And the battle rages on; the battle of Gettysburg, that is, now in the guise of a reenactment. This year is the 150th anniversary of that crucial Civil War slug fest, and since people are inclined to commemorate dates in 10’s and 5’s, this year is The Big One. It’s so big, in fact, there are two reenactments of the battle being held near the town of Gettysburg, PA. One was presented last weekend by the Blue Gray Alliance, a name which during the war would surely have described a political organization dedicated to ending the conflict, but which now referees present-day Johnny Rebs and Billy Yanks into a less deadly, though still somewhat uneasy, gathering.
Next weekend’s much larger event, associated with the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee, will take place from July 4-7. If you’re unable to attend with 60,000 or so other spectators, don’t despair! For $12.99, you can purchase a 4-month subscription to an exclusive web channel to watch Pickett’s Division march to its slaughter, first live on Sunday, July 7 at 2:30pm EDT, and then over and over and over to your heart’s delight. Wouldn’t those 19th century men and boys who left their families for years of mud, heat, dysentery, amputation, lifelong debilitating disabilities, and “the good death” be proud that their struggles allow us to view them on our tablets and smartphones from a comfortable venue, perhaps a cold one in our hands?
Let me get the bit out of its teeth before that war horse runs away with the ammunition wagon of sarcasm. I have definite opinions about the Civil War, but there are 50 x 50 shades of Gray and Blue viewpoints from everyone with the least involvement or interest in it. After 150 years, this war is still being studied and debated; everyone will always be absolutely positive they are 100% correct about its causes, its course, why it ended as it did, and how it should be studied and commemorated. Contemporary students of the War are also divided over the merits and legitimacy of reenacting. I went from being exclusively in the serious study camp to having one foot there and the other in the occasional reenactor camp, and my experience confirms the worth of reenacting. Gettysburg College history professor Peter Carmichael has not yet achieved the understanding that students do not all learn in the same manner when he calls reenactments an “unfortunate distraction.” Reenactors filing by while proudly calling out their home states of “Tennessee!” or ” North Carolina!”, then to stand by the silent thousands, awaiting battle on the field; 21st century African-Americans taking on the personas of quiet slaves and camp followers; jingling harness bells above a team of placid wagon mules; a small, solemn boy in oversize clothes beating a tattoo on a drum half as big as he is as he marches beside his father in Company A — these sights and sounds will make invisible fingers tighten around your heart, strangling your breath, and swim your eyes at the terrible hopelessness of the scenes before you in a way simply holding a musket or listening to a historian relay a battle scenario never can. Seeing a reenactment doesn’t mean you have to take a side or decide a moral issue, but it may indeed help you understand the sides and the issues better, or why Pickett’s men walked obediently, foolishly, bravely, stupidly into those guns on that hot July afternoon as a breeze blew the artillery smoke aside, gently.
As with many of the reenactment’s participants who can trace their family lines back to soldiers or slaves of the Civil War era, for me this reenactment was also about personal history. When I moved to Virginia, I naively gave up my own personal history to immerse myself in the nation’s history. The short, painful synopsis of that experience: personal history matters in life on a daily basis, national history does not. But we attended this reenactment with friends from Texas with whom we have personal history, and that made this event a joy. We laced and buttoned and snugged ourselves into our wool and cotton period-correct clothing and tramped energetically beneath high blue skies across grassy fields and ditches and muck, along sutler’s row, into the Federal and Confederate camps, to the Emerald Peacock Saloon for a rest and into little Gettysburg to meet the embalmer, the British observer, the drunk, the apothecary and the civilian contingent that had come all the way from France. We drew a clear-eyed, yellow-skirted Tennessee miss into our wake as we strode off to see a battle. The men of our little party swung pint-sized velvet-clad girl children through a waltz before we all whirled into the familiar and raucous Virginia Reel. We dodged contemporary and historical security and sat ourselves together, companionably, on logs in the woods near the Federal camps to feel the concussion of nearby cannon fire, laugh at the insults traded between Johnny and Billy, pluck ticks from our ankles, and chat amiably with fellow dodgers from all corners of this now, arguably, United States. Halcyon moments, all.
So, I know you are waiting for the inevitable photographs, but I want to leave you with a poem Mike wrote after the event, which establishes the new field of entopoetology.
“There once was a tick that liked re-enactors;
Northern or Southern blood was no factor.
During Pickett’s charge, it fed itself large
Until a slap of Johnny Reb’s hand sent it to Hereafter.”
I’m just so darn proud of him! Now for those photos — get comfortable with a cold one, and watch them scroll by. You can speed up the photos by mousing over to activate the control arrows.
And think about seeing a reenactment sometime.