A pageant full of meaning for men in blue and gray Civil War: On a July day 135 years after, 15,000 men and 30,000 witnesses share the epic sights and sounds of Pickett's Charge.

Revisiting Gettysburg

July 06, 1998|By Alec Klein and Jamie Stiehm | Alec Klein and Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

FREEDOM TOWNSHIP, Pa. -- It was 1:29 on a July afternoon awash in sunlight, and all things still seemed possible.

There was still time for the Union troops to take their final positions on the high ground. A country mile across the field, there was still time for Pickett's Charge not to begin, as the Southern writer William Faulkner once wistfully observed in the novel "Intruder in the Dust."

Yesterday, as 15,000 Civil War re-enactors played out the final scene of the Battle of Gettysburg, the man who portrayed Gen. Robert E. Lee gazed at the reckless Confederate rush whose outcome could not be changed - even 135 years later.

"A country was lost here, a way of life was lost here," said the courtly general - actually E. J. Johnson, a 43-year-old computer technician from Wilmington, N.C. "It was a tragic day for the South."

Yet, the third day of this epic re-enactment on a private farm near Gettysburg replayed a vindication for the North, a spectacle witnessed yesterday by more than 30,000 gathered from all parts of the nation.

Snapshots captured the meaning of the moment for those clad in the blue and the gray.

For 13-year-old Tommy Dull of Baltimore, it was a time to honor the last day of the life of his great-great-great-grandfather, William H. Daw, a Union soldier shot in the back after Pickett's Charge.

"I'm not allowed on the battlefield," said the boy, fatigued after living a soldier's life for five days in the Federal camp on the re-enactment site. "I wish I could fight."

***

Moments before the grand engagement, James Permane, a 37-year-old Florida restaurant manager playing the part of a Confederate lieutenant colonel, rested on a knoll under the shade of trees, thinking of his youth.

"When I was a child, I would read these books and picture I was there" on the battlefield, he said. "Now, I'm living it, and I know what the men felt, the sights and the sounds, all the sensations."

***

Hurrying across the field to join his Union unit an hour before the battle, Garrett Hart traveled back to another time - for him a romantic time far removed from his "more mundane life" as a program director for a Pittsburgh rock radio station.

"This is a break from late-20th century hassles, like e-mail and phone calls," said the 40-something Glenshaw, Pa., resident, who was playing the part of an officer. "I find it refreshing."

***

Astride a bay quarter horse, Glenn Mon held the reins with white gauntlets and surveyed his Confederate troops. A 46-year-old senior vice president of a sports-entertainment management firm West Chester, Pa., Mon proudly wore the stripes of a colonel in remembrance of his grandfather who served the Confederacy.

"We all have our reasons for being here," he said. "We all have a sense of what our ancestors went through 135 years ago. It's a very emotional moment."

Then he barked a command - "Fall in" - and his troops marched into the field.

***

On the edge of the battlefield, 37-year-old Bill Shannon, a Union cavalry re-enactor, peered across the military pageantry, waiting for the Confederates to make the first move.

"Do you want to hear from one of the only blacks?" he asked.

In 1863, he said, "society was not set up for me to succeed and have a vote."

But the Civil War's end signified the beginning of freedom for African-Americans, said the Illinois state police officer.

***

Master Gunnery Sgt. Larry Ward, a retired Marine, stood sentinel near the entrance to the Confederate camp, holding the staff of the Rebel flag as the troops filed by, pride showing on his weathered face.

"It's probably one of the greatest experiences of my life," said the 63-year-old Alexandria, Va., resident. "The mood is upbeat. Let's make it right. Let's do it proper."

***

In his final address to his Union troops, the man who portrayed Maj. Gen. George G. Meade stood atop the hill across from the Rebels. The victorious general has been lost in the shadow of history, but military historians agree he outsmarted the famed Lee on that bloody day.

"Now, it's in God's hands," said the Union commander, 50-year-old Anthony Waskie, a Philadelphia history teacher. "I wish you a safe trip home and salute you all."

***

It was 1:32 in the afternoon, and suddenly the air echoed with the thunder of cannon fire. Through a rising pall of smoke, the battle had begun. Troops massed in stillness, anticipating the great fight.

By 2:16, the Confederates began to move forward slowly, at first with a thin line of skirmishers, halting, pushing on, firing. Men began to fall. Then the main Confederate body stepped forward, introduced by their high-pitched Rebel yell.

The soldiers moved across the field deliberately, into the Union fire, waves of men banging drums, pointing swords, gripping muskets, moving closer and closer to the entrenched Federal forces.

"Creeks ran red with blood," said David Fairbanks, a 38-year-old doctor from Warrenton, Va., who re-enacted the role of a Union surgeon. "There were piles of arms and legs outside the surgeons' shacks."

The battle raged on, but as the Rebels reached the Union line, they turned back in retreat. Pickett's Charge was over.

And so were hopes for the rebellion.

Pub Date: 7/06/98

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