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.