Living History at Gettysburg- 1997

(c) 1997 by Rick Walton

Lt. Col. Jeff Stepp, commanding the 26th Reg’t N.C.T. , invited members of the 6th N.C.S.T. to join them at Gettysburg on Aug 15-17 1997 for the second annual National Park Service invitational Living history, march and musket firing demonstation in conjunction with the 24th Michigan infantry. Wes Jones and myself were the only two members of the 6th NCST to make this memorable Journey. Here is my recollection as reported in the newsletter following the event: 

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If your idea of a living history event is sitting around in the shade while occasionally explaining the contents of your knapsack to curious spectators, then be glad you didn’t come with us on the weekend of August 15, 16 and 17. The weekend was an opportunity to truly “live” history, but it came at a sweaty, tiring cost. My thanks to the 26th for letting us fall in with them as “Volunteer Park Rangers”.

How many re-enactors can claim that they camped on the actual battlefield at Gettysburg?

How many re-enactors can claim that they camped on the actual battlefield at Gettysburg? Or recreate the Pickett-Pettigrew charge across the very terrain that Lee’s Confederates traversed on July 3, 1863? With our flags flying and under arms! Private Wes Jones, Rick Walton and the nearly 100 other North Carolinians who made the long trip to Gettysburg for this event can. The weekend was fun, hot, exciting, hot and busy. And hot. Walking in the shadow of our ancestors made it particularly special. I heard it described as an emotional roller coaster. We each have our own reasons for reenacting (which we had to reevaluate often when the 101 degree heat index zapped our energy and parched our throats) but when we stood on the same killing ground that our ancestors fought upon, we realized precisely why we do this. Dealing with emotions is tough business for manly men like us, so imagine how hard it was to keep your pards from seeing that tear in your eye. But dry eye’s were often the exception, not the rule this weekend. Each person faced their emotions in their own private way, but everyone who attended will forevermore remember the sacrifices that were made by our forefathers on this faraway battlefield.

We arrived at the camping grounds in Pitzer’s woods late Friday afternoon. We dropped off our gear and headed in to Gettysburg to walk the quiet streets, pausing to visit suttlers, bookstores and relic shops. We even squeezed in a little battlefield sightseeing. We bypassed the multitude of tourist shops selling T-shirts and plastic battle flags and began to concentrate on finding an eating establishment that would ease the hunger pains. We were anxious to quench our thirst and knowing that the National Park Service took a dim view of imbibing on park property, we knew that this would have to last us all weekend. We were pleased to find a place with pitchers of our favorite beverage on special. As we studied the menu, or waitress asked us if we were here for the “reenactment”, advertised on a poster in their front window. Wes quickly replied “Why, do we stink already?” As we raised the frosty beverage to our parched mouths we thought that we had never experienced such relief. Little did we know the test of endurance that awaited us during the next two days, when an single drop of water would become a priceless commodity.

After dinner we returned to camp to participate in an event called “moving 50 cars to a parking lot 2 miles away and getting everyone back to camp before daybreak”. We played follow the leader as a long caravan of North Carolina tags snaked it way thought the moonlit battlefield lanes. We got a lift back in a shuttle, but several of our comrades took a wrong turn and weren’t seen for hours.

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When we got back to camp, we strolled over to the artillery section where we were welcomed and offered a treat. A small barrel shaped container held something sloshing around in a liquid. Encouraged to try one, I cautiously withdrew a floating sphere and discovered that it was a Cherry that had been bathing in a solution, somewhat stronger than water, for several days. Wes immediately christened them “Canister”, because they look like grapeshot and if you eat enough of them they’ll kill you..

Saturday Morning

We awoke to the smells of sizzling bacon. Since there was no commissary, we were forced to rely on the cooking skills we had developed recently at Manassas. After Breakfast, the troops were mustered and the orders of the day were read. Any hope of a relaxing, low impact event were quickly abandoned. We started with drill, then had some drill followed by more drill. But this was the easy part, conducted in the coolness of the morning (barely reaching 90 degrees). It didn’t get hard until after lunch, in the heat of the day, when we went on the “death march”.

Joining the 26th for this event were representatives from the 6th NCST, 21st NCT, 25th NCT, and 38th NCT as well as the 1st NC Artillery and their horse drawn battery. The morning report showed 105 men present for duty. We were also joined by a rag tag collection of about 15 Marylanders portraying the 1st and 14th Tennessee Volunteers, but the heat “prevented them” from participating in anything but a firing demonstration on Saturday.

