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A battle for freedom

Brother against brother” was as true last weekend as it was 150 years ago. Members of families were split on two fronts because of location or philosophy and at times may have met up in the same battle. The American Civil War was fought on home soil with the “other side” consisting of fellow Americans. Since 2011, many 150 year anniversaries of significant battles have been remembered. This month marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg from 1863. Famous for several reasons, this year there are actually two weekends of reenactments. Last weekend was the first, hosted by the Blue Gray Alliance. It was here that two brothers, one from the North and one living in the South, met at Gettysburg for four days of battles.

A typical Gettysburg event on “off” years might have about 2000 reenactors. Years that are multiples of five and ten always have many more participants, making the 150th a huge anniversary. Last weekend there were about 10,000 reenactors. This weekend’s event, hosted by the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee, expects at least 17,000. Among these thousands are the two brothers. Involved since 2004, they have looked forward for nine years to this year’s anniversary. Two weekends just makes it that much better! Like the sentiments of all reenactors, they choose to be involved not only because it is a fun hobby with family and friends, but also because of a love of history, family genealogy with roots stretching back to the war, and a compelling desire to commemorate the sacrifices of past generations. Participation in these “living history” events helps all to remember where we have come from and to understand who we are today.

Preparing for a reenactment is part of the fun and could be compared to something like looking forward to Christmas. Instead of the excitement of shopping and unpacking favorite decorations, the reenactor chooses his favorite and necessary equipment from his collection of supplies. This past weekend was billed as more of a “campaign style” event, meaning only take what can be carried on your back, without typical “frills” such as tents, bulky sleeping materials, and large cooking ware that are found at other living history events. A period style knapsack contains a gum blanket, which is a heavy, rubber-like fabric that can be worn as a poncho in the rain or is used to spread on the ground when sleeping to create a moisture barrier between the ground and the soldier. Along with food rations, personal supplies of playing cards, another shirt and pair of dry socks, a tin cup, and maybe a toothbrush are included. The uniform is worn, so there are no additional clothes to take up unnecessary space. Leatherworks for the rifle and the rifle are carried along with a canteen.

Hardtack, a food staple of the day both 150 years ago and today was eaten over the long weekend battle. It could last for years because it is just basically a hard cracker made of flour, salt, and water. Small cloth ration bags held items such as rice, oatmeal, venison jerky, and a type of trail mix with nuts and fruit. A very small cast iron frying pan and a tin cup placed over an open fire cooked the food. Everyone shared whatever they had, so that the rice had some summer sausage and onions added to it. The oatmeal had some nuts and fruit. Last weekend’s dessert was a special hardtack with some honey and cinnamon baked into them. That’s it- simple food for a basic, campaign style weekend.

Culp’s Hill was one favorite battle reenactment last weekend. Held on Friday evening, participants described it as intense and humbling. Humidity and smoke from the weaponry hung in the air. Silhouettes of advancing Confederate soldiers were daunting. Flashes from gunfire could be seen in the dusk and battle sounds echoed through the woods. The Union reenactors had built rock and log breastworks within a period of less than an hour. Confederate scouts had been sent out to observe, and a short time later the soldiers advanced to the wall. It was here that the two brothers faced each other, which brought to life the real meaning of “brother against brother.” The actual battle of Culp’s Hill 150 years ago was critical because if the Confederates took this location, they would have been able to sweep the Union aside and capture the federal army and its position. The Confederacy was repulsed and the ground was held, just like the opposite side of defense far away at Little Round Top.

The Wheatfield and Peach Orchard were battles fought in Confederate attempts to advance to Culp’s Hill and Little Round Top. Both sides suffered tremendous losses of thousands of men, with accounts of bodies upon bodies and troops on the ground and having to step on fellow soldiers. The Wheatfield is said to have been covered in blood. The reenactors also portrayed these battles last weekend. There were infantry clashes, cavalry charges, and cannonades. Fife and drummers were required to take on medical duties by carrying off wounded men. One of the brothers, while performing this task, was captured when the Confederate line advanced. He expected to be shipped off to Andersonville, the dreaded and horrible prisoner of war camp. It was later discovered that the brother on the south was involved in another engagement at the time. Originally from the North, he is affectionately called the “Yankee bastard” by his Virginia group.

Everything was packed up last weekend by Sunday afternoon for the trip back home. For the hardcore reenactors, this of course was just walking out with knapsacks on their backs. A little extra baggage for some people was unwelcome. Those that camped in the woods found a tick or two, even hours later on various parts of the body. Isn’t there a country song with, “I want to check you for ticks?”

Next week, we’ll see how the second weekend of battle reenactments played out.

Make it a good week – enjoy your summer hobbies and activities.

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