Living History at Gettysburg on the Sesquicentennial

A once-in-a-lifetime chance to revisit one of the most important battles in American history. 

Some families enjoy history. Mine has reconnoitered the fields at Saratoga, examined the batteries at Fort McHenry, walked the decks of the USS Wisconsin, and explored the beaches at Normandy.  On Independence Day weekend my oldest son David, my oldest daughter Anna, and I enjoyed another famous battlefield, Gettysburg.

We arrived at the actual battlefield, run by the US National Park service, and discovered that they did not allow reenacting on the actual battlefield. The park ranger explained “men died on this ground, and we don’t want reenactors only pretending to die.” The second reason was that large units of reenactors, especially with cavalry and artillery, would tear up the fields. We discovered that the Gettysburg reenactment was at a farm a few miles north of the actual battlefield.

Tickets were $40 per adult per day, with grandstand seats to watch the battle another $15. We went to the American Museum of the Civil War in Gettysburg, bought two day tickets for $60 per adult, and skipped the grandstands. On our second day a family who left early gave us their grandstand tickets, and so we got to experience this excellent view of the battle after all. Anna, David and I arrived a few minutes after the gates opened at 0830.

There were 13,000 reenactors, 200 cavalry (counted by my son), 135 cannon (registered) and tens of thousands of spectators. Activities tents hosted living historians describing their experiences as the character each played. In one talk, the living historian playing Confederate General James Longstreet was outstanding. Actor Patrick Falci described his experiences on the set of the movie Gettysburg. Other living historians in period attire, as well as yanks and rebels, wandered the Union and Confederate camps and the Living History Village to answer questions (and to enjoy themselves).

Vendors abounded in the Sutler Village portion of the Living History Village. They offered everything from books to sewing patterns, from arms to uniforms. Food sellers hawked sno-cones and drinks to beat the heat and more filling fare (such as hamburgers, hot dogs, and pulled pork) to fill the stomach. At the end of one battle, blue raspberry and cherry sno-cones helped cool us in the 91 degree heat. In the Authors and Artists tent, author Jeff Shaara and others were present for fans who wanted them to sign their copy of one of their works.

The Reenactors Missions for Jesus Christ (RMJC) described the spiritual needs of the soldiers on both sides and the invaluable and selfless efforts of chaplains to meet those needs. They gave free lemonade to any reenactor or veteran who asked. Four chaplains in the Civil War won the Medal of Honor. Other groups highlighted the contributions of nurses, the Christian Commission, the Sanitary Commission, and other civilians during Gettysburg.

The highlights were the battles. Reenactors staged 2-3 battles per day, including cavalry, infantry and artillery. Horsemen circled, thrust and wheeled away while they fired carbines and slashed with sabers. Foot soldiers advanced in line, charged and retreated amidst the din of the fight, the smoke of musket shots, and the falling of injured comrades. Artillery unlimbered, fired with clockwork precision, and limbered for movement again, wreathed in rings and clouds of dense smoke. It was an impressive sight.

We met some terrific people. Dennis and Susie with their three sons and two year old daughter traveled from Ohio. Their children would “rather go to this than to Disneyworld”, and Susie was bedazzled with antebellum fashion.  Lauren was a 21 year old novelist from Minnesota who reenacts in the Union camp with her father and sister. Marcy was visiting with her Army husband and three sons from Fort Bragg. All had no place that they would rather be. Ron, a lifelong friend from California who is a reenactor with the 71st Pennsylvania, wanted to be here as well but couldn’t afford it. I shot over 400 photographs for him.

Reading about Gettysburg in the American Civil War is fascinating, and watching movies provides a glimpse of how the battle may have been, but neither provides the experience of watching a reenactment. On a hot day in July 150 years ago, with the sweat of men and horses, the smell of manure and sulfur, the sounds of rifles and cannon and the sights of blood and steel, two armies fought and many men died at Gettysburg.  150 years later, those untimely born to participate in the battle can come as close as humanly possible to being there. To spectators, living historians, and reenactors, it is well worth doing.

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