On this day 150 years ago the Battle of Gettysburg began. By the time the three-day battle was over, nearly 8,000 Americans were dead and another 40,000 were wounded or missing. But the battle changed the tide of the Civil War.
This week, thousands of spectators will gather in Gettysburg to mark the anniversary, as Civil War re-enactors play out some of the key skirmishes that made the three-day battle so memorable. That means Gettysburg Chief Historian Scott Hartwig will be busy.
“It’s like performing,” Hartwig said. “You get instant gratification. The people instantly respond … if you go out and give a really meaningful program you hear from people immediately.”
Hartwig tries to immerse his visitors into the experience, and that could be a bit easier this week with the smell of gunpowder and horses in the air and the sight of blue and grey uniforms everywhere.
As the 150th anniversary approached Hartwig was often asked what he thought it would take to get the nation interested in the Civil War.
“I said convince Hollywood to make a movie, because mass media is going to reach the maximum number of people," Hartwig said. "So Hollywood, for better or worse, has a huge impact."
Of course there have been Civil War movies, and Hartwig notes that there have been some great scenes in movies like "Cold Mountain" and "Glory."
“But to this point no one has made the 'Saving Private Ryan' or the 'Band of Brothers' or 'The Pacific' for the Civil War,” Hartwig said.
He admits it is not easy for filmmakers to take on the Civil War’s carnage with any level of accuracy.
“The Civil War is somewhat romanticized in the way that somehow it was not more horrible or more terrible … We forget sometimes that this slaughter that was occurring on this battle field was mind boggling,” Hartwig said.
Hartwig notes that the Union Army’s 10,000 member First Corps lost 50 percent of its men in the first day of the battle.
“Who were they fighting? Other Americans,” Hartwig said. “And that is something that we forget sometimes. We were slaughtering each other.”
As the yearlong celebration of the 150th anniversary winds down at Gettysburg National Military Park Hartwig, plans to wind down his 34-year career and step into retirement. Until then he will continue to educate visitors on the key military maneuvers and the personal stories that make the Battle of Gettysburg one of the most studied moments of the war. And he has some advice for future visitors.
“We want you to have a good time, we want you to enjoy yourself, we want you to find this an interesting place, but don't ever forget what really happened here," Hartwig said. "And that’s a serious message, and that is one of the reasons why we have to preserve a place like this."