Pickett's Charge Commemorative March

Gettysburg Sesquicentennial: Day 1

Reenactors in downtown Gettysburg
Reenactors in downtown Gettysburg

Though the main celebrations won’t kick off until tomorrow – July 4th – there have been plenty of living history/reenactment events throughout the past couple of weeks in Gettysburg building up to the official 150th of the battle. This afternoon was the Pickett’s Charge commemorative march, and as I made my way through the streets of downtown Gettysburg (slowly, every so slowly in the traffic), I couldn’t help but be struck by theodd juxtaposition of Civil War-era costume and modern day trappings as reenactors and interpreters ambled through town. It was jarring; women in hoop skirts and men in wool uniforms draped themselves over meticulously restored porch railings while tourists with fanny packs drifted by.

Every year, the National Park guides take reenactors and spectators alike on a commemorative march following the path of the Confederate soldiers towards what would become known as the “high water mark” along Cemetery Ridge during Pickett’s Charge – the turning point of the battle and a major failure by Confederate forces taking place on July 3, 1863.

With overflowing parking lots (even the overflow parking had…well, overflowed), spectators were simply parking in the grass along the main roads. Between the traffic and the parking, I arrived just in time to hear the bugles playing taps as I walked up Cemetery Ridge. The “battle” was already over – a large group had walked the mile across the battlefield, but spectators and reenactors lingered along the fences. TV crews swooped in for interviews, and spectators and reporters alike chatted with reenactors.

I met and spoke with Union Major General John Buford – played by Michael D. Smith – who talked briefly about his own involvement, his various uniforms (in keeping with his rank), and the importance of historical accuracy via primary sources rather than simply relying on “the history books” (secondary sources referred to his wife as Pattie, but he had consulted “our” marriage certificate and her name was Patsy – these distinctions mattered). I only approached General Buford by chance: a swarm of tourists descended upon him and asked for pictures (“Who is he?” I asked one. “Buford!”  she replied excitedly – “remember – Sam Elliott in the movie?”).

Photo op with General John Buford
Photo op with General John Buford

At the close of our quick chat, I told Mr. Smith I was visiting for research purposes, and asked if there was a way I could get in touch with him when he was no longer General Buford – he reached into his woolen pocket and retrieved a business card announcing both his Union rank as well as his real life alter-ego and contact information.

Already, I’m pondering where and how the intersections of “character” come into play: how do reenactors/living historians prepare? What’s considered proper preparation? How do props/costumes make the character? My host (a reenactor as well, though primarily for French and Indian and Revolutionary wars) claims that some men inhabit the character fully for a while before and after events – where and how do authenticity and history intersect for these role-players?

As I made my way down the ridge into the battlefield, I happened upon a Virginia flag and felt compelled to stop and talk to the soldiers from my native state. It was positively sweltering out: soldiers were emptying plastic bottles handed out by the Parks service into their metal canteens, trying to keep cool. These Virginians looked particularly hot – but then, I came to find, they had participated in the reenactments last weekend as well: the Blue-Gray reenactments, staged more for the reenactors than the commercial, spectator-driven nature of this holiday weekend. The men generously answered my questions, and  (even more generously) invited me – should I want a more “real” reenacting experience – to the events they are holding at Waterford and Cedar Creek in Virginia this fall. This holiday weekend was overly commercial, they suggested; among the list of issues, spectators and reenactors alike were being fleeced due to admission fees and other expenses. They praised the prior weekend’s reenactment; the spectators were clearly set in a confined space, with a line they could not cross.

Virginia infantry after the march
Virginia infantry after the march

Clearly, there are hierarchies within this community: there are the “hardcores” and “farbs,” as discussed in Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic, but there is a degree of commercialism and performance that is embedded within this divide. The line between audience and performer varies, with some contention over how and why this line should be drawn. The degree of violence portrayed in these performances is part of a debate within the larger reenacting community: some groups walk through maneuvers without depicting deaths or injuries while narrators interpret for the crowd, whereas other reenactors pride themselves on the realism and gruesomeness of portraying battlefield casualties. These sorts of debates in turn influence the perceived status of reenactors/living historians within the larger community: my host suggests that the colonial-era reenactors consider themselves “civilized” while the Civil War reenactors are “barbarians.”  Such divergences between and within the various groups of reenactors is intriguing, especially in terms of what the performers believe is, at root, the purpose of such performances.

photo-2-225x300(And, in case you were wondering, I totally got my picture taken with General Buford.)



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