A Soldier's View

Civil War: A first-time re-enactor steps back in time to better understand the Battle of Gettysburg and an ancestor who fought there.

Cover Story

September 23, 2001|By Charles W. Mitchell | By Charles W. Mitchell,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Your move," says the young soldier sitting across from me on an ammo crate. I lean forward, adjusting my artillery cap, and grab a wooden checker from the checkerboard. Ham steaks sizzle on the fire behind us. A cavalry detachment rides slowly along the tree line, eyeing enemy pickets in the distance. My opponent frowns as I jump him.

Behind our white canvas tents, a private caresses the barrel of a 12-pound howitzer, assessing its readiness for the Union army just over the ridge. We're encamped on a Pennsylvania farm with 4,000 men and women for the annual restaging of the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg.

I am a private in the 1st North Carolina Artillery, named for a real unit that fought throughout the Civil War. These North Carolinians -- who actually hail from mid- Atlantic states -- have allowed me and my wife and son to join them so that I might have a taste of battle as a soldier might have tasted it.

Many Civil War re-enactments occur in this region, and the popular ones draw thousands of participants, both men and women. I've admired the cavalry re-enactors, swinging swords as they maneuvered horses, and the infantrymen reloading their muskets on the run. I've strolled through camps at sunset, watching soldiers clean muskets, whittle, peel potatoes and cook over open fires. But until now, I've only been a spectator.

Ready for battle

The jangle of spurs awakens me at dawn on Saturday. I pull on my shirt and baggy wool trousers -- thanking heaven for suspenders -- and emerge from my tent to the smell of bacon and the clank of metal coffeepot against tin cup. Eggs frying on the fire suggest we won't be eating the gritty cornmeal cakes and moldy hardtack that made many a soldier's meal.

After breakfast, we fall in for gun drill. I'm the No. 4 man, which means I insert a two-inch primer wire into the powder charge that's been rammed down the barrel. I then pull the lanyard attached to the wire, which fires the howitzer. The three other men clear the barrel and reload.

The men and women of the 1st North Carolina have their reasons for re-enacting. They enjoy bringing the Civil War era to life, in part by giving school programs and living histories at parks and battlefields. Some are descended from those who fought, and a few have ancestors on both sides. Pvt. Mike Williams, my tentmate, has six ancestors who fought here, five Confederate and one Union.

Gettysburg Battlefield, now a national military park, appears much as it did in July 1863. Little effort is required to imagine soldiers manning cannons that stand where they stood in the summer of 1863, during the bloodiest clash ever on American soil. The battlefield's hills, rocks, ridges, fences, houses and barns belong to that era as much as our own.

In late June 1863, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac and marched through Maryland to strike at the enemy on Union soil. The victory the South might have won likely would have changed the course of the Civil War and possibly made us two nations.

The clash began west of Gettysburg on July 1, when Union troops dug in along McPherson Ridge to delay a Confederate advance. The next day, the Union forces deployed in a fishhook formation along Cemetery Ridge. Culp's Hill, at the north end of the 4-mile Union line, was the barb of the hook. Little Round Top, a boulder-studded hill at the south end, became its eye.

Lay of the land

My wife, Betsy, an artist by profession, is playing the part of a battlefield sketch artist. With photography in its infancy in 1863, battlefield art was the only source of visual information for readers eager for news of the war.

Betsy is dressed as a man -- there being no women sketch artists during the war -- and plans to illustrate today's attack on Little Round Top. Our son Alec, 9, is clad as a 19th-century boy, complete with a found hawk feather tucked into his hat.

Little Round Top's rocky summit offers a panoramic sweep of much of the battlefield, especially from the castle-like monument to the New Yorkers who fought there.

Devil's Den, the large rock formation from which rebel sharpshooters took deadly aim, is below on the left. Between them lies the "Valley of Death."

Opposite Little Round Top are Warfield Ridge, from which rebels attacked the Union's left flank, and Seminary Ridge, the heart of the Confederate position during most of the battle. To the right you can see much of the Union position along Cemetery Ridge. Looming in the middle is the huge Pennsylvania Memorial honoring the state's Gettysburg veterans who fought there, including three of Betsy's ancestors.

Little Round Top

As our infantry assembles for the assault on Little Round Top, I watch spectators stream into the grandstands. Worry tempers my enthusiasm at being on the field.

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