Play-acting a bloody battle
The Gettysburg experience seems to attract all kinds: Gone With the Wind fans, historians, the mildly curious, and re-enactors playing out every step of the battle
Participants play the role of Union troops during a battle of the wheat field re-enactment for the Battle of Gettysburg’s 150th anniversary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on July 5th. Photograph: Mark Makela/The New York Times
Children from the Jones family, from Donnelsville, Ohio, observe participants play the role of Confederate soldiers during a re-enactment for the Battle of Gettysburg’s 150th anniversary in Gettysburg. Photograph: Mark Makela/The New York Times
Union troops make an example of one of their own who was caught stealing at the 150th Gettysburg celebration and re-enactments. Photograph: Karen Bleier
A Civil War reenactor in an officer’s uniform chats on his cell phone in the Union camp during the Battle of Gettysburg reenactment . Photograph: Melanie Stetson Freeman
“Southerners are very strange about that war.”
– Shelby Foote, historian.
‘Ithink this was the last time that truth and honour ever mattered in war,” says Niles Clarke, standing in the shade of his tent in “Confederacy headquarters”, his long hair oiled and falling into ringlets while his groomed beard and pale blue eyes render him an eerie incarnation of the man he is playing for the weekend: Gen George E Pickett.
It is a sunny Saturday afternoon and a stultifying 30 degrees on rolling farmland near Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. Clarke is one of an estimated 12,000 re-enactors staging the legendary three-day battle of 1863. It left more than 11,000 dead and effectively decided the outcome of the American Civil War.
On the 150th anniversary, it is plain that many participants and visitors are reluctant to let go of the war – of its gaunt, bedraggled participants, its music, its treasure trove of letters and its terrible valour.
Over 200,000 people visited Gettysburg for last week’s commemorations. Last Saturday morning, before eight o’clock, hundreds of cars were chaperoned into improvised parking spots in the fields from where spectators could wander through the Confederate and Union camps.
The battles are faithfully replayed, with sound effects, canon fire and smoke but without the bloodiness which culminated in the key event: Pickett’s charge, the doomed slow walk across a broad sloping field by Confederate troops after which 6,000 men lay in pieces.
Clarke has been re-enacting Civil War battles since 1975, when as a 16-year-old in Indiana he became fascinated by Pickett’s ill-fated role at Gettysburg. As he matured, his wistful expression and courtly manner made him perfect to play Pickett. Across the way, other re-enactors are playing their parts: “AP Hill” is regaling a group of students about his youth; “Jeb Stuart” is holding a pipe, and “Gen Robert E Lee”, re-imagined with unnerving gravitas and physical likeness by historian Al Stone, is posing for photographs and shaking hands. The perspiring 21st-century folks, holding camera phones and iced coffees, are behaving as if granted an audience with a ghost.
“I do know what this is,” Clarke says in an easy drawl. “This is a make-believe war and we are make-believe generals and this is not the Civil War because I get to go home in my car to the air-conditioning. I do this because I want Pickett to be portrayed as his family would want him to be portrayed. I also do this so that people can get the Southern view of the war. The winners write the books. I have 49 ancestors who fought for the Confederacy on my father’s side. I have three who fought for the Union at Vicksburg. I want people to know why the South was fighting the war. If you ask what the war was about, they will say slavery. Now that is one part. What started it was economics, though. It was all about state rights.”
The same sentiment is echoed all weekend. Some way from Pickett’s tent, Lloyd Smith, a Virginian, is shaping bullets with a mould over a wood fire. Smith comes from a long military tradition: direct ancestors at the Alamo; great-grandfathers in the Civil War and Smith himself in several tours, including Desert Storm during his 22 years as a marine. He is soft-spoken and tremendously friendly and unwavering in his recreation of the Civil War experience of ordinate sergeant William David Chambers. He sleeps in his tent, eats soldier’s rations and drinks black coffee ( “a luxury”). He wears a turkey feather in his cap and, despite the heat, a scratchy woollen waistcoat. All of his artefacts, including glasses, snuff box and a razor blade, are period pieces. He lives as Chambers did on this weekend.
Hundreds of other re-enactors are equally severe. Several march the 30 miles which Pickett’s troops covered on route from Chambersburg to experience the fatigue.
Tents are pitched across fields and in a long line of trees and spectators wander through. Centuries mingle. A young boy in Confederate grey plays the Ashokan Farewell on a fiddle while people record it on smartphones. Not far away, at the Federal camp, a solder talks about Saturday’s recreation of the battle at Little Round Top: “I got shot in the ass and got bayoneted, just about everything happened,” he jokes while people wander by holding slushy drinks and fanning themselves. There are food stands and stalls selling memorabilia, period costumes, antiques and Civil War rifles and guns.
The re-enactors rest by their tents and cook on open fires using blackened pans. It is all an approximation, a wilful fantasy. The re-enactors are not permitted to use the actual battlefield, because says Smith, “it is hallowed ground”. The closest they came was on July 3rd, the 150th anniversary, when people were permitted to walk out of the woods towards cemetery ridge.
“I got the shivers,” Smith says, rubbing his forearm. “I am getting ’em right now, thinking about it. To walk as they did into a hail of gunfire. They knew for sure it meant certain death. But you were marching alongside men from your home, alongside men who knew your family. You couldn’t run from that even if you wanted to because it would bring disgrace on your family. So it was uncommonly courageous. And to walk there, exactly 150 years after they did was a special thing. Yes, I felt very close to them.”
