Saturday, July 6, 2013

Witnessing the Battle

My first real impression of reenactments came from Hollywood. Remember that scene in Sweet Home Alabama when Reese is walking across a chaotic field to find her father and then admit to her fiance who she really is and where she really came from? Yeah, that was my first impression. Keep that in mind as I tell you about yesterday.

It was a mostly lazy morning, but much to my husband's chagrin, I was still up and making bacon and eggs (my favorite camping breakfast) at 8 AM. Yesterday I wanted to go shopping and walking downtown while I wasn't dead on my feet from a long, hot bike ride and then go to the Eisenhower National Historical Site. Jeff wanted to go to the super huge reenactment they have had going all week and had no interest in Eisenhower. We compromised. I gave up my stamp and he went shopping and walking with me. It was fun to talk up the main drag in Gettysburg. While the shops are definitely there with tourists in mind, they have worked to maintain the integrity of the town. It is still a small town with it's historical charm mostly intact, something I definitely like to see. We finally ate lunch at a local restaurant, got our kids their gifts, and then managed to find a gift shop that was still selling reenactment tickets.

A quick trip at the campsite, water bottles filled (it was still hot with high humidity), sunscreen applied, and we were ready to head out to the reenactment. We went fully warned. The day before, the Fourth, had been crazy. There had been a two hour line to get tickets (we took care of that by getting our tickets ahead of time), but while there were a lot of people there, it wasn't nearly as crazy as advertised.

Just a taste of the parking. There were a lot of cars and even more people in attendance.
Our guess is that the Fourth was extra busy because people were off of work and celebrating the Fourth. We started to notice yesterday morning morning that there were spots slowly emptying out at the campground, so people were probably already heading home on Friday. Regardless, it was still big, Several million dollars were invested in this weeklong reenactment, and we were there to watch the reenactment of the Wheatfield, the bloodiest fighting of the Battle of Gettysburg. When we first got there we had two hours to kill, especially since we had been told that we needed to be there early to ensure parking and finding a place to watch the battle. We walked around, checked out the artist tent (where Jeff Shaara was signing books), got some typical fair food, and then headed up to the Living History village. We found several tents with all sorts of goods necessary for effective reenacting (clothing, guns, tents, other items necessary to maintain the illusion) and were tempted by a couple items, but we had already bought the kids their gifts and didn't need anything else, except for a graphic non-fiction book that discusses the history behind the Gettysburg Address. Yeah, I know, but the author had the teacher's attention and I have a hard time saying no to that kind of thing.

Ok, so back to my introduction. I mention my initial thoughts on reenactors only because it is the impression that many people have: a bunch of Rednecks running around trying to relive the glory of the mid-19th century and hanging on to the possibility that the South could have won the War. After an afternoon at a major reenactment, I have to admit that I was wrong. Reenactors know their stuff. There are people who have spent years studying the Civil War and everything related to the war. And different people specialize in different areas. Some are experts on medicine, some on weapons, some on clothing; you name it, there's an expert. We even went to a tent with a scholar who focuses on 19th century military chaplains. Then came the reenactment.

We had learned while touring the National Park that the NPS does not allow reenactments on NPS grounds. People are allowed to dress up and do encampments, but they are not allowed to fight on the actual battlefields. And that makes sense. There is something about those battlefields that is sacred. Men (and some women) died there to ensure the maintenance of the Union. To act on those fields, to replay what happened there does not seem right. So why do it at all? For these men it appears to be more than just playing dress-up. It is a way to honor the past and those who died. It was the most patriotic event I have attended in a long time, complete with the Pledge of Allegiance, National Anthem (beautifully sung by a young adolescent), and a recognition of veterans.

Then the men took to the field. We watch a lot of war films. We like war films. We love history so it would make sense that we like to see history played out on the screen. A reenactment is not a war movie, but it brought the war to life. And it wasn't just a lot of men running around pretending to kill each other. There was an order, a method to the madness, and they even had an announcer who told those in attendance what was going on on the battlefield. It was entertaining and informative at the same time. It was big and grand and yes, there were "bodies" left of the field, but it also gave a visual for those in attendance. A visual with descriptions that helped the audience focus. The whole event lasted 40 minutes. It was good; I'm glad we braved the heat and crowds and went. In the end I can say it was worth it.

When it was over we raced out, got back to the campground, made some dinner, and then did not get done in time to hit the pool. As usual, when we camp on a sightseeing trip, our campsite was more base camp than anything, but we did get a campfire in.

There's the trip. We made it back through the mountains and hills of Pennsylvania to meet my in-laws at our house with the kids. There are more things I plan to reflect on in relation with the trip, but that's all for tonight.

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