is a rather long article I wrote about my experiences at Gettysburg.
If you want to go directly to the Links at the bottom of this
page, click here.
'Shoulder arms! ...Right face! ...Forward march!' shouted
our First Sergeant. Hefting my musket onto my shoulder, I
stepped forward, keeping in line with the other men of the
47th Virginia Infantry of the Confederate Army of Northern
Virginia, who were ranged in two ranks on either side of me.
A soldier carrying a bright red flag emblazoned with a blue
diagonal cross and white stars marched in front of our formation,
while from behind us came the steady rat-a-tat-a-tat of a
drum. The sun glinted off our bayonets as they swayed above
us in time to our gait.
either side of our lines, we could see other companies stretching
off into the distance, all clad like us in a mixture of well-worn
grey and brown uniforms, topped by battered hats of all shapes
From my place in the rear rank, I could look over the shoulder
of the man in front of me to where, a hundred or so yards
in front of us, an apparently solid line of dark blue stretched
away on both sides. The glinting of bayonets and the fluttering
red-and-white-striped flags showed that this blue line was
the waiting enemy.
'Company! ...Halt! ...Front!' came the shouted order. 'Load!'
I pulled a paper-wrapped cartridge out of the box attached
to my belt, stuck it between my teeth, and ripped off the
end. Carefully I poured out the black granules of gunpowder
down the barrel of the musket, then reached into another pouch
on my belt for a small metal primer cap, which I fitted over
a nipple near the trigger.
'Fire by company! ...Ready!' I brought the loaded musket
up in front of me. 'Aim!' Being careful to ensure that neither
the end of the barrel nor the primer cap were right next to
the ear of the soldier in front of me, I lifted the musket
up and pointed it at the wall of dark blue in front of me.
'Fire!' With a sound like ripping canvas, the whole company
fired in unison. The effect of this volley on the enemy was
impossible to discern, as a blanket of white gun-smoke billowed
out in front of us.
I suddenly felt the trappings of the twentieth century disappear.
I was experiencing what my fellow reenactors termed a ‘period
rush’. I really was a Confederate soldier, it really was 1863,
and I really was fighting for my country in Pennsylvania,
near a small market-town called Gettysburg!
How did I come to be in Gettysburg like this, feeling as
though I had travelled back in time 135 years? The answer
to that question has more to do with modern technology than
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The previous year my family had finally joined the Information
Age by investing in a smart new computer, complete with Internet
connection. Among the software we installed on our machine
was the game Sid Meier’s Gettysburg, a recreation of that
famous American Civil War battle, fought by tiny animated
soldiers across a colourful map. Making this game even more
appealing was the ability to play it over the Internet against
opponents all over the world, and so I met (or, to be exact,
virtually met) Ed Christopher, a retired US Army officer
living in Culpeper, Virginia (see picture below).
spoke to me about his hobby of reenacting American Civil War
battles in real life rather than on computer screens, a pastime
I had never heard of. We exchanged a lot of e-mails in which
I asked Ed all about his unusual hobby, and in the end Ed
invited me to join him and Company I of the 47th Virginia
Infantry at the forthcoming 135th anniversary reenactment
of the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg. 'Hot, tired, often miserable,
sore feet, dying of thirst, bathed in sweat, eaten up by insects,'
Ed promised me, 'but it will be the most fun you have ever
had in your life!! Just wait until you see (and join) the
first massive infantry formations, bayoneted muskets glimmering
in the sunlight like a virtual forest of steel, colors flying,
and the fifes and drums playing. If you don't get chills down
your spine something's wrong!'
So here I was, standing under a hot July sun, shooting a
musket at a line of blue-clad Union troops.
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the 47th at Gettysburg
The original Battle of Gettysburg took place over three days
from July 1-3 in 1863. The Confederate army, under General
Robert E Lee was defeated by the Union army commanded by General
George Meade, with over 51,000 casualties to both sides. The
reenactment took place right next to the original battlefield,
and involved 23,000 reenactors, including 700 cavalry and
135 cannons. There were around 100,000 spectators over the
three days of the reenactment. This was the biggest-ever battle
reenactment held in the United States.
I played the role of a private in the 47th Virginia Infantry,
a Confederate regiment which really fought at Gettysburg.
