GETTYSBURG The movie, the buffs, the book and the history In happy pursuit of old battles

THE BALTIMORE SUN

They come once a month from as far away as Virginia, Pennsylvania, the Eastern Shore, from as near as Baltimore and central Maryland, scores of them, drawn to the Blue and Gold Room on the second floor of the Parkville American Legion by a common fascination with a war that has been over for 128 years.

They include Mitch Tullai, a history teacher and football coach at St. Paul's School who believes Americans can't hope to understand their present or future without first appreciating what happened long ago during the Civil War.

There is Jim Holechek, a former public relations consultant who hoped a little reading about places like Gettysburg would fill in some of those lazy afternoons in retirement, but who now lives for the passion it has brought him.

And Marian Karupka, an anti-big-government Northerner with a distinctly Southern bent whose great-grandfather, according to family legend, once kept a Southern sympathizer from being hanged. "He told the man to git and he got," she recalls proudly.

They are all members of the Baltimore Civil War Roundtable, an informal group of Civil War buffs who, like 25,000 others around the globe in about 200 other such roundtables, gather monthly to trade stories and listen to discussions on aspects of a war whose grip on the public imagination shows no sign of loosening.

In fact, with the release today in Towson of the Turner Pictures' "Gettysburg" -- with several Baltimore Roundtable members playing bit roles -- many buffs predict another national outbreak of Civil War fever, much like the huge surge in interest that surrounded the PBS series on the war produced a few years ago by Ken Burns.

Only six years ago, before the PBS series, the Baltimore roundtable counted about 100 members. Today that number is well over 300 and growing every month, making it the fourth largest roundtable in the country. And while Baltimore's group numbers several doctors, ministers and lawyers among its ranks, it counts many more police officers, firefighters, factory workers, store clerks and secretaries.

"I like to refer to Baltimore as the blue-collar roundtable," says Edwin Bearss, the chief historian for the National Parks Service and one of the most sought-after speakers on the Civil War speaking circuit. "Most roundtables are made up of retirees and professionals. Maybe it's that unique character of Baltimore, but it definitely has more blue-collar members. They're just as well-read as any group and their enthusiasm for the Civil War is astounding."

"It's just something that's in a lot of us," explains Harry Dorsey, the group's treasurer. "The Civil War was never fully explained to me in high school. It started sort of over slavery and then it was over. That's what I remember from school. I joined because I just wanted to know more about it."

And, for $30 a year, members get plenty of opportunity to do just that.

"We talk about this general, that general, this battle and that battle," says roundtable president Don Macreadie. "We talk about what would have happened if Stonewall Jackson had been at Gettysburg. You go through all these ifs and whats. You rehash everything and people come up with different answers, different views. It's still a controversy -- the questions of who did right and who did wrong -- and that's what is so interesting."

In addition to sponsoring lectures each month, the roundtable conducts tours of local battlefields and holds book raffles. While there are more members with Southern ancestors than Northern, the meetings remain cordial. "If there are arguments they are friendly arguments," says Mrs. Harupka. "And you almost always learn something you didn't know before."

For Mr. Holechek, the learning began a couple of years ago, when he joined the roundtable just before he retired. "I went up to Gettysburg and paid a licensed guide to take me around to all the monuments," he recalls. "I remember saying 'Where's the Maryland monument?' And he said there wasn't any. And I said to myself, 'With my background, I can't be a Marylander and let that go.' "

Mr. Holechek formed the Citizens for a Maryland Monument in Gettysburg, and now, besides serving as vice president of the roundtable, he spearheads the efforts to raise money for a monument that honors Marylanders on both sides at Gettysburg.

"I only live for this study at this point," he says. "It's all-consuming. I used to do a lot of sailing, which was complex and very demanding. This is, too, but I can't get hurt doing this."

"For some of us, it's very difficult to articulate our reasons for our interest in the Civil War," adds roundtable member Tom Foster, a retired deputy superintendent of the Baltimore school system.

"For some, the interest is genealogical. For some, it's an interest in things military. For others, it's the collection of artifacts. But for others, it's simply some mystical kind of inner voice that drives people to not only study it but to try to relive some of the aspects of the 19th century. I've heard people say it was such a cataclysmic shock to the nation's youth that maybe these people are still speaking to us."

That's not such an overstatement, says Mitch Tullai, the history teacher who takes his St. Paul's students to Gettysburg each year.

"The war was almost a transcending thing that has affected everything we have become," he says. "I don't see how we can understand what goes on today without understanding that period. Not just the war but the events leading to it. The problems we have today came out of that time, problems we haven't totally resolved."

Mr. Tullai was one of the founding members of the Baltimore Civil War Roundtable 11 years ago and, for a time, before its membership grew so large, its meetings were held at St. Paul's. He still finds public interest in the war a positive factor. "I can't think of anything more healthy than an interest in this," he says.

"No, interest in the war hasn't peaked," adds Mr. Macreadie. "And the movie 'Gettysburg' will be a big plug for everybody. A lot of people don't realize how big the battle of Gettysburg was."

He hopes the film will attract new members to the roundtable. On the other hand, he hopes the club doesn't grow too much.

"We don't want to get too big," he smiles. "Right now we don't have an income tax number. We're not incorporated. I want it to be a club that people can enjoy. If someone calls me and wants to join, I tell them why don't you come to a meeting first. We got all kinds of people but it might not be to your suiting. We're not a re-enactment group. We don't base ourselves on ancestry. We don't lean North or South."

What they do is take their war seriously.

"I think people forget the tragedy of it," he says. "And the courage of the soldiers. We saw what happened in Vietnam. The lieutenant tells you to go up that hill and the people stopped. They got to thinking 'Why should I go up there and get killed?'

"In the Civil War that wasn't the case. They just believed in what they were doing and they went. People nowadays probably wouldn't do it. Whether we're smarter now or were more dedicated then to a cause and believing in Stonewall and Robert E. Lee, I don't know. You would have to put yourself back then as to how you would have done it. It really makes you think. That's what makes it interesting."

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