Coming down from the Detroit area, were the 24th Michigan, who historically clashed with the 26th in McPherson’s woods. This weekend, the 24th encamped near the Pennsylvania Monument to provide a living history from a Yankee perspective.

After lunch the North Carolinians galvanized and began the 2 mile “death march” to the Pennsylvania monument to join the 24th for a joint firing demonstration. We left camp with banners flying , to the beat of the brigade band. Rather than take the “long way” via the park roads, the rangers “allowed” us to go cross country through the fields. At first this made sense , until we got halfway across and ran into a cornfield. We went from column of four to column of two to single file and zig zagged our way through some poor farmers struggling corn crop. (It was rumored, by some of our comrades who also reenact WWII, that this was evasive maneuvers to prevent Nazi U-boats from stalking us).

Finally reaching the other side, we reformed and marched down the farmers driveway to the highway only to discover that stone walls and fences prevented us from crossing the road. The head of the column executed a “counter march by files right” and before the end of the column knew what was going on, we were passing them on the way back to where we just came from. We tramped across the farmers back yard to a farm lane, following it until a crossing point was found. We entered the welcome shade of another farm yard and took a few minutes rest. By now the canteens were starting to get dry and the Pennsylvania monument was still a shimmering point on the hazy horizon.

Forming up again we proceeded our march down park roads, farm lanes and across still more fields. Women from the 26th NC Soldiers Benevolent Society had driven over from the camp with cold water and ice cubes and were waiting for us under a huge shade tree a couple of hundred yards from the monument. These ladies were indeed angels of mercy. The men fell out to refill canteens and quench powerful thirsts. After a short and welcome rest, we resumed our march and finally joined the 24th Michigan. The large, waiting crowd appreciated the live firing demonstration. Dreading the long march back , we were relieved when air conditionedshuttle vans appeared. When I got to camp I collapsed in a tired, sweaty heat. Who say’s living histories aren’t as tiring as battle reenactments? I could have stayed there all night but the day was not yet over. We had to change back to gray and get ready for a monument ceremony at 6:00.

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Still exhausted from the death march, we were thankful to be loaded onto the artillery trailers for the trip up to McPherson’s ridge. Hidden just beyond busy Rt. 30, down a quite park lane, are two monuments, one to the 26th North Carolina and opposite that, another to the 24th Michigan. It is on this site that the two regiments met in battle and did their best to obliterate each other.

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We marched the short distance, under thegreen canopy of shady trees, to the monuments. A small group of spectators trailed at a respectful distance. Upon reaching the monuments, the brigade divided. The 24th Michigan fronted, backs to their monument, while the 26th NC did the same in front of the North Carolina monument. As the last echoes of the fife and drums dissolved into the still evening air, the two regiments stood facing each other, on opposite sides of the road, exactly as their ancestors had done in combat 134 years earlier. But this evening it was a mutual respect that brought the forces together.

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1st Sgt. Jim Taylor, of the 26th Regt N. C. T., stepped forward with his guitar to begin the program, singing a 19th century version of “Auld Lang Syne”. Next Colonel Stepp spoke eloquently about the sacrifices made by the 26th on this spot. He recalled the succession of brave flag bearers, including Colonel Henry K. Burgwyn, who died urging their comrades forward. As the bloody and tattered flag fell for the thirteenth time, Lt. Col. John Randolph Lane grabbed the splintered flag pole exclaiming “No man can take these colors and live! It is my turn to take them forward”. Determined to drive the enemy back, he shouted “26th North Carolina, Follow me!” The 24th Michigan momentarily ebbed from the onrushing Confederates, but stubbornly reformed. Lane fell horribly wounded, “the last to discharge his deadly duty that day.” Within 20 to 30 minutes, 679 Carolinians fell following the colors in the short and vicious fight. Colonel Stepp reminded us, as Colonel Lane reminded his surviving comrades many years earlier at this same spot, about the importance of the regiment as an extended family. How the loss of a comrade was felt as severely as the loss of any family member. He also talked about remembering and honoring those that came before us. As we stood in the dimming light, our thoughts turned to the sacrifices made on this ground and the human tragedy that awaited the families of the slain back in North Carolina, so far away. The Commander of the 24th Michigan delivered similar remarks, recounting the sacrifices made by the Iron brigade who had an equally high loss. At the conclusion of the remarks, soil from all 100 counties in North Carolina was spread around the base of the N. C. monument consecrating the ground

Portrait of three Cnofederate colonels: Harry K. Burgwyn, John R. Lane, and Zebulon Vance, by William George Randall, 1904. Item H. 1914.290.1. from the collections of the North Carolina Museum of History.  Courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.

