Civil War, Gettysburg battles reenacted after 150 years

by Stuart Christians

North Carolina troops overlooking the battlefield at Pickett’s Charge in Gettysburg. Photo courtesy of Bill Coe.
North Carolina troops overlooking the battlefield at Pickett’s Charge in Gettysburg. Photo courtesy of Bill Coe.

150 years ago when Americans wearing either blue or grey descended upon the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, The Army of Northern Virginia, led by Robert E. Lee was in need of supplies. After two years of war, with major battles and troops foraging for provisions, his supplies were depleted. General Lee moved his army in need of food and supplies to the North into Pennsylvania. This also brought the war for the first time to Union soil. General Lee knew his Army was not going to be able to outlast the Union Army in a war of attrition, and he desperately desired to end the long conflict.

The Union Army, under the newly appointed General Meade, was made up of troops from many Northern States including Michigan with our own General Custer in the Union Cavalry. He was given a promotion and earned fame for stopping the Confederate Cavalry from advancing during Pickett’s charge.

Recently, the 150th Anniversary of the battles at Gettysburg, which is the most recognized battle of the Civil War, was reenacted. History buffs, scholars and re-enactors from all fifty states and twenty-two countries descended on Gettysburg. Over 12,000 re-enactors came from as far away as Indonesia, Australia, and Israel. This event lasted for three days and reenacted the original battles. The events of each day were portrayed by the living historians.

On the first day, Union troops dressed as Cavalry soldiers, and riding their mighty steeds were representing those daring soldiers from Buford’s Cavalry Unit. They were holding back the Confederate forces from attaining the high ground on the first day of the battle.

On the second day, the dramatic and costly battle of Little Round Top, under Colonial Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (the College Professor from Maine), gained notoriety for defending the extreme flank of the Union line. The heroic Confederates ascended a steep hill and a hail of fire from Union forces and Chamberlain’s men brought several losses for the embattled Confederate troops. Desperately in need of the high ground and flanking position, to help insure victory at the end of this battle, Chamberlain led a bayonet charge down upon the advancing brave soldiers of the Confederacy.

The third day brought the famous and bloody advance known as Pickett’s Charge. Pickett’s Charge is still one of the most famous battles of the Civil War. Emotions still run deep for many re-enactors familiar with the significance of the conflict. Also, descendants of those who bravely fought have strong emotional ties through their family members that fought there. The re-creation of Pickett’s Charge was not meant to be a typical reenactment of a battle, but more of a tribute to the courageous men in both blue and grey. The Army of the Confederacy gathered in the woods while the Union Forces hunkered down behind a small pile of rock. Two long hours of an artillery barrage was fired as in the original battle. Can you imagine the slow march in formation by the Confederate re-enactors walking almost a mile through a hail of cannon shots? This started with solid shot and exploding projectiles as they got closer and came in range of the infantry rifles that further destroyed the Confederate advance. Finally they reached the Union line still to be met with cannon shot at point blank range. This shredded anything that stood in its destructive path. In the original battle the Union and Confederate forces fought with bayonet and sword, even fists to claim the high ground they so desperately needed. The south was able to cross the Union lines but there were so few of the original twelve thousand men that started the charge. With no reinforcements behind them they had little choice but to surrender or return to their original line. Many of them returned with “Yankee Lead”. Numerous Union Troops tried to encourage the Confederates to give up and stop fighting. Many of the Union Troops beheld the bravery of their Confederate foes that came so far in such a dangerous shooting zone – all for their beloved homeland and the sovereignty of their home state.

One sergeant in the recreated infantry from North Carolina told of his great grandfather who lost both eyes and both legs, most likely as a result of cannon canister shot. Canister is a can or bag of small, approximately one inch in diameter, balls shot from a cannon designed to cut large gaps in the attacking lines. For this sergeant that event in history re-lived was a source of pride, but also of deep hurt as he remembered the sacrifice of his forefather who died from his wounds two months later.

For those of us in Michigan it also is a reminder of the pain and suffering from the war as soldiers, mostly from North Carolina and Alabama, marched across the field of combat. It was our own men and possibly women who were hunkered down behind the small rocks piled in a line that to this day are still standing. In front of them was artillery shot overhead toward the artillery behind them and occasionally it fell short which cleared out the soldiers in its path.

Pictured here is a soldier from the 26 Michigan Infantry, the Black Hats. He was on picket duty, pacing 50 foot back and forth in high temperatures and humidity.
Pictured here is a soldier from the 26 Michigan Infantry, the Black Hats. He was on picket duty, pacing 50 foot back and forth in high temperatures and humidity.

Soldiers from Michigan were part of the famous black hats, also known as the Iron Brigade, who were recognized for bravery in the line of fire. The Iron Brigade was made up of the Western States’ soldiers from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana as well as Michigan. This formed the Iron Brigade at Gettysburg. The 24th Michigan was the twenty-fourth unit to be raised in Michigan. They suffered eighty percent of the causalities during the war losing three hundred ninety seven troops out of the four hundred ninety six. There were an undetermined number of women that wore either a blue or gray uniform during the war, many only discovered in the case of injury or death.

Today a monument stands where the faithful Michigan units fought, during the three days of fighting, celebrating their bravery. Those wishing to pay their respect to the heroic soldiers that fought to preserve the Union laid down small flags and flowers in front of this memorial. When you entered the camps of the Michigan re-enactors you would be greeted first by a soldier. He was on picket duty even in the hot, humid weather. They stood guard, not just reenacting all aspects of a soldier’s life, but also paying tribute to those that fought and gave their all to save the Union.

Each re-enactor was scrutinized very carefully. The uniforms, as well as camp goods, shoes, and eyeglasses, were examined so that only those with a sincere desire to reenact the times were allowed to participate. They value the need for accurate historic representation of the Gettysburg battle.

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