Gettysburg and its local connections

“Nothing like sunbathing in wool clothing” were the words I overheard as we were ordered to lie down in the grass last weekend at the Gettysburg 150th Civil War battle reenactment. A “cooler” battle with a bit less than a 100-degree heat index; we had just begun the famous Pickett’s Charge. Several Union cannons, no more than 20 to 25 yards behind us were beginning their cannonade in anticipation of the Confederate charge across the field. July marks the anniversary of this battle from our nation’s history in 1863 and is so important that there were two weekends of events in Gettysburg, Pa. Last week’s column, “A battle for freedom,” looked at the first weekend and what a “campaign style” event entailed. Hosted by the Blue Gray Alliance, it had about 10,000 reenactors. Last weekend’s reenactment, hosted by the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee, had about 16,000 registered participants.

“Hot” is not an adequate word to describe what it feels like to participate in such battle reenactments. Sweltering and anxiously looking for some cloud cover and a breeze helps to clarify it. A mindset and acceptance of the conditions helps, along with knowing everyone else is experiencing the same thing. These were my thoughts as I participated in last weekend’s four-day reenactment with my family and reenactor friends. I sometimes like to say “I do it for the family,” which is partly true because many fun memories are created. It’s also an interest in history, knowing we are part of the effort in commemorating the sacrifices of prior generations, and helping all to remember our past, which makes it all worth it. In my experience, I have found that it’s very important to keep these higher reasons in mind as the heat and sweat are almost unbearable, from not showering, camping in a period tent with a grass floor, dressing in heavy clothes, and worst of all, planning and making the trek to a porta-potty that “percolates” in the heat. Should I go one last time in the dark before bed or put it off until I can’t wait anymore and go at 4 a.m.? This, in the end, is all relatively trivial when compared to the larger picture.

Of all the battles reenacted, Pickett’s Charge is always the last of the weekend. On the third day of the battle in 1863, Confederates bravely advanced across opens fields toward the Union position of Cemetery Ridge. Confederate artillery had pounded the Federal area in an attempt to weaken the center for their oncoming assault. So ferocious, it was said at the time that the reverberating sound could be heard over 250 miles away in Philadelphia. A news correspondent at Meade’s headquarters, according to an older edition of Gettysburg Battle News, reported that “The Confederate shells burst and screamed as many as six a second and made a very hell of a fire that amazed the older officers. Men were cut in two and horses died still fastened by their halters.”

The Confederates faced fierce cannon fire as they advanced across the open fields toward the Union defense. It was here, at the “soft” center and referred to as “the angle,” that 1st Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing, a graduate of West Point Military Academy and a Fredonia native, was in charge of Battery A, 4th US Artillery at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. Wounded in two places, including an open abdomen, Cushing refused to pull back. Defending the position, he died with a shot to his head. A narrator in a past reenactment stated, “Cushing has been wounded in the groin, he rushes forward to pull the lanyard. As he pulls, a bullet goes through his mouth. He will die.” This scene is also portrayed in the movie Gettysburg.

A Fredonia native myself, a portrayal of Cushing is something to be proud about and I have witnessed it in the past. I did not see this in last weekend’s battle, at least not at first. Dressed as a man in wool pants (with bloomers underneath as a barrier from the itchy fabric), I was with the field musicians with the task of distributing ice. On the ground near other family members, we dealt with the cannon fire. One or two cannons from a distance are one thing, but I had never been so close to so many firing at once over my head. I asked a friend what he thought the line of small flag markers were where we were located. He replied that he thought that was the “safety” line. “Hmmm, interesting,” I thought as the explosions shook our bodies, the drums, and the ground. In the distraction of advancing Confederates in the distance, a grandstand of many thousand people, and a television helicopter overhead, I had nearly missed the obvious! Not more than 15 yards or so ahead of me and slightly towards my left was Cushing’s flag and cannon. As best as I could, I snapped some photos to help remember this unique opportunity that I had where Cushing helped turn back one of the largest assaults of the war. I also attempted to capture part of the musician’s corps as they became stretcher bearers while carrying off Confederate leader General Armistead, who was mortally wounded within yards of Cushing’s artillery battery.

There is no time machine to take us back in time to witness events, but reenactments such as Gettysburg are the next best thing to help us appreciate the past. Along with enduring the sun and somewhat roughing it, there was also fun with old and new friends and an extended family of son-in-laws. It seems it has become a requirement to participate when married into the fold. The huge rainstorm that came just as the last battle ended was just another “fond” memory, along with the two-hour gridlock of many thousand people trying to leave the large farm where the event was held.

Make it a good week enjoying your summer hobbies and activities. Mark your calendars for Aug. 17 and 18. The Dunkirk Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum is hosting the “Battle of Lighthouse Point” which will include some Civil War battle scenarios and a living history camp with firing demonstrations and period fife and drum music. Tickets are for a nominal fee that supports both the Lighthouse Museum and Dunkirk Historical Society.