GETTYSBURG, Pa. (AP) — Sweat soaking their wool uniforms, the Union and Confederate soldiers met near the stone wall to exchange handshakes, pleasantries and even a few jokes.
On this warm, sticky Sunday afternoon, both North and South went home happy after the Battle of Gettysburg.
Thousands of history buffs recreated the Confederate Army’s ill-fated Pickett’s Charge to end the first of two massive re-enactments held in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s pivotal conflict.
But the events to remember the battle that took place July 1-3, 1863 are far from over. The National Park Service took the spotlight Sunday night with its commemoration ceremony, just about 100 yards from the actual point in the battlefield where Pickett’s Charge was rebuffed.
“Tonight, we’re here to honor the dead; to recognize their courage and heroism; and to mark this major event in American history,” Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis told a crowd of several thousand that assembled at dusk, facing a stage set against the picturesque backdrop of the fields and hills where the fierce fighting took place.
“But I would suggest we’re also here to reaffirm the principles that demanded such terrible sacrifices in the summer of 1863,” Jarvis continued. “The ‘new birth of freedom’ President (Abraham) Lincoln spoke of was not a finite event …. It was part of a process that continued long after the Civil War and which, today, requires our constant vigilance.”
Up to 10,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died at Gettysburg, considered the war’s turning point.
Earlier Sunday, Union re-enactor William Hincks was awed by the chance to take part in the re-creation of the crucial battle.
“This has been unbelievable. The scale of it and the intensity those men must have gone through,” Hincks, 40, of East Hampton, Conn., said. “It’s intense without flying lead.”
More than 200,000 visitors were expected to swarm the south-central Pennsylvania town of roughly 7,500 residents over the 10-day milestone anniversary period ending July 7. Organizers said things were going smoothly so far.
A different group is holding a second re-enactment, described by local organizers as even larger in scale, set to begin on Independence Day. Re-enactments are held on private properties, miles from the actual battlefield.
In between, the Park Service hosts most of the spotlight events on the actual anniversary days of the encounter, including popular battlefield historical tours led by rangers.
“We expect to be ramping up as we head into July 1,” said Carl Whitehill, spokesman for the Gettysburg Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The re-enactment at the end of the week is expected to be the big, big event.”
Yet another opportunity to see Pickett’s Charge — the famous attack named after Gen. George Pickett, the Virginia-born U.S. military officer who went on to become one of the most recognizable names of the Confederate military. The Confederate commander, Gen. Robert E. Lee decided to use Pickett’s men to lead the assault on Union lines on July 3, 1863.
On Sunday, across an open stretch of grass as wide as two football fields, Confederate re-enactors gathered in orderly lines and marched on federal counterparts as thousands of spectators snapped pictures and took video.
“I got total, complete chills when I saw the Rebel line approaching,” said Jackie Ulloa, 47, of Atlanta, who cheered on a friend taking part in the re-enactment. “It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.”
That Confederate soldier who played “dead” but sneaked an iPhone out of his pocket to snap a picture? Not realistic.
For rookie re-enactor Hincks, Pickett’s Charge was a chance to follow in the footsteps of his great, great grandfather, Congressional Medal of Honor winner William Bliss Hincks. Fighting for a unit from Connecticut, Hincks’ ancestor grabbed the colors of a Tennessee infantry unit during the “high-water mark” of battle, which was also the northernmost advance by Confederates on Union soil.
In a bit of cooperation unseen during the actual war, the Connecticut group contacted the Confederate re-enactors portraying the Tennessee soldiers to play out the scene again with Hincks grabbing the flag. Kierran Broatch, 30, of Milford, Conn., also raced out with Hincks for the flag — just like his great, great grandfather, John C. Broatch, did 150 years ago.
A proud Hincks has his great, great grandfather’s sabre, too. It’s highly unusual for a first-time re-enactor to be granted such a key role.
“It’s history, you want to understand your family and your past,” Hincks said when asked why took part this week.
Months of preparation later, Sandy Andrews, 55, of Hagerstown, Md., pronounced the scene a smashing success. He heads the group portraying the Tennessee unit.
“It worked to perfection,” he said. “To be on the field with two descendants of the original men, you don’t get more special than that. On this day, on this field.”
Historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin delivered the keynote address. Her best-selling novel “Team of Rivals” in part inspired last year’s Oscar-winning film “Lincoln.”
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