New York Irish brigade
The Gettysburg experience seems to attract all kinds: weaponry enthusiasts, Gone With the Wind fans, historians, battle-tactic fetishists and the mildly curious. But more than anything, it seems to draw people seeking that very closeness to ancestors caught up in what was an epic and complex cause.
The idea of reliving these ancient battles is easily and frequently mocked and the re-enactors, who wear their admiration and escapism openly, know they can easily be dismissed as odd-balls.
What, for instance, would the actual men of Gettysburg, the soldiers left limbless and half-starved, the corpses bloated in the dead heat, the women tending to the maimed, make of the scene if they could be granted a glimpse of a century and a half later?
“They’d say we are nuts, I reckon,” says Jason Williams, a member of the New York Irish Brigade.
“They’d say: look at what we went through, why would you do this again? Coming out in this heat, in these coats. But I also think they would be humbled that their memory has lived on too. These people, the men and women, are a heck of a lot more man than I will ever be. A huge portion knew they would never make it home. I have some personal ties. I have an ancestor who was shot at Burnside’s bridge in Antietam against the Georgian sharpshooters.
He survived. He was Edward Confrey, a hatter from Co Cork and signed up as soon as he arrived. I have his enlistment papers and discharge papers and his pension papers and everything. And you know, the Civil War is very fresh still. The issues still resonate. In some parts of the South, they are still fighting that war. There is still a feeling of Bill Yank and Johnny Reb in this country.”
At lunchtime on Sunday, it was still sweltering and the communal tent was crowded for “General Lee’s” talk on why he elected to take the Southern side in the war.
As Lee, Stone speaks as convincingly as he looks and held the crowd spellbound. He spoke for half an hour in a cool lucid oration which went through the various states which threatened secession throughout the 1800s, beginning with Massachusetts in 1803, and how their right to secede was recognised.
He talked about the right to bear arms to sustained applause. He asked a 12-year-old boy in the audience to explain the word “promise”. “To keep your word,” the boy said. The applause was hotter now. “He’s 12 and he knows what a promise means. The government didn’t,” Lee said to more applause.
He laid out the Southern dilemma which included the proposal for a 48 per cent tax on metal imports, a hefty imposition on an agrarian society. “And how much money was coming in to federal coffers on December 31st, 1860? Of every dollar coming in, 80 cents came from the southern states, $800,000 out of every $1 million.”
Again, applause thundered through the tent. This was supposed to be Lee in July of 1861 but his ruminations electrified an audience a century and a half later. The core issue, the abomination of slavery, was only touched upon: that no black troops had fought at Gettysburg made it easier to avoid. And 150 years on, the place remained overwhelmingly white in profile. “It is an issue, of course,” says Clarke.
“The way we explain it is that cotton gin was already being developed and mechanical changes were occurring. If the war hadn’t happened, slavery would have ended but naturally, as it did in England. That might have been better than forcing the issue and leaving all those reminders.”
Slavery, a core issue
Slavery was at the heart of the causes for which Lee sent Pickett’s division into the blizzard of flying metal.
On Sunday afternoon, the grandstand is crowded and sweltering for the modern recreation of that doomed charge. The announcer misquotes William Faulkner’s famous line from Intruder in The Dust: “For every Southern boy 14 years-old, not once, but whenever he wants it, there is that instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863.”
The re-enactors look solemn as they march down, singing, pipers playing.
“Sometimes you forget you are playing. In the wheat field, I did not hear anything that was non-period,” Jason Williams admits. “My body and mind just got transported to that time. We call it ‘seeing the elephant’. The smoke and the noise, the flags, people screaming and hollering for mama. It takes you back.”
It is all artifice and ghost-chasing, of course. You only have to visit the actual battle site and stand at cemetery ridge looking down at the serene fields to imagine what it must have been like. Like all battlefields, there is a throbbing peacefulness about Gettysburg. But this strange and sincere need to make the battle and its cries come alive again will continue for many years. The re-enactments are more popular than ever and will continue all summer and into autumn. The Civil War is not about to disappear.
As they gathered, the 2013 Confederate troops were so far away that it was impossible to know if Miles Clarke invoked Pickett’s famous order “Up men, and to your posts. Don’t forget that today you are from old Virginia”. It didn’t matter: everyone knew what was to come.
And so they march forward in perpetual pursuit of their elusive forefathers and the terrible heat of that afternoon.
TURNING POINT A BATTLE REMEMBERED
The battle of Gettysburg is considered to be the turning point of the four-year American Civil War. What began as an opportunistic search for shoes – Confederate troops had heard there was a supply in the modest southern Pennsylvanian town – led to a head-on collision of North and South. The three-day pitched battle took place in a backdrop of pastoral idyll: the wheatfield, the peach orchard, Little Round Top and cemetery ridge. By the end of July 3rd, 11,000 people were dead and almost 50,000 wounded.
A marker at Gettysburg National Park notes the point at which the Confederate march was repelled: it was the most northerly point Lee’s army reached.
The first reunion took place as early as 1878. By 1913, some 21,000 Civil War veterans showed up for a large- scale 50th anniversary remembrance, attended by president Woodrow Wilson.
By 1938, only 2,000 were present for the seventh anniversary and it was thought only 70 of those had been involved in the original battle. Albert Woolson, the last Civil War veteran, died in 1959 aged 109.
Re-enactments began in the lifetime of Civil War veterans but underwent a surge in popularity in the 1980s.
Events are taking place throughout the year for the 150th anniversary, including , on November 19th, activities to commemorate Abraham Lincoln’s address at the consecration of the cemetery.