THE THREE COLONELS OF THE 26TH N.C.T.Col. John R. Lane, Col. Henry K. Burgwyn, Col. Zebulon B. Vance. Painted in 1904 by William George Randall. Painting currently hangs in the North Carolina Museum of History, Raleigh, NC

We marched back to the waiting trailers and piled on. Because of the one way streets, we had to shuttle through Gettysburg on the way back to camp. Can you imagine how many laws we broke? Nearly 100 dirty, sweaty men, dressed in Confederate uniform, no seat belts, Guns pointing every which way. What a site we must have been.

I was exhausted when I got back to camp! I stripped off my hot jacket and poured water over my head. The smells of supper cooking tempted my tired body, but it was no use. The corn, potatoes and canned meat stayed in my knapsack. I was too tired to attempt anything so dramatic and was content to open a cold can of beans for supper. Now I understand how solders could sleep on the march or on a pile of rocks, like we read about in their diaries.

 

As the shadows lengthened, I noticed groups of people drifting over to the nearby Amphitheater. The National Park service was about to put on a program about battle flags. Fortified by a tin cup of something thankfully stronger than water, Wes and I wandered over with some of our comrades and settled in for the evenings program.
Anticipating the Ranger would bow to the dictates of political correctness, our expectations were understandably low. We were pleasantly surprised when he went into a scholarly presentation which more than adequately explained the meaning and importance of the Confederate flag. References to North Carolina’s contributions were frequent. We were very impressed.

Sunday morning

Sunday morning came too quickly, as we rustled our weary bones. A brief shower during the early morning hours, accompanied by a stiff northerly breeze, served to cool things down considerably and I found myself wrapped tightly in my blanket to keep warm. The air was actually pleasant, a big change from the stifling heat of the day before. Shortly after breakfast the company streets reverberated with Sergeants echoing first call. We quickly coutered up and assembled on the parade ground. Roll call, size march, count off 1-2-1-2 and we were ready for another busy day. The regimental band struck up a stirring anthem and we began the mile long march toward the North Carolina Monument . The heel plates clicked on the pavement in loud synchronization with the down beat of the regimental drum causing every breast to swell with pride to be part of this grand spectacle. The cool morning air gave way to the approaching warmth as the stillness began erupting with the sound of peepers singing their peculiar tribute to the swelling heat. Faces glistened in the early morning sun, as streams of sweat began its journey from beneath 100 hat bands. The officers brought us from shoulder arms to right shoulder shift to support arms and back again at just the right moments to give our weary arms a rest. Tourists, taking an early morning drive down Confederate avenue, were surprised to see genuine Confederate soldiers on the march.

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As we approached a shade covered stretch of road, the music echoed from the trees. Looking into the shady glen, I could almost visualize a phantom army of our forefathers dropping their various camp duties to rush to the roadside and approvingly cheer us on. A loud and spontaneous Rebel yell reverberated through the surrounding forest in response to the band’s opening chords of Dixie. The battle flag snapped in the breeze as the men, heads held high, executed a sharp turn at the monument to the applause of the approving crowd gathered there. The pounding of my heart competed with the drum as I stood at attention waiting for the ceremony to begin. Colonel Stepp stood in front of the North Carolina monument facing the brigade. His inspiring remarks caused us to once again reflect on the men we were honoring and the pride we felt as North Carolinians. He called forward representatives to tell what each of their regiments did at Gettysburg.

