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For Gettysburg re-enactors, a moment 150 years in the making

Brig. Gen. Cadmus Wilcox's Alabama Brigade of some 1,700 Confederates marched all day July 1, 1863, nearly 30 miles from Chambersburg to Gettysburg.

They rose before dawn and headed east, carrying nine-pound muskets and eating what they could forage along the way and what little remained in their haversacks —stone-hard crackers, perhaps a bit of dried beef, maybe water if they could get it.

Their numbers were represented 150 years later at the Gettysburg National Military Park on Monday by a group of men dressed in wool and cotton uniforms that were rarely gray, but more often the colors of straw and burlap, with even some faded blue thrown in.

Sporting beards and mustaches and felt hats of many shapes, they gathered under tan canvas among the trees and sat along the low stone wall along Seminary Ridge, reliving a day that, for them and for America, has come to define the Civil War.

Their demonstrations of infantry tactics and artillery were part of the show for tourists in their khaki shorts, colorful T-shirts and sunglasses who have streamed into Gettysburg by the tens of thousands since the 10-day commemoration of the battle's 150th anniversary began Friday.

The Gettysburg Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates 200,000 visitors will roll through town before it's over on Sunday, spending about $100 million, said spokesman Carl Whitehill.

Katie Lawhon of the National Park Service said her agency started planning for the 150th anniversary in the spring of 2010 and picked up steam two years ago. A 71-page guidebook details nine days of tours, lectures, demonstrations and other events interpreting the biggest battle of the Civil War in terms of sheer troop numbers and casualties.

Whether the Battle of Gettysburg can accurately be called "decisive" is a matter of debate among historians, but it was certainly costly. Some 165,000 men converged on Gettysburg in 1863 — a town of about 2,400 residents at the time. By the time the battle was over on Friday, July 3, nearly 30 percent of the combatants would be casualties: killed, wounded, missing or captured.

On Monday, Whitehill estimated 20,000 to 25,000 visitors made their way to the nearly 6,000-acre battlefield and other sites in town to mark the first day of the battle. They came to see people such as Jake Nott, in his long beard and slate-blue uniform jacket, standing in for the men who marched under Wilcox. Their ranks of 1,771 men were badly chewed up in the battle: 44 percent became casualties, according to the monument on the grounds.

Nott lives in Ohio but has family roots in Virginia and is quick to point out the Confederate sympathies of a sizable swath of southern Ohio in 1863. Asked how a Confederate infantryman would have answered if asked why he was fighting, Nott recalled a quote from a Tennessee soldier asked that very question when he was captured by Union men at Fort Donelson, in Dover, Tenn.

"We're fighting because y'all are down here," Nott recalled the soldier saying.

George Alcox, another Ohioan representing Wilcox's Brigade, said he thinks the men in the ranks in 1863 believed that "you're not fighting for any lofty political agenda. You're fighting for the guy standing next to you."

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Steve Rodenbaugh, a pilot stationed in Jacksonville, Fla., who was visiting Gettysburg with his wife, Rachel, and their 5-year old son, Curtis, said perhaps even spanning 150 years, the bond from soldier to soldier has changed little.

"The camaraderie is the same," said Rodenbaugh, who like his wife is originally from Pennsylvania.

The Rodenbaughs strolled behind the Union line, about a mile east of where men representing the Confederates of Wilcox's Brigade camped, checking out an encampment of those representing the Army of the Potomac's 2nd Corps, 1st Division.

There, several hundred men in navy blue tunics and lighter blue pants gave their own demonstrations. Chris Sedlak, a police officer from Pittsburgh dressed as a first lieutenant, quoted the Ken Burns Civil War documentary in describing the carnage inflicted by canisters of projectiles fired from heavy guns.

"Knapsacks and arms and heads were thrown in the clear air, and regiments disappeared," he said.

Those representing the soldiers experienced some of the milder discomforts of Civil War battlefield life. Most arrived Sunday, in time to be soaked by late-night rain.

"I didn't get much sleep last night," said John Plotica of Meriden, Conn., who is 33 and has been taking part in Civil War re-enactments since he was 14. "You really get an idea of what being a soldier is like."

They set up a little tent city just south of another exhibition including a small field hospital and a supplies tent.

Eleven-year-old Charles Gerhart of Hatfield, Pa., asked about the red stains on the stretcher and a rag in the field hospital. Just stage blood, he was told.

He and his 14-year-old brother, John, who are African-American, came to Gettysburg with their parents, Bob and Rosemary Gerhart, who are white. Rosemary said the battlefield has particular meaning for them as a biracial family, given that the Civil War was fought largely over slavery.

"I'm ashamed that was something we did," Rosemary said. "What I try to explain to the boys is — remember, it's not the people living today."

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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