocation grew clearer.

Earlier that day, I’d listened to fifes and drums mustering troops, heard commanders exhorting their soldiers to hold back on the Rebel Yell and “scare the hell out of  ’em’’ with silence, and watched as people I knew rode off to their own version of Pickett’s Charge.

It was staged on a farm field chosen because it resembled the topography of the real thing.   I followed a few  other civilian re-enactors — ladies in hoop skirts, small children with picnic baskets, men in straw hats and farm-style trousers — downhill to a white barn on the Confederate right flank. And then I waited.

On the opposite rise of land, beyond a stone wall, column after column of Union troops marched out and took positions, looking like straight blue lines across the hillside.

Then Confederate cannons began firing and the Union fired back, the powerful sounds making the ground shake. Then wave after wave of Confederate gray marched out across the field and up toward the lines of blue. Wave after wave after wave, while I kept edging closer, shooting photos as fast as I could.

charge photo
Photo by Catherine Watson
Confederate cannons began firing, and the Union fired back.

And then the scene changed, and I put the camera down and stared in shock. The battle sounds kept up, the Union’s blue lines never wavered, but now men in brown and gray began staggering back, limping, falling, lying still. 

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The horror of the Civil War hit me then, in ways that history books and Ken Burns’ films never had. I was watching real people, all of them Americans, killing each other. I knew it wasn’t real, but I also knew that if it had been, I would have fallen on the ground and sobbed. 

When I remembered that scene, I understood this strange lingering home-but-not-home feeling I’ve had. 

It’s the price of all long journeys, and  I’ve it paid a hundred times after a long, exotic trip. It’s plain old re-entry shock. I just hadn’t expected to get it from the Civil War.