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Colonel Stepp dismissed us to spend a private moment honoring our ancestors. I saw a soldier directly in front of the monument, on bended knee, hat over his heart and head bowed, honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice by crossing the field behind us. Just then a gentle rain began falling from the overcast skies and lonely bugle call could be heard from a nearby boy scout camp. Someone later recalled that it seemed as if God himself shared our pride and grief while letting his tear drops fall gently to the earth. The brigade posed for a group photo and then formed up to returned to camp, but before departing we were treated to an interesting history lesson about the North Carolina monument. It was Sculpted by Gutzon Borglum, creator of Mount Rushmore, and unveiled in 1929. In 1982, while members of the 26th participated in programs at Gettysburg, it was resolved to restore the sadly deteriorated monument suffering from the ravages of man and time. After struggling with government red tape for three years, this grass roots effort caused our state legislature to delegate $9,800 for cleaning & preservation. Other states soon followed and today all the Statues along Confederate avenue stand proudly shining in the sun.

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We returned in time for church services, followed by a regimental meeting. Nearly 100 of us sat in a huge circle and over the course of more than an hour, each person had a chance to speak their minds. Themes about the regiment being like family, the camaraderie, brotherhood and shared devotion to a common cause were repeated by many. The pride of our heritage, association with the 26th and life long memories were also referred to. We discussed the assault on Southern heritage so popular in the politically correct climate of today. Emotions were stretched, racing from moments of tearful sadness and pride, to roaring laughter. Spectators wandering through the camp were drawn to the circle and couldn’t tear themselves away from the heartfelt stories. They stood a respectful distance behind us, occaisionaly dabbing their eyes or joining the laughter. They shared a unique look into the culture of American Civil war re-enacters.

After a quick Lunch, we assembled for the final time and marched across the street for a firing demonstration. Curiously, we fumbled through the motions we were so proficient at earlier in the weekend like raw recruits. Was the heat starting to get to us or were our minds on the long awaited event about to commence?

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We marched out of the field to the applause and appreciation of the spectators and began the march down the now familiar Confederate avenue toward our destination at the Virginia Monument. Waves of heat shimmered of f the surface of the road in the 95 degree heat. Looking down at the pavement, we could see the imprints of our horseshoe shaped heel plates marking our progress on the softening tar giving a new meaning to the term “tar-heel”. Our column turned into parking area of the monument and fell out in the cool shade to refill our canteens. We reformed and were positioned in a line of battle overlooking the field we were about to cross. Behind the stone walls, over a mile away, waited the blue coated 24th Michigan.

Jim Taylor stepped forward and sang a poignant song about two comrades about to go into battle. They each promised contact loved ones should either fall in the coming battle. When the smoke cleared, both lie slain on the field of honor with no one to tell their loved ones anything. As we gazed across the hazy field, we wondered how many times this scenario had been repeated on that tragic July day 134 years ago.

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Our wandering minds were abruptly snapped back to the present as the Colonels orders rang out. The dream of every reenacter was about to be realized as our 100 man brigade entered the field under arms, with flags flying. To our rear, General Lee’s calm and approving gaze watched our progress from his post atop the Virginia Monument. Our Sergeants implored us to dress the line as me marched forward in careful synchronization. Someone began calling out the landmarks, reminding us that it was here that artillery would begin disrupting the line and , latter, the point that musketry would find its deadly target. Crossing the Emmitsburg pike, we reformed for the final charge. The muzzles of cannon pointed menacingly toward our line. The huge Federal flag could be seen waving behind the silhouettes of the blue coated defenders as the sun glinted off the polished barrels of dozens of muskets secure behind the rugged stone wall.

Emotions were once again racing as the rebel yell exploded throughout our line. The brigade surged forward and was about to charge over the last few yards in a exuberant rush, but the officers and NCOs quickly restored order and we marched to the base of the bloody angle in a well dressed line. A friendly Michiganer gave me his hand to help me across and greeted me, but the lump in my throat prevented me from responding with anything more than a nod. I am confident that many of my comrades shared my plight. The surrounding crowd burst into cheers having just witnessed a stirring and emotional event. If I hadn’t been participating, I would have wanted to be a spectator that afternoon. We reformed on the road behind the angle and marched to the Pennsylvania monument for a final joint firing demonstration. On the open field, under the blazing mid-day sun, the excitement of the crossing began to wear off to be replaced by the effects of the heat. It was time to end a great weekend . Camera Crews shadowed us throughout the event and I understand a film will be available next year, but watching the video can not replace the experience of being part of a weekend like this. If the opportunity presents itself in the future, do yourself a favor and make the trip to Gettysburg to participate. It’s an experience you’ll never forget.

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