Saturday, September 10, 2016

Gettysburg Memories

I was perusing TMP when I came across a post about the 1998 re-enactment of the Battle of Gettywsburg. Arteis was linking to a blog post he made about his experiences there. This brought back memories of my Civil War reenactor days;  I may have been shooting at Arteis on that day.

Back then I was a member of the 115th NY Volunteers (reenacted), a Union unit based out of Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Every year, we participated in the reenactment of the Battle of Olustee, the largest Civil War battle in Florida. In '98, a group of us decided to make the trip to Pennsylvania for the 135th anniversary reenactment. It was expected to be the largest reenactment ever, and it did not disappoint. There were over 20,000 reenactors; we practically did Pickett's Charge at 1:1 ratio!

Anyway, here were a few of my memories of the event:

A Photo of my Mates
We arrived at the reenactment site a few days before the battles. We took the opportunity to visit a photographer. He liked to do things period-style. In fact, he came to the event in a horse-drawn wagon!

Anyway, here is a picture of the photograph:

Front: Jeff Webb, Mike Jones, Nick Morgado
Back: Jim Decker, me, Indy Morgado
Pies and Peaches
In many reenactments, the "soldiers" camp much better than their real-life counterparts from 150 years ago. At least back in '98, it was common to see privates camping with their families in large A-frame or wall tents. Some units, however, preferred to camp period-style. My unit mates decided to go that route. We doubled up in crowded shelter-half tent, carried all our items in our knapsacks or haversacks (no coolers for us), and basically lived like 1860s soldiers. Every day, our regiment packed up our camp and marched to a new spot. One night we slept on the "battlefield" (it wasn't the real battlefield, that was a few miles to the east. Arteis mentions crossing a wood-rail fence during Pickett's Charge. That's where we camped a few nights before.

There were a couple of highlights of this experience. There was a couple who portrayed period sutlers, complete with a wagon. They offered a few odds and ends (I think I bought a newspaper from them) but their most popular item was pie. They sold both meat and fruit pies, which were delicious!

I also remember that one of my unit mates, Jeff, devised a new use for our bayonets. The regiment issued us some big cans of peaches. Problem was that we had no can openers. Jeff figured a way to open the cans using his bayonet. It took some time (he had to stab multiple holes all the way around the edge of the lid) but it worked!

Culp's Hill
For us, Pickett's Charge was a bit of a disappointment. We were on the far left of the Union line and very few Confederates came close to us. But that was OK because the day before we exhausted ourselves reenacting Culp's Hill. This was extra-special for us because one of our comrades' ancestors fought in the real battle for the hill.

The day before, our colonel marched us to a wooded hill. When we stopped, he told us that we would be camping there for the night. Before that, though we had to entrench because we would be defending the hill the next day. We went to work with a gusto. There were a number of trees that had been knocked down to make roads to the campsite. Scores of soldiers picked up the trees and used them to create breastworks. We added some large rocks and then dug trenches to complete our works. I bent my bayonet using it as a digging tool (I suspect that bayonets saw far more use as multifarious tools than as actual weapons. They do make good candle holders as well). In the end, we had 3 lines of breastworks. We then settled in for the night.

The next day, we expected the Confederates to attack. My comrades and I were lucky to be selected as pickets. We went down the hill to the edge of the woods, watching for the rebels. We could see the spectators milling to our right, but even more impressive was the mass of Confederate troops making their way to our position. When they got in range,we gave them a ragged volley and then high-tailed it back to our main lines.

Seeing us retreat, the Confederates surged forward. We could hear their rebel yells mixed with taunts. But then once they got into the wood line, we hit the dirt. Before them was a solid blue line behind the wooden breastworks. A massive volley rang out, and rebels fell to the ground.

We pickets then scrambled through gaps in the breastworks and took our positions in the back line. After a moment's hesitation caused by the Union volley, the rebels charged again. The Union ranks poured fire into them. Even though many fell to the ground, they just seemed to keep coming. The rest of the battle is a blur. I recall that they took the first breastwork but could get no further. We were firing so fast that our barrels were painfully hot. We kept running out of ammo but our sergeants kept stuffing more rounds into our cartridge boxes. It was just so intense that we really got into character. I was yelling curses at the rebels as I kept firing and reloading. Being in the woods, we could not see the spectators, which made it seem even more real!

Eventually, the Confederate tide ebbed. There was a mass of "dead" rebels strewn all down the hill. We also had taken quite a few casualties* but the Union position was saved!

Ironically, given the intensity of the fight, this was one of the few battles in my reenactment career where I did not go down.

Final Thoughts
Overall, this reenactment was an awesome experience and probably the highlight of my reenactment career!

By the way, my first pic of the photo did not come out so well:
Photobombed by Ollie

1 comment:

  1. Great to read this. I remember Culp's Hill, lying on the ground in front of the Union breastwork, with smoke swirling through the trees, leaves and twigs raining down on us, and the incessant noise. It was very lifelike ...