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Re-enactments to Bring Gettysburg to Life for 150th Anniversary

J. Todd Poling

It was 150 years ago that the battle considered to be the turning point of the Civil War took place in a field in Pennsylvania.

Each year, thousands of people re-enact the Battle of Gettysburg, and thousands turn out to watch. This year, for the 150th anniversary, the events will be even larger than normal.

“There’ll be two major re-enactments probably attracting 12,000 to 15,000 re-enactors each, and then hundreds of thousands of spectators,” said Andy Masich, president and CEO of the Heinz History Center.  

Masich will be in Gettysburg to mark the anniversary, and so will Michael Kraus. Kraus is curator at Soldiers and Sailor Memorial Hall and Museum and has been doing re-enactments since 1966. Re-enactors often take what they do quite seriously, insisting on authenticity in uniform and weaponry. It’s meant to be a truly immersive experience.  

“It’s not just a pageant where you dress up," Kraus said. "It’s a way to research the clothing from the inside out. What kind of underwear did they wear, the drawers? What kind of shirts? How were they made? And then how did they wear, how long does it last you? How comfortable or uncomfortable? How did it confine your movement? What sound does it make?”

Those are questions many people have, and Kraus has the answers.

“It’s hot,” he said, “It’s very hot and uncomfortable. But when I look at photographs of Civil War soldiers, I see how they modified their uniform to make it a little more comfortable. We kind of learn from that and do the same things.”

Things such as adjusting jacket collars a certain way, or rolling up trousers, or learning how to ventilate sleeves. Kraus said marching along the road, hearing the crunch of leather shoes on the gravel along with the clinking of tin cups and swoosh of swords against fabric mixed with the smell of men smoking pipes, it paints a picture of history that can’t be read in books.

“We call them ‘magic moments,’" he said. "Occasionally you have this magic moment, you look around and everything you see is of the period. There’s nothing that’s outside the period. There’s no car sitting there, no radio, hopefully nobody on a cell phone. That’s a big thing now, is people will pull out their cell phones. They’re lying dead, and they reach in their pocket and pull out a cell phone and take pictures — the scourge of authenticity.”

Events marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War have been ongoing, but the anniversary of Gettysburg is a big deal for the commonwealth, which had the second largest contribution of soldiers in Civil War, behind New York.

“Certainly the Southern states felt the wrath of war for four years, Pennsylvania only was invaded one time, but it was the largest battle of the Civil War, the largest battle ever fought in this hemisphere,” Masich said.

It’s also the battle that is considered the turning point of the war. The South was essentially crippled following Gettysburg and would never regain the momentum it previously had. Masich said the history of the battle can come to life thank to efforts to keep Gettysburg as it was a century and a half ago.

“That’s a tribute to the National Park Service and the Gettysburg Foundation that’s been working hard for nearly 10 years to restore the tree lines to their 1863 appearance, to restore the stone walls and fences, undergrounding power lines, and replanting trees and orchards as they were 150 years ago,” he said.

Marking this anniversary is important as people continue to struggle with some of the same issues today as back then.

“Issues of race, of states’ rights, of individual rights, of government interference in lives — these are things that Americans are still grappling with today, and many of them have their roots in the Civil War,” Masich said.

The re-enactments, along with workshops such as “Pill Making in the 1860s and “Brain Surgery During the Civil War” will take place throughout the weekend and next week. Masich said President Obama has been invited to deliver the Gettysburg Address on November 19, on the anniversary of the original — no word yet on whether he will.