Battle of Gettysburg reprised

Gettysburg : A Remembrance

July 04, 1999|By Jennifer Sullivan | Jennifer Sullivan,Sun Staff

GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- A line of Union soldiers crawled on their bellies in the 90-degree heat yesterday, their eyes scanning the horizon for the perfect shot. They squeezed their triggers in unison, and a handful of Confederates tumbled backward.

The Yankees continued their forward push for about a half-hour, but in the end they were driven back, the Southern artillery too much for them to handle. With every bugle shrill and thundering round of cannon fire, the Northern soldiers ran in retreat. As the skirmish drew to a close, the battlefield was enveloped in a cloud of gunsmoke.

But the thunder of artillery was quickly replaced by the roar of applause as spectators showed their appreciation for the re-enactment of the fight for McPherson Ridge, part of this weekend's celebration commemorating the Battle of Gettysburg 136 years ago.

About 50,000 spectators are expected to spend the Fourth of July weekend watching 3,500 re-enactors playing soldiers, mounted cavalrymen, surgeons, musicians and others at the annual event.

"For the spectators it's a show, but for us it's an opportunity to take Civil War tactics to life," said David Valuska, who portrays a federal command major general, a rank that entitles him to control of the Northern army, about 2,000 re-enactors.

During the three-day event, re-enactors dressed in winter-weight wool uniforms will fire blanks from their cannons, rifles and muskets and douse themselves in fake blood. The re-enactment is being held at The Bushey Farm on Pumping Station Road, two miles southwest of the original battle site. (The National Park Service does not allow re-enactments to take place on the battlefield.)

Valuska, a professor of American Military History at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, led more than 500 troops into battle yesterday morning. The McPherson Ridge fight was one of the few skirmishes lost by Northern forces at Gettysburg.

The Battle of Gettysburg, one of the most studied conflicts in global history, is generally regarded as the turning point of the Civil War. After the battle -- which took place over three days in July 1863 and cost 43,000 lives -- the bloodied and bruised Rebels retreated to Virginia and the Union forces began their climb to victory.

Yesterday, the battle for McPherson Ridge was re-enacted in an hour.

Dehydrated, sweaty and exhausted after the intense mock drama, the re-enactors headed back to their campsites for a nap on the ground or a Civil War lunch of hardtack and cigarettes. The heat and humidity drove some spectators back to air-conditioned motor homes, while many snacked on pit beef and funnel cake or slurped snow cones.

In addition to the battle re-enactments, the $14 admission fee allows spectators access to vendors selling everything from petticoats and fake muskets to books and replica soldiers' caps. Living history lectures occur every hour and experts in Civil War history are stationed around the battlefield.

Among the most heavily toured areas are the 12 hospital tents filled with experts on Civil War surgery.

"What you'll see is a lot of people who don't know much about medical stuff," said Jim Voss, who portrays an ambulance driver with the 32nd Massachusetts Regimental Field Hospital. "They think of riflery, hardtack and cannons with the Civil War, but not people getting shot."

Re-enactors Matt Ebersole of Hagerstown and Roy Lehto from southwestern Massachusetts bring their workplace expertise into teaching about the war.

Ebersole, an emergency medical technician, and Lehto, an emergency room nurse supervisor, use their background to explain tuberculosis and smallpox. They each have a table of props -- saws, scalpels, dirty knives and fake body parts -- to aid in describing amputations.

Portraying a surgeon with the 32nd Massachusetts Regimental Field Hospital, Lehto dresses in a butcher's apron drenched in fake blood, priding himself on giving the paying crowd a "top-notch show."

"We stage the yelling and screaming," he said. After each surgery he throws fake hands and feet into a bucket for added gore. He said it can be difficult to find Northern soldiers willing to get the gooey mixture of red food coloring and baby shampoo on their navy wool uniforms.

The Gettysburg Anniversary celebration will continue through today. Admission is $14. Gates will open at 8:30 a.m. and the Pickett's Charge battle will be re-enacted at 2 p.m. For further information: 717-338-1525.

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