Some 30 weekends a year, Civil War re-enactors bring their craft to life during Living History Weekends at Gettysburg National Military Park; at no cost to themselves, visitors can briefly glimpse history on the fields where it was made.
We spent a few hours at Gettysburg on Sunday, September 28. That particular weekend two re-enactment groups — Co. A, 69th New York Infantry Regiment (Irish Brigade) and Co. A, 2nd U.S. Cavalry Regiment — camped on the actual battlefield and presented free programs on Saturday and Sunday.
Visitors who caught the scheduled programs each day did not come away disappointed, because the re-enactors put on excellent demonstrations.
The 69th New York boys camped alongside Pleasonton Avenue, behind the ornate Pennsylvania Memorial. Setting up a few tents (we counted only nine Union infantrymen on Sunday morning), the re-enactors welcomed visitors to the camp and talked about a soldier’s life during the Civil War.
On Sunday, Capt. Ron McGovern marched his squad past the Pennsylvania Memorial to form behind a rope barrier stretching in front of the 1st Minnesota Infantry Regiment monument. Tom Holbrook, a National Park Service ranger, introduced McGovern and his well-armed men.
While the hard-charging, bayonet-lowered Union soldier atop the Minnesota monument watched, McGovern briefly discussed the history of the 69th New York Infantry. His men stood in line and, when summoned by McGovern, stepped forward to demonstrate such firearms as:
• An 1842 smoothbore musket, which fired a 0.69-caliber musket ball. During battle, this musket would be loaded with 110 grains of gunpowder per musket ball. By the time of the war, most 1842 smoothbores had been refitted with percussion caps.
• An 1861 Springfield rifle. This particular firearm was an original, not a replica. Whether or not this Springfield was carried onto the Gettysburg battlefield in July 1863, seeing a weapon more than 150 years old shivered my spine.
Turning their backs on their audience and their weapons toward distant Seminary Ridge, the New York lads demonstrated loading and firing several times. The re-enactors also conducted marching maneuvers that were ingrained in Civil War infantrymen.
Afterwards, the Union re-enactors mingled with visitors to answer questions.
An hour later, about a mile west at Pitzer Woods on West Confederate Avenue, approximately 20 re-enactors representing Co. A, 2nd U.S. Cavalry, demonstrated cavalry maneuvers in the large and sloping field across the avenue from the Longstreet statue turnoff. More than 40-plus appreciative visitors watched a bit in awe as the cavalrymen- and -women (many re-enactment groups welcome ladies) walked, trotted, and ran their beautiful horses through various drills.
According to the officer-slash-spokesman describing the action, the 2nd United State Calvary was actually the 2nd Dragoons prior to the Civil War; not until some months after Fort Sumter did the War Department classify all mounted units as “cavalry.”
Like their 1860s’ counterparts, the re-enactors rode armed with breech-loading carbines and six-shot revolvers. As their spokesman explained, cavalrymen often dismounted to fight during the Civil War — and 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment accounts relate many fights waged on foot, not on horseback.
Late in their program, the cavalrymen deployed into skirmishing formation and conducted a “slam-bang” demonstration that riveted onlookers’ attention. While designated horse-holders controlled their nervous charges in the distance, the skirmishers fought on foot; a soldier would kneel to fire, then stand and move as the skirmish line advanced.
And the 2nd U.S. Cavalry troopers demonstrated the traditional cavalry charge. Skillfully shifting formation as they rode across the field, the re-enactors drew their swords and brought their horses to the gallop.
Contrary to Hollywood’s (and movie producer John Ford’s) depictions, cavalrymen did not charge with their swords extended with sharpened edges toward the ground. Instead, the cavalrymen turned their swords’ edges toward the sky; as the Co. A spokesman explained, this position let the sword’s point thrust deeper into a human body and cause more damage.
Once their program ended, the re-enactors rode to the rope barrier separating the visitors from the field. All along the barrier, visitors clustered in front of individual horses and riders to ask questions and take photos.
Confederate re-enactors occasionally camp at Pitzer Woods. In late October, re-enactors from the 12th Alabama Infantry Regiment set up camp at the site and welcomed visitors.
All Living History Weekends are free to park visitors.
Although concluded for 2014, the Living History Weekends will resume in 2015. For a monthly schedule of these and other events taking place in Gettysburg National Military Park, log onto www.nps.gov/gett/planyourvisit/things2do.htm and, under “Things to Do,” click on “Schedule of Events.”
About two-thirds of the way down the page is a link to the park’s annual events PDF. This will be updated early next year.
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.