Reenactors are not real soldiers, but enthusiastic amateurs
who do this as a hobby, with clubs portraying various Civil
War units spread throughout the United States. My fellow soldiers
in the 47th included school teachers, farmers, grocery clerks,
active duty and retired US Marines, a lawyer, a retired US
Army officer, high school and college students and many others
from all walks of life. There were one or two women who were
uniformed as men (well enough to hide their gender), and the
drummers and fifers were mainly young people.
The reenactors went to great lengths to ensure accuracy.
The uniforms were made of the correct heavy wool cloth, right
down to the weave. They carried authentic replica weaponry
and equipment. Even the shoes had to be replicas of 135 year
old brogans. 'I usually wear a (dirty and stained by the years)
butternut sack coat and a pair of filthy and patched gray
wool trousers,' Ed told me. 'I often sling a filthy patchwork
quilt blanket roll over my shoulders, but when it is too hot,
I usually leave it off. I always wear a beat-up brown slouch
hat. I never clean either my coats or trousers, and they look
and smell like it too!'
Accommodation was in period-correct tents with straw for
bedding. The camp was situated on a large rolling wooded farm.
One could walk for an half-an-hour in any direction and not
be out of the confines of the camp. At night the effect could
be magical. 'The camps are illuminated by hundreds of campfires,'
commented Ed. 'Meals are cooked in iron skillets and pots
over the open fires. Around many of the fires, the boys break
out the fiddles and banjos, and we listen to and sing along
with all the old Civil War tunes and songs.'
had to learn how to load and fire the fully-working replica
musket, and also how to march in the intricate manoeuvres
used on the field of battle in those days. The marching turned
out to be easier than I expected, as it did not require the
spit and polish expected on modern parade grounds - soldiers
of those days ambled in formation, rather than marching, in
time to the music of fife-and-drums. 'There is nothing that
will stir your blood more,' Ed added, 'than when we march
in massive long columns to the fifes and drums. Dense gray
and brown columns of Confederates, flags flying, muskets on
shoulders (with fixed bayonets gleaming in the sun), that
stretch as far as the eye can see; all swaying in time to
the fifes and drums playing Bonnie Blue Flag, or Gary Owen,
or Dixie, or any of a hundred other tunes, as we march onto
the fields. Rebel Yells, screams, and cheers soaring above
the columns, dusty hats being wildly waved above heads, and
the cheers and applause of tens of thousands of spectators
on the sidelines as we march by.... It sends chills down your
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Safety was rigorously enforced. Before every engagement
the officers would carefully check every musket. These, of
course, were loaded only with gunpowder and no bullets. But
there was still the real potential for injury from concussion,
paper wadding or unintentional discharges. Closer than fifty
yards muskets were to be aimed five feet over the enemy’s
heads, not at them. Despite the safety checks, one reenactor
was shot in the throat by a bullet accidentally left in an
officer’s pistol - fortunately he survived.
Ed warned me that one time when injuries could occur was
when fighting for the enemy’s flag. 'I have grabbed Yankee
colors before,' he explained, 'but had the sense to clearly
let the colorbearer and anyone of his nearby comrades know
that it was really for 'show' and I wasn't going anywhere
with them......yeah, right!! However, in about every case
I was (rightfully) beaten to the ground.'
'In the making of the movie Gettysburg I went over the wall
with General Armistead, and on one of the ‘takes’ found myself
face-to-face with the colorbearer - who got a bit too far
ahead of his men - of the 72nd Pennsylvania. I ‘bayoneted’
him in the gut, he went down gloriously with his colors, but
before I could even hope to touch them, I was literally clubbed
to the ground on top of a pile of other bodies. I got up bleeding
... and this was for a movie, for God's sake!'
The other main danger was caused by the extremely
high temperatures. There were over 300 cases of heat exhaustion
on the first day alone. Our officers often checked that our
canteens were full of water and stressed the need to drink
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actual engagements were awe-inspiring experiences. I ‘died’
four times during the three days of the battle. In general
reenactors ‘took a hit’ when it was obvious that they should.
'You will notice,' Ed explained, 'that often the officers
(and the rank and file) will start shouting ‘Take hits, boys!!!
We need to take some hits!!’ This is the case when we are
clearly in a situation where we should be falling like flies
due to the massed musketry and/or cannon fire directed at
us. Then, we start to fall here and there or in clusters.'
