This week’s observance of Memorial Day - originally set aside as a day to honor Civil War soldiers killed in action – is important as a precursor to one of the most solemn anniversaries in American history.
In just five weeks, more than 10,000 re-enactors are scheduled to converge on Gettysburg, Pa., to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the largest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere. Also expected are thousands of civilian interpreters, 400 horses and 100 cannons.
Ironically, the media relations manager for the anniversary is Carl Whitehill, a former newspaper reporter in Dunkirk and Jamestown. “The entire year will be part of the commemoration. Gettysburg is a Civil War town every day, all year-round,” he said in a recent email.
The battle lasted three bloody days but did not force the end of the war. The actual anniversary is July 1-3 but the combat re-enactments are scheduled for July 4-7 to coincide with the Independence Day weekend. In keeping with the community’s serious approach to history, all battles will be narrated by Gettysburg National Military Park licensed battlefield guides.
“The National Park Service records 3,155 Union and 3,500 Confederate deaths over the three days, but some students of the battle believe that the Confederate death toll was much higher. Thousands more were mortally wounded. Casualties – including wounded, captured and missing – topped 50,000 for the two armies combined. By a wide margin, Gettysburg spilled more blood than any other Civil War engagement,” wrote Joel Achenbach recently in the Washington Post.
My great-great grandfather fought in the Union army with the First Maryland Cavalry, also known as Cole’s Cavalry. These men were also referred to as the “Potomac Home Brigade,” a red, white and blue moniker if there ever was one.
A woman who shared her ancestry with me via email told me an intriguing story. She said her grandchildren love to ride horses on the battlefield.
They rent horses at the Artillery Ridge campground where riding tours of the site are offered. It’s overwhelming to think visitors could view Gettysburg from the same perspective that their ancestors did so long ago.
Although this year’s event will draw a massive number of people to the small town, it’s not the first time such a large-scale gathering has been planned in honor of the best-known battle of the Civil War. The “1913 Grand Reunion” has been described as the nation’s last attempt to pay tribute to all those who fought there, Union and Confederate alike. It was a reunion of veterans as well as a gesture of healing.
The first weekend in July in Gettysburg this year will be about more than tens of thousands of individuals dressed in period costume to stage battle scenes. It will be about primitive battlefield medical procedures, the resilience of a small town devastated by war and how instantaneous decisions had a lasting impact on the future of the United States.
It will thrill spectators with pageantry and song as well as inspire scholarly scrutiny of military tactics never considered by average citizens then or now. It will also be a tribute to those who stood for equality, sacrificing their lives to uphold President Abraham Lincoln’s desire for a “new birth of freedom.” It will be a tribute to the president himself, who traveled by train four months later to give one of the greatest speeches of all time.
Five decades ago, countless families made Gettysburg a family vacation destination as the battle’s centennial was observed. But keep in mind that an effort to understand the battle and its impact is more than a summer history lesson. As Whitehill said, it’s a Civil War town every day.
Keep it in mind this summer and avoid the clutter of commercialism that cropped up years ago around the fringes of the battlefield. Every marker tells a story of a generation that came perilously close to seeing the Union dissolved. Whether you take a motorized tour, walk across the battlefield - or ride a horse - remember that Gettysburg is hallowed ground.