Surviving Gettysburg – 150 Years Later
Earlier this month the Town of Gettysburg and surrounding areas successfully marked the 150th anniversary of the United States’ bloodiest battle. Between July 1st and 3rd, 1863, nearly 8,000 Americans were killed. The National Park Service, the Town of Gettysburg, and the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee collaborated to observe this significant event in our country’s history. The large-scale commemoration began with activities on the National Battlefield on June 30th, including speech-making and a performance by country music star Trace Adkins, and concluded with a massive powder-charged re-enactment of Pickett’s Charge on July 7th, 2013 by some 13,000 reenactors/living historians.
I’ve been a reenactor/living historian for nearly 20 years, along with my husband and children. Over those years, my approach to the activities has evolved, and I’ve improved my understanding of “what life was like back then” through research and study. I began as a reenactor; I now consider myself a living history interpreter because I seek to teach visitors (and other reenactors) about the experiences of our ancestors of the Civil War from all sides of the conflict, instead of just going to a field, camping in weird clothes and tents, and shooting guns.
I am there to teach, and I am a woman on the battlefield. Women were there – on the homefront, in the camps, on the march, and in the post-battle patrols to find and treat survivors – we have a role to play in teaching those thousands of spectators, even when they ask questions about why there aren’t any bullet holes in the monuments (true story) or if we really slept in the tents. A nugget of information to help a lifelong learner or a young student of history along their way is what I seek to provide.
As a member of our North Carolina’s Civil War 150th Anniversary committee, I’ve made presentations and been behind the scenes for planning and events. So, as I attend mega-events such as the 150th Gettysburg, I take notes, think about what would work for our state’s 150th events in 2015, and marvel at the scale of planning and logistics that goes into accommodating over 200,000 spectators and thousands of reenactors and their horses, cannon, and other instruments of war!
Inevitably, I thought of the money spent and made over the week. Hotel rooms were booked for months in advance — spectators were staying in Maryland, Virginia, and across southern Pennsylvania. Trinkets, t-shirts, pink kepis for the girls, and wooden muskets for the boys were for sale everywhere. Bottled water was $3 a bottle, food stuffs like turkey legs and funnel cakes were going for prices akin to those at the state fair, and the sutlers were selling their wares at a slight markup over their regular pricing. For the un-initiated, “sutler row” is much like a reenactor mall where you can purchase everything from corsets and ball gowns to uniforms and brogans, plus reproduction guns, flags, plates, cookware, chairs, and, finally, wooden boxes to put it all in!
Visitors to the event had to pay a ticket price to enter the event area and watch the battle scenarios plus an extra $15 per person for grandstand seating for approximately $40 per person! Unsubstantiated rumor had it that those grandstands were re-used from the recent US Open and that their cost was $700,000! The re-enactors/living historians were required to pre-register as well, with some paying as much as $40 per person for late registration. A perk was a neat be-ribboned medal to signify participation.
Purely “living” and “existing” in a Civil War encampment for 6 days in Pennsylvania in early July requires planning and several assumptions – it will be hot, there will be bugs, and not enough of a breeze to evaporate an ounce of perspiration! By the way, someone once observed that southern ladies don’t “sweat” but instead “glisten.” If this observation holds, then I was positively sparkly the majority of the week.
We seek to find and use historically accurate tools, equipment, and gear but, try as you might, modern convenience often slips in. Inside the tent we tucked away a cooler, a plastic crate with clothes to keep the bugs out, and a battery operated fan to help us sleep at night.
To add to the heat and difficulty is the factor of food. Yes, we could survive on trail mix and pop tarts, but demanding activities and our drive for authenticity require real food for marching, fighting, and walking around in hoops, petticoats, and corsets. We ate well over the week – bacon and eggs, brisket, pulled pork, roasted chickens, potatoes, fresh fruit pies, biscuits, and corn on the cob were just a few of the delicacies – all cooked in fire and coals early in the morning and late on hot afternoons. Here’s a photo of me in the “kitchen” with a friend from our unit. Strive as you might for historical accuracy in presentation, modernity is bound to creep in – how many anachronisms can you spot and list? Reply to our post with your count and you will be entered to win a scholarship good for one of our upcoming CREST workshops!
I survived Gettysburg and even went to The Ball Saturday night! A girl has to have her priorities!