Mixing drama, history, passion Re-enactment: A time for remembering the common soldiers whose blood hallows Gettysburg

Revisiting Gettysburg

June 28, 1998|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Gettysburg, the high noon of the Civil War, still mesmerizes the minds of Americans -- and not only because of Abraham Lincoln's stirring speech for the fallen.

Witness next weekend's parade of late 20th-century people, 135 Julys later, seeking a sense of what happened there on those three days in 1863. What is leading that parade? Is it nostalgia, patriotism, adult play-acting or a more complex mix?

Thousands will take part in the most ambitious re-enactment of a Civil War battle yet staged, at the Bushey Farm, 1,200 acres two miles southwest of the site where blue and gray came face to face. "The whole thing's going to roll," said Dana Heim, an 51-year-old Marine veteran assuming the role of the federal commander, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade.

Others will turn out to observe the spectacle; the prices for one-day tickets are $14 for adults and $10 for children ages 6 to 12. No pets or video cameras are allowed, and cotton for children's ears is recommended.

Most of the 15,000 military re-enactors are registered as members of certain units and are organized by the two commanders -- Heim and his Confederate counterpart, Chuck Hillsman -- into divisions and battalions.

Away from the military theater, civilian re-enactors will get into the spirit of the 1860s by portraying various roles in re-created tent camps (where tents must be suitably "authentic," says Heim). Men step outside the late-1990s to become embalmers, surgeons, preachers and sutlers, a term for merchants who followed armies to sell simple supplies such as pencils to write home.

Women, some clad in widow's black, often present themselves as laundresses or nurses. In fact, the American nursing profession arose as a result of the Civil War and Clara Barton, who tended thousands of wounded Union soldiers.

To top things off, 135 Civil War cannons -- mostly reproductions -- will lend realism to the artillery sound effects. Legend has it, according to Fort McHenry ranger and historian Scott Shead, that the guns of Gettysburg could be heard over land as far as Baltimore.

The scene will combine almost all the elements of war: the noise and smoke, confusion and chaos, muskets and bayonets, drummers and marchers. Everything except the blood.

One novel aspect of this event, according to Heim, the federal commander, will be the "real time" unfolding of the clashes from the Round Tops down to the wheat field, following the original sequences as closely as possible.

Pickett's Charge, the tragic final act, will be staged Sunday, July 5, at about the same time of day (early afternoon) that it happened, with about the same number of soldiers. The last time the charge was re-enacted, five years ago at the 130th anniversary, it did not work out well because of poor field conditions.

Some participants say their first memories of re-enacting go back to the days of the Civil War centennial. One Marylander, 56-year-old Robert E. Lyons, captain of the 1st Virginia Volunteers, Company D, said that was when he first became caught up in the drama, partly because of a Confederate ancestor. But for younger men, those in their 30s and early 40s, re-enacting is a recent discovery. The heart of this obsession -- one of the fastest-growing pastimes in America, according to author and journalist Tony Horwitz -- bears inspection for what it reveals about the country.

The point of the exercise, one explanation goes, is to remember and honor the experience of common soldiers, North and South. "First person" impressions involve adopting the names and researching the paths of real people to bring history closer to home.

Then there are those rebels on the Southern side who have never completely surrendered the lost cause. But, said one "hard-core" re-enactor, Robert Lee Hodge: "You can love the Confederate side and love the American story." The 31-year-old plans to gather a group at Cashtown, about 12 miles from Gettysburg, where Lee was when he was told the fight was on. Hodge, scowling in full uniform, is on the cover of Horwitz's new book, "Confederates in the Attic" (Pantheon; $27.50), a personal journey exploring memories of the Civil War.

"It's as complex as all get-out," said Hodge about the current fascination with the Civil War.

Horwitz wondered whether there is a certain comfort in retreating to traditional male (and female) roles in re-enacting a simpler era of clear-cut right and wrong: "Are we nostalgic for lost American skills and virtues like self-reliance?"

Also, he added, his generation of thirtysomething men never had the rite of passage of being drafted in wartime, so marching in the woods in wool uniforms carries a vicarious thrill: a lot of the fun, with none of the danger.

"It's a lot easier to romanticize the military," Horwitz said. "There's also a little guilt mixed in."

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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