‘Dying’ was also a good way of just having a rest and enjoying
the sights and sounds. Returning to life had to be done very
discreetly so that it would not be obvious to spectators.
'The battle-lines ebb and flow back and forth most of the
time,' Ed told me. 'If you are lying on the ground dead or
wounded, when your own battle-line passes over you again,
simply get back on your feet and blend into the mass of men.
No one can see you do this from the spectator standpoint,
and we all do it. I make a habit of it. Where it really looks
unprofessional is when fellows rise back up in the middle
of the open field with no one around them, and resume their
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The highlight of the three days was the reenactment of what
has become known as Pickett’s Charge, a doomed frontal attack
by the Confederates against the Union infantry and artillery
ensconced behind a stone wall. In the real battle, the majority
of Confederate troops fell or retreated before they got to
this stone wall, but a few did make it over, until they too
were killed or captured.
To reenact this turning point in American history, it was
important that just as many reenactors fell before they got
to the wall. Because every Confederate reenactor wanted the
distinction of climbing over the wall, this was done by way
of a lottery, with everyone except the winners having to die
or retreat before reaching the wall - I was very fortunate
to be one of the few who drew a winning number!
There were about 12,000 Confederate reenactors involved
in Pickett’s Charge, which meant we were doing a full scale
reenactment of the event. We had to cover about half a mile
of open ground, before finally reaching the blue-uniformed
Federal infantry, lined up about four deep for the entire
half-mile or so length of the low stone wall and fenceline.
In silence, each Confederate brigade headed off towards
its ‘destiny’. We did a few obliques (diagonal movements)
to place ourselves in the correct position, having some problems
with our line bowing all the time. It seemed no time at all
till we reached the first obstacle, a wooden fence denoting
the Emmitsburg Road. At this point the yell came for those
who had drawn ones in the lottery to take a hit. Marching
on, it must have made an impressive sight to the spectators,
as the units shrunk with casualties streaming our behind their
trail - it certainly looked it on each side as brigade after
brigade of Confederates headed towards the long line of Union
soldiers behind their stone wall.
Down went our twos and threes, our corporal shouting for
them to go down. Then at a run, instinctively bowing our heads,
hunching our shoulders, and leaning forward as though walking
into a headwind, we crossed the final gap towards the stone
wall, the fours going down all around us. I clambered up onto
the wall, behind which there was a twenty-yard gap, filled
already with Confederate and Union ‘bodies’, then the solid
line of Union blue. I ran towards them, watching others round
me crashing down to the ground. I felt someone brush past
me, and saw it was General Armistead, carrying his hat pierced
on the end of his sword (a famous moment in American history).
I then decided that it was time I went down myself.
I stayed down for a while, watching Union troops shooting,
and hearing their 'Hurrah!'s as the Confederate assault was
thrown back. I looked back at the field, which was totally
covered with casualties and retreating rebels running back
individually and in small groups. There was a group of Confederate
and Union soldiers standing near me, so I ‘limped’ over to
see what they were looking at. In the centre of the group
lay the ‘dying’ General Armistead.
After a while the shooting began to ease off, and it was
evident that the battle was at an end. Taps was played on
a bugle, and in a very emotional moment, we all, Confederate
and Union alike, stopped and took off our caps to honour those
real soldiers who fought 135 years ago.
the reenactors were not glorifying war. 'For most of us,'
commented Ed, 'this is genuinely stepping back 135 years and
seeing and hearing and doing what our great-grandfathers experienced.
Many in the ranks claim a direct connection to the war, and
Gettysburg in particular. A direct desendant of General George
Pickett is in one of the units. We are what we call ‘living
historians’ and do our utmost to be very professional about
all this. For ourselves, for our forefathers, and for the
public who attends.'
To me the sincerity of what they were doing was obvious.
Some were honouring those who had fallen (often direct ancestors),
some were genuinely feeling what it was like to live 135 years
ago in a time of bitter strife, some were there more for the
simple pleasures of an old-fashioned way of life than for
the battles, some were there to add to their already extensive
knowledge of Civil War history. Certainly, though, I never
met anyone who thought that they were really fighting for
or against states’ rights or slavery.
All in all, it was amazing to be able to travel not only
half-way around the world, but also 135 years back in time.