Fierce Rebels fight as if to defy history Battle: Despite, or perhaps because they know, today's inviolable outcome, Southern troops determinedly pushed forward valiantly in yesterday's re-enactment against stalwart Union forces.

Revisiting Gettysburg

July 05, 1998|By Alec Klein | Alec Klein,SUN STAFF

DISPATCH FROM THE BATTLEFIELD NEAR GETTYSBURG -- Gunfire ripped through the still air, cannon blasts shook the ground, and all across the gentle hills of this small farming town emerged the marks of war: the noise of shell and shot, the visceral cries of charging men and a battlefield wreathed in gunpowder.

Within the span of two hours in the afternoon, the skirmishing intensified into a desperate struggle enveloping Little Round Top, a strategic height held by the Federals and sought vehemently by the Confederates.

By day's end, the enemy retired, foiled. An exhausted silence once more fell over the embattled hills and fields. It was a splendid fight. In the excitement and commotion incident to the clash between the rival forces, it was almost forgotten that no blood was shed.

After all, it was merely a war game.

"There are times when the only way you know it's not real is when the guys who are falling are not really bleeding," said Union infantryman Zane Smith, a 43-year-old re-enactor from California who did have real blood trickling down his right cheek, a casualty from a fall on the battlefield.

On a gray, hazy, hot day, the second day of what is believed to be the largest gathering of re-enactors ever, about 15,000 play soldiers, 600 mounted cavalry troopers and 135 full-size artillery pieces met on a battlefield two miles southwest of the real Gettysburg site and relived those three bloody days of July 1863 -- 135 years ago -- that defined a nation.

On the wide expanse of the Bushey Farm, stretching for more than 1,000 acres, about 35,000 spectators watched men (and some women) in blue and in gray rage against each other, armed with artillery, muskets and bitterness all too real, to decide the fate of the Civil War. Again.

"I hate the Yankees; they invaded our country," said Confederate artilleryman Joell Kress, a 27-year-old fresh recruit from Ellicott City.

"Ain't gonna be no Union left. We'll destroy it while we're closing in," said Confederate artilleryman Tom Myers, 41, of Lexington, Va.

But the outcome will be the same.

Tomorrow, the re-enactment's last day, the North will once more win the greatest military confrontation in the Western Hemisphere, a conflict in which there were more than 51,000 casualties.

After Gettysburg, the South could not win, and President Lincoln would make a brief address that would endure as a touchstone of democracy and of equality -- "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

The force of history, however, was not yet upon the men of the battle yesterday.

Indeed, the only enduring voice was that of the shrill Rebel yell, a chilling cry that rang out across this dusty farm.

"We're going to whip the Yankees up here," said Gary C. Walker, a 52-year-old sutler from Roanoke, Va.

This weekend's invasion of Pennsylvania brings tumult to the gentle folk of these parts. Business is suspended, except for the merchants selling T-shirts, posters, Civil War baseball caps, funnel cakes, pizza and pit beef. Women and children are sheltered in safety, sitting in bleachers and lawn chairs and camper trailers behind the cordoned field.

When the hostilities commenced yesterday, the Rebels reckoned to turn the Union's flanks on Little Round Top.

Waves of Confederates rushed up the hill, the Rebel flag fluttering at the point of attack. But the Union line, badly outnumbered, held its ground. Blasts of gunfire rang through the dense woods leading to the hill's ridge. The Rebels kept coming, reforming, charging. But the Union soldiers kept filling breaks in the line, extending it across the ridge.

And in the end, the Rebels' thunderous assault failed to bring down the Union flag, perched atop the ridge. Col. Joshua Chamberlain and the valiant 20th Maine held the strategic hill and helped save the Union day.

"I think [the Confederates] are a little misguided, but they fight like the devil," said Union artilleryman Dan Cavuoto, 24, of Rochester, N.Y.

Heretofore, the Confederate Army had seemed invincible, and, in fact, in the first day of the battle, the Army of Northern Virginia routed the Army of the Potomac.

Brig. Gen. John Buford's Union 1st Cavalry Division had arrived in Gettysburg on June 30 to hold the town until the infantry arrived.

Meanwhile, the Confederates had ventured into town in search of shoes and supplies, little knowing that there was more than Pennsylvania militia to greet them.

By 8 a.m. on that first day, the adversaries were trading volleys.

The Union toll: Two corps were driven off the battlefield, and more than 10,000 men were killed, wounded or captured. Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds, moments after arriving to lead his Union troops, was struck down by a sniper.

And it was all an accident.

As the two armies crashed into each other, Gettysburg, a small town where all the major roads converged, became the flash point for a nation divided.

The Confederates had never ventured farther north than Pennsylvania. It was Gen. Robert E. Lee's wish that a victory here would end the war.

Pub Date: 7/05/98

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