Wednesday, July 3, 2013

150 Years Ago Today: Pickett's Charge; My Experiences at Gettysburg

Stogie at Gettysburg
Today marks the 150th anniversary of the "high water mark" of the Confederacy when 12,500 Confederate soldiers attacked Union defenses on Cemetery Ridge.  The Confederate troops were told to focus on the Copse of Trees on Cemetery Ridge, and began a fast walk forward towards the Union lines.  The Southern lines were showered with canister, shells and musket fire and few actually reached the stone wall (a barrier of loose boulders piled in such a way as to make a kind of fence).  The great Confederate General Lewis Armistead was shot down just before reaching the Angle, a bend in the stone wall.  A monument today marks the spot where he fell, and I have been there.  The Angle is still there as well, with no hint of the desperate fighting that occurred there.

There is an excellent photo essay of reenactors at Gettysburg this week, and they have recreated the sights and scenes of that momentous battle with incredibly authentic detail.  See it here.

I was at Gettysburg in August of 1992, as a Confederate reenactor and extra ("background artist") in the Ron Maxwell movie "Gettysburg," based on the novel "The Killer Angels."  Bro and I had prepared for the filming for weeks in advance; I had grown a salt and pepper beard and we flew to Virginia where we rented a car and drove to Gettysburg.  We arrived and set up our tent in the Confederate camp, where we stayed for the week, constantly wearing our heavy woolen uniforms and marching at daybreak with other Confederate reenactors over grounds where the actual Confederates marched and died 129 years before.  With our uniforms, 1857 Enfield muskets (working replicas), canteens, haversacks, cartridge belts, rough brogan shoes, bayonets and other gear clinking and clanking to the tramp of marching feet, we took our places in the lines and prepared to once more assault the Union lines beyond the wooden fence bordering the Emmitsburg Pike.

                                                                                      Reenactors at Gettysburg, 2013

It was a hot, uncomfortable, busy week, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.  It was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life, and not because we were in a movie, or rubbing elbows with famous actors like Martin Sheen (as Lee) or Stephen Lang (as Pickett), but because we were paying homage to our courageous forbears in what was almost a religious experience.  As we the Confederates quietly passed the statue of General Lee on Seminary Ridge, where the real Confederates began the charge, we entered the actual Hallowed Ground to form our battle lines.  The Copse of Trees on the horizon is still there, and the grassy green expanse in front of us seemed silent and sacred.  How very different from that day in 1863, when the field between Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge was filled with roaring cannon and the rattle of  musket fire, billowing gun smoke, whistling shells and the screams of dying men, a scene of  blood and carnage, of dead men and horses.  Though the field before us was now silent, we could see, hear and smell the battle in our imaginations.

Soon our long gray line was marching forth, our red battle flags unfurled to the Pennsylvania breeze.  Many Confederate descendants, overcome with emotion, wept.  Bro and I marched forth with fixed bayonets, shells exploding on either side, rockets streaming over our heads, around dead horses here and there, onward toward the wall!.  We were finally shot down at the Angle (filmed later at an alternate location), and it was an honor to "die" for the Southern Cause.  One of our members actually did die, of a heart attack, later that week.  Actor Sam Elliot later led a memorial service for him and one other reenactor who died as well.

Bro and I were members of the First Virginia Infantry.  After the filming, we drove to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond and walked among the graves of the Confederate dead.  General Pickett is buried there, as well as many of his men.  We found one tombstone that identified the dead as a member of the First Virginia who fell at Pickett's Charge.  We also visited the graves of Jefferson Davis and Jeb Stuart, who are buried close to each other.


That's my Pickett's Charge tale, one that I and Bro actually experienced in the flesh.  Somewhere in the film "Gettysburg," there is a scene of grizzled, smoke stained Confederates marching toward the camera at the outset of Pickett's Charge, and for a few brief seconds, I am visible in the line, black slouch hat on my head, shouting at the other troops to "straighten that line."  Bro appears right behind me, for only a second before the scene ends.

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