I was at the Battle of Gettysburg. Fighting with the 15th Massachusetts, we built bulwarks and held off the Rebels in a wooded skirmish on the first day. We took heavy losses in the Wheatfield on the second day, before getting our revenge during Picket’s Charge. The 15th Mass held the famous angle of the stone wall, where the brave and foolish Rebel charge was strongest. The Rebels actually made it to the fence, hooting and hollering, but they were finally cut down in a blaze of acrid smoke. It was a searing hot day though, and the Rebels who were closest to us asked for some water. We had plenty, so threw them some bottles of Dasani.
It might not’ve been 1863, but grabbing a musket and taking the field to honor those who gave their lives to abolish slavery never gets old. Tens of thousands of "soldiers" turned out earlier this year, to relive the Battle of Gettysburg.
When the scene was over, we all trudged up the steep hill recounting the battle and bragging about our part. Half of the mostly middle-aged, mostly overweight members of the 15th Mass had serious trouble and had to stop to regain their breath. But the excitement couldn’t be contained. You see, the 15th actually was at The Angle in the stone wall on that fateful day in 1863. The men I was with carried a vibrant sense of reverence and awe for those soldiers. Almost all had studied the battle; they had first hand histories of the 15th Mass; they knew who perished there; some of their ancestors were actually wounded at Gettysburg.
I’m just a private. Living in New York, I shouldn’t even be part of the 15th Mass (an "active" unit), but luckily my father-in-law is both the Captain and Quartermaster. I get to show up at big battles in shorts and t-shirt, get dressed up, do a bit of drilling and head to the battles. But that’s not the real essence of re-enacting. What I’ve seen is that it is rooted in a true appreciation for the history of the war and the time period. It’s driven by a sense that by living and re-enacting that way of life, one can get closer to the truth of the history.
Often, re-enactors are thought of with a wry grin. People assume it’s just a bunch of men play-fighting. They’re kind of right. There is play-fighting; you can choose to have a dramatic death if you want, or stay alive in the face of a wall of fire like a stubborn playmate (I had some badass deaths that would give Platoon a run for its money). The real essence of the reenacting comes back at the camp.
The whole camp is an attempt to get as “in period” as possible. Whether it’s the tents, the seats, the camp clothes, the skillets, everything is meant to be to period. You don’t eat hard tack, but do drink your whiskey ginger out of a tin cup (and try your best to keep the Scheweppes out of sight). Of course, its not completely authentic, most soldiers wouldn’t have a tent or cot or wooden seat really, but at least those things are to period.
This reenactment was a special one - the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg. It’s an awesome opportunity for a history buff to show his deference towards those soldiers with around 15,000 like-minded folk. All the major engagements get reenacted as close to perceived history as possible. And of course, it was the turning point in the war; the great defeat and blunder of Lee; the site of the most famous address in American history.
Thankfully, we don’t reenact the horrors of slavery, but we do honor those who gave their lives to abolish it. There are many ways to appreciate an event like this 150 years later. You can read an article or a book, you can see a headline and think “interesting,” but maybe the most powerful is to try to get inside it, to feel the history. That’s what all great historians try to do. They try to get inside the story, weave a narrative around its essence. Well, if you don’t have 5-10 years of your life for research and aren’t a historian or aren’t a right wing talk show host, then you can’t write a history book. You can live it though. Go to a reenactment, put on some wool, fire a black powder Springfield and drink your Folgers from a tin cup, to period of course.