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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Strolling through the reenactors’ encampment felt like time travel.
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.
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.
- 12 Fascinating Civil War Sites by Ann Shields
- Civil War Trust 150th Anniversary Events
- National Park Service Sesquicentennial Commemoration (see Upcoming Events)
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