If you do the math, you can see that this week marks the 150th anniversary of the worst battle in the Civil War, based on the number of casualties. Gettysburg was fought July 1-3, 1863 and is considered by many historians to be critical to the momentum of the war, shifting the power in favor of the Union Army by turning General Lee back south. This year’s reenactment, while an annual event, is officially part of the five-year sesquicentennial celebration of the Civil War, where many battles across the country are being restaged to honor the soldiers who fought for their respective causes from 1861-1865.
I’ve been to two reenactments before: Belle Grove Plantation’s annual Battle of Cedar Creek (1864) and the First Battle of Bull Run/First Manassas (1861) that kicked off the sesquicentennial anniversary battles. Both were interesting to watch, but I had no idea who was portraying who or what military maneuvers were being replicated. My Civil War knowledge is admittedly poor! I had higher expectations for Gettysburg because we were told that 14,000+ reenactors from all over the country had come, and since it was an annual occurrence, I thought that there would be more information on what was happening. To be honest, I was a little disappointed that I could not differentiate my experience in Gettysburg from my prior two reenactments. An interesting fact I learned from one of the participants, who was also present for the 135th reenactment, was that there are two groups of reenactors, and cooperation was not secured so that the two would come together on the same dates to combine forces, per se, for a bigger visual impact. So instead of one battle on one field, there were two battles reenacted on two different fields: one last weekend and one this weekend. This has not always been the case. I also learned that if you’re going to only one day of the reenactment, you should always choose the one recreating Pickett’s Charge. The battle we saw was primarily a cavalry battle. We did not stay for the afternoon’s all-infantry battle due to the heat.
Regardless of your interest in the Civil War, if you are an expert or just have a casual curiosity, if you want to see a battle reenactment at Gettysburg, consider these suggestions. First, plan ahead. Traffic is heavy on the small streets that take you to the site. There is a shuttle bus you can take for free from a satellite parking lot at the Community College, and it worked out perfectly for us. Second, get there early. People start claiming their spots along the battlefield sideline as soon as they get to the field, saving them with folding chairs. We did not bring chairs, which turned out fine for us just sitting on the grass, but it depends on your preference. Advance tickets for the grandstands are available, but those seats were not necessarily the best. If you do not have a ticket, this is another reason to get their early to avoid the lines that developed. Third, this is Pennsylvania in July which means it is hot and humid, so hydrate, apply sunscreen, and consider bringing an umbrella for shade. Finally, bring cash so that you can get authentic civil war food from the vendors easily; and by authentic, I mean funnel cakes, sno-cones, pita sandwiches, turkey legs, and other not even remotely authentic food from the 1860s! But boy did that blue raspberry sno-cone taste good after 5 hours of being in the sun! Most of the vendors took credit cards for their various goods for sale – including costumes, instruments, period antiques, etc. – but don’t count on it. Of course, no matter what, it’s always important to have fun and talk to the people around you because you never know if the guy next to you is a battle expert who can talk you through what’s going on! I always get lucky finding these people.