Gettysburg 150th Anniversary Civil War Battle Reenactment

Costumed demonstrations at El Morro and Mount Vernon aside, I’ve never been to a large-scale reenactment. With Civil War sesquicentennial upon us, we thought we’d go big and head to Gettysburg, where annual battle reenactments have been drawing crowds for the past two decades. July 2013, the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, seemed like the grand and proper introduction: 11,000 reenactors, 400 horses, and over 50,000 spectators took part in the course of four sweltering days (July 4 – 7) — we went on Saturday. Here’s what it was like.

Costumed spectators, 150th Anniversary Reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 2013

Our favorite spectator couple

Costumed spectators, 150th Anniversary Reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 2013

Crowds at Gettysburg 150th Anniversary Battle Reenactment, July 2013

I was grateful for the Helpful Hints section of the Gettysburg Annual Reenactment website. We got tickets online and paid extra for bleacher seating. People brought their own foldable chairs, but we were glad not to have to brave the crowds for a spot, and raised seating did provide a great panoramic view of the entire field (not the actual battlefield, now the meticulously maintained Gettysburg National Military Park).

Bleachers at the 150th Anniversary Reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg

Several large tents held events throughout the day, many performed by historical reenactors (e.g., “the inside story of Civil War spies,” “General Longstreet discuses his battle plans,” and “Matthew Brady tells the story of Civil War photography”), but we focused on the field demonstrations (one of the more anticipated of these, Pickett’s Charge, took place on the last day of the reenactments–I didn’t research the field demonstrations enough when I was buying tickets). The two demonstrations we saw, “Stuart Arrives on the Battlefield” and “Gallant Rally at the Klingle Farm”, were impressive. People seating next to us, seasoned reenactment attendees, have never seen these done quite on this scale.

 Stuart Arrives on the Battlefield, 150th Anniversary Gettysburg Reenactment, July 2013

Battle reenactment, 150th Anniversary, Battle of Gettysburg

Gettysburg 150 Anniversary Civil War Battle Reenactment, July 2013

Cannon demonstration, 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg

150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg

Field demonstration, 50th Anniversary Reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 2013

Equestrian maneuvers were the most impressive I think. A staggering 3,000 to 5,000 horses died at Gettysburg in 1863.  The thought of the scale of human and animal casualties within such a small area and in that merciless heat is sobering.

Casualties, 150th Anniversary Battle Reenactment, Gettysburg

Reenactors leaving the field, After the battle, Gettysburg 150th Anniversary Battle Reenactment

The most memorable part of the day, though, was right after the field  demonstrations: watching the reenactors march back to their encampment, a village of canvas tents.

Reenactor encampments, 150th Anniversary Reenactment of the Gettysburg Battle

Troops returning, 150th Anniversary Battle of Gettysburg Reenactment

So many of the faces looked like the 1860s daguerreotypes — for many of the reenactors, this is far more serious than a mere weekend hobby. They transport themselves a century and a half back for months, marching, eating, and sleeping like the Civil War soldiers they portray.

Bearded reenactor, faces of the 150th Anniversary Gettysburg Battle Reenactment

Faces of the 150th Reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg

Faces of the 150th Reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg

Reenactors marching, 150th Anniversary Gettysburg Battle Reenactment

Reenactors, 150th Anniversary Gettysburg Battle Reenactment

Female reenactor, Faces of the 150th Anniversary Gettysburg Battle Reenactment

Young reenactor, 150th Reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg

A male and a female reenactors, Faces of the 150th Reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg

Female soldier reenactor, 150th Anniversary Gettysburg Battle Reenactment

A man and his horse, 150th Anniversary Gettysburg Battle Reenactment

Strolling through the reenactors’ encampment felt like time travel.

Reenactor encampment, 150th Anniversary Gettysburg Battle Reenactment

Female reenactor knitting, Reenactor encampment, 150th Anniversary Gettysburg Battle Reenactment

Faces of the 150th Anniversary Reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg

Reenactor encampment, 150th Anniversary Gettysburg Battle Reenactment

By late afternoon, we got too overheated and overcrowded to appreciate it all and attempted to see the actual battlefield. Watching the reenactments, impressive as they were, and realizing just how much larger and more brutal the actual event was made me look at Gettysburg anew.

Field of the Gettysburg National Military Park

Half of the world seemed to be at the park, though, and we gave up mid-way. One should experience Gettysburg in the dead of summer — when the battle took place — but my favorite times to visit remain April and October, when you have the park and its trails nearly all to yourself. The Gettysburg Annual Reenactment organizers expect smaller crowds in the future, although the town will remain part of the sesquicentennial events through 2015. My verdict? Do this, at least once in your life.

Spectators of the 150th Anniversary Reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg

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13 thoughts on “Gettysburg 150th Anniversary Civil War Battle Reenactment

  1. I’m glad that you thought that it was worthwhile. Going to the 150th commemoration at Gettysburg National Historic Site definitely has been the highlight of my history touristing career.

    Love the close-up of the faces — they did a wonderful job of looking period. There look to be some women among the reenactors portraying soldiers. Could that be?

    • Thank you. Yes, it was somewhat odd, but the alternative was cutting through crazy crowds, all of whom seemed more prepared than we were. And there were so many parts to the field that you couldn’t possibly see much from the ground. At the bleachers, there was also ongoing commentary of what you saw before you, which was helpful for someone like me who never formally studied American Civil War history. As I sat there, it did bring to mind scenes from War and Peace for me – when all these nobles would gather around on a hill for a picnic to watch a battle below… I could never understand how that was humanly possible, but yes, it has its attractions when it’s not an actual carnage before you — a human game of chess, only with cannons and horses. I am conflicted, I promise!

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  3. My visit was in February, just after a light snow, and the place was nearly deserted. Very interesting to see it so quiet, but I really want to get back there in the summer. My husband has never been, and it is a truly humbling place.

    • I hope you get to see it soon — that park really is a must-see in the US. But in the summer, there is a constant procession of cars and crowds all over the fields, which detracts a bit from the feel of the place. If that July were my first visit, I’d get overwhelmed and miss a lot of it, I think. Thank you for stopping by!

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