GETTYSBURG, Pa. - The sharp crack of cannon fire silenced the onlookers yesterday morning, the puffs of smoke drifting dirty gray against a sky already overcast.
Horses twitched nervously as down the hill muskets puffed noisily. The men in Union blue and Confederate gray lined up against each other on the damp fields, fired and reloaded and strained to hear their commanders' orders above the popping din of the guns.
Yet jarring as the thundering cannon were, the blasts were carefully planned and coordinated. Some of the soldiers wore earplugs. And the few men who fell, clutching their chests or heads, often opened their eyes to keep watch on their friends around them.
This was not a battle, but only its long shadow: the re-enactment of the Battle of Gettysburg.
This year marked the 140th anniversary of the battle, and thousands of people from across the country are taking part in this weekend's re-enactment on land a few miles from where the actual fight took place. The event concludes today.
"How can you come here and not feel it in your gut, in your heart?" asked Vickie Banks, the assistant Cubmaster for Cub Scout Pack 85 from Cape May, N.J.
"This is our heritage," added Cubmaster Dan Rutherford. "If this war had gone another way, we might have been someone else."
The boys, all in the Webelos tier of Cub Scouting, are slated to learn about the Civil War in the fifth grade this year, and Banks and Rutherford wanted to bring those school lessons to life.
Yet the pack's appearance at the re-enactment was as much due to serendipity as to the troop leaders' desires. Rutherford and Banks couldn't get reservations for the July 4 weekend, the re-enactment's original dates. They settled on the second weekend in August as a compromise, a chance to see the location (now a national military park) of the battle that took place from July 1 to July 3, 1863. Many historians consider it a turning point in the Civil War.
The Cub Scouts got lucky: Heavy spring rains forced the organizers to postpone the re-enactment events - to the second weekend in August.
"Lo and behold, everything just fell into place," Rutherford said with a grin.
Nor did the rescheduling deter Susan Wheless and her daughter Katie, 14, both of Louisburg, N.C. The women made the six-hour drive to participate and show off their period dresses, which Katie designs and her mother sews.
"It's just like you step back in time," Susan Wheless said. "People's manners change, gentlemen tip their hats."
Susan and Katie Wheless made their first visit to the Gettysburg re-enactment because of the event's anticipated size: up to 15,000 re-enactors and tens of thousands of spectators.
Although the organizers hadn't tallied the numbers of visitors on hand yesterday, the grandstands, which can hold 10,000, were packed, and lawn chairs carpeted the battlefield viewing area.
Other visitors milled along Sutlers' Row, where merchants operating concessions like Dirty Billy's Hats and Doctor G's Miracle Cure sold period clothing, refreshments and even custom-made furniture.
Full schedules of talks and demonstrations in the tents continued through the day.
Some of the re-enactors were themselves attractions. Ken and Penny Hunt of Baltimore came dressed as Brig. Gen. George Custer and his wife, Libby. Their tent - big enough to house a bed and a few pieces of light furniture - drew crowds of curious children.
Hunt has been dressing as Custer since 1993, after he broke his wrist and grew his hair longer during his forced absence from the re-enactment circuit. When friends commented on Hunt's resemblance to Custer, he started researching the general, who had always been one of his heroes.
"It took a year before I got up the nerve to walk about like this," he said. But when he did, at the Remembrance Day Parade in November 1993 at Gettysburg, he found his choice welcomed by the other re-enactors. "All the troops just snapped to attention," he recalled. "My wife said, `I think that's for you.'"
Elaine Hawkins and Ashleigh Maples were also there to share a slice of history, but from a different pie: the two women - Hawkins from Newburg and Maples from Centreville, Va. - were dressed as laundresses, complete with metal tubs of water, a washing board and a block of pale lye soap.
The setup was so convincing that even some of the re-enactors were taken in, Hawkins said. Yesterday morning she washed three shirts for a Union re-enactor who thought the laundry was really in business.
"I researched it for over a year," Hawkins said. She took that time to avoid gaffes she'd seen at other re-enactments, such as the camp laundry that featured a wringer. Unfortunately, Hawkins said, the wringer didn't come around until 1872.
If there's an error, she said with a laugh, "somebody's going to walk by and say, `That's not right!'"
That historical accuracy is about more than just the reactions of passers-by, said Stephen Aguirre, who lives in Morgan Hill, Calif., and came as a Union soldier.
"These people [the soldiers] never asked to be portrayed. There's a certain due diligence required" to portray them correctly, Aguirre said. "This was a huge event that changed us in a way. It was part of our forming. It's important to think about."
And the event itself demands gravity, despite the fun of the re-enactment, said Chris Daley, a tailor who makes period costumes for re-enactors, museums and movies.
"It's very odd to have a 140th anniversary celebration [of a battle], especially one that resembles a carnival," Daley said. "I wonder what the 140th anniversary of September 11 will be like?"