Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Best and Worst of Times, Part 4

GAC 150th Commemoration, Battle of Gettysburg

Gettysburg, PA

July 3-7, 2013

Day 6: The Charge: Deploy the Belgians!

Courtesy J.R. Sharp
The last day of the event was a quiet morning.  We had all day with nothing to do be pack up and rest.  The battle was not until 3 pm.  At seven in the morning, we had a photo shoot for the brigade, but it was optional.  We had just enough of the Independent Guard represented to acknowledge that we were there—the battalion staff and a handful of the 50th VA to carry the colors.  Just before taking the wagons to the photo shoot at the battleground, I was talking with the colonel, and in mid-sentence, I started losing my voice.  It was as if I were entering puberty—it cracked and creaked.  From that point on for the rest of the day, I had trouble being heard.  I was able to make it through the battle by forcing my voice, sounding angry as I pushed by vocal cords beyond their limits.  Capt Sharp nearly went into shock when I shouted at him to get his attention—he thought I was about to rip him apart for something, when I was just trying to push past the laryngitis to be heard.

As I’m sure many units experienced, many of the units of the Independent Guard Battalion had visitors fall in with them.  The 1st Tennessee had a couple of guys try to fall in as they were forming up for the Pickett’s Charge battle, and that is a bad idea.  Most units worth their salt with eject reenactors that fall-in without warning.  The general rule of thumb is that if you don’t drill with a unit, you don’t play with that unit.  I caught one of those guys trying to fall in, asked Capt Sharp if he recognized the guy, and pulled him out, sending him to any other unit down the line.  I’m not sure if he found a unit, but I doubt it.  The reason for this is safety concerns—there was no time to drill the guy to see if he was even capable, and his weapon could not be inspected.  All of us reenactors have heard nightmares of some yahoo sneaking into the ranks with a musket with a live round, shooting someone for real on the field.  The entire IG staff stands behind its companies to support this philosophy.

But we did have a number of reenactors contact us ahead of time to arrange to fall in with us.  The 5th KY had someone as far away as Denmark.  I suspect the 50th VA had a few, along with the 10th TN.  The 1st TN had a guy from Utah, along with three from Belgium.

The Belgians were quite the experience. Back in Belgium, they did ACW reenacting, along with Renaissance period reenacting.  It was a bit humorous to imagine the two combined, so the joke became that we’d just send the Belgians after them.  “Deploy the Belgians!” became the catch-phrase.

For Pickett’s Charge, most units were not supposed to go over the wall—only Armistead’s brigades went over in history.  But two special companies were formed with select members from each company to go over the wall.  There were enough open spots that the 1st Tennessee selected the three Belgians to go, as an honor to them.

The Army of Northern Virginia (ANV) division—First Division—at the top of the hill was in charge of those companies.  During the morning, someone came around and said that the company had to be formed immediately for drill—if they did not drill, they would not be going over the wall.  All of us in the battalion staff were a bit perturbed we were not informed there would be drill earlier.  Having drill made sense, but not informing anyone ahead of time did not.  It seemed rather suspicious—like perhaps there was intent to leave out any non-ANV reenactors.

We did manage to get the word around about drill, and the Belgians rushed up the hill.  They told us later that drill was a bit goofy, with commands that included “Check shoelaces”.  Their opinion was that there was a bit of a lack of skill there.  The Belgians agreed that our group was better.

The day overall was pretty slow—many packed their gear up.  A lot of reenactors from other units across the field broke the rules and brought their cars in to pack up—we were only allowed to bring cars in after the afternoon battle started, yet it seemed more than three quarters of the camps had at least one vehicle parked in it by noon.  The 1st TN obeyed the rules, and I believe the other units of the IG also did, though I made no note of it.  It did mess up our experience a bit, but at least we obeyed the rules.

We marched out for the battle, waiting in the sun for the moment to start at the edge of the battlefield.  A couple of generals stood with General Julian—I didn’t know who they were, but one must have had a wireless telegraph communication with General Pickett as he talked into a device he held to his ear within site of the spectators, oblivious to the Yankee entrenchment forming at the wall in the distance.

We began our march, halting to fire once, then marching in echelon in columns of two across a bridge over the semi-dry creek.  Once across, we reformed the battalion and fired some more at the Yankees on the wall.  The 1st TN all went down quickly, leaving us with parts of three companies. We advanced further to the split-rail fence and we struggled with that fence.  Some of us tried to push it over, but its posts were buried too deep, so we had to pull the rails out of their supports.  I climbed over to see if I could help others over, but at this point, we were in total chaos.  The 5th KY advanced to the right, while the 50th VA advanced to the left, leaving me in the middle all alone.  I took a hit like I was shot with a machine gun and landed on my tin cup, pretty much destroying it.  It’ll make a good prop on my haversack, but I’ll never be drinking out of it again.  I thought I might as well look like a good severely wounded soldier and started dragging myself with my sword to the rear, leaving my right leg limp.

The battle ended and I followed the sergeant-major back to camp.  The rest of the 1st Tennessee pretty much walked straight to their cars and headed off.  About a third of the way back, it started raining for the first time all week.  It seemed it was saving up for this moment, because it was not just a light drizzle—it was a torrent.  By the time I arrived in camp, I was drenched to the bone, pouring a puddle of water off the rim of my hat.

Joe shared my tent all week, and we had originally planned to stay the night there, but decided we might do better finding a hotel instead.  While I waited for a break in the rain, we talked with the Belgians, who were going to camp overnight to leave in the morning.  The Belgians told us that the unit they fell in with was prohibited from going over the wall since they did not get to drill—perhaps my suspicions were correct?  I reported this to Colonel Clark.  I’m sure the report got up the command chain from there, but I don’t know what will come of it. The Belgians did say that the unit that made it over the wall shouted something on the order of, “We are the elite!!”  Sounds like they were a company of children.

At the first break in the rain, I sloshed to my car and brought it back to camp, pretty much tossing everything in, not worrying about anything but being able to shut my truck.  Everything was soaked, and all would have to come out when I got home to dry out.  Joe and I led the Belgians and Dancing Dave to York PA where the rest of the crew had a hotel room.  We all trucked out to a restaurant called “Smokey Bones” and enjoyed a rather entertaining night with those Belgians.

J.R. was kind enough to let Joe and I use their shower before dinner, but Joe had left his brogans in the room when we went to eat, so we had to return to their hotel to retrieve them, while everyone else waited at the restaurant.  When we arrived at the hotel, Joe pulled out that Civil War plaque he had obtained from that guy in Gettysburg that let us take a shortcut through his yard for the Pickett’s Charge on the Battleground park.  A devious idea crossed his mind, and he took the plaque up to the hotel room with him, leaving it under J.R.’s pillow as he retrieved his brogans.

On our return to Gettysburg to get to our own hotel, we got a text from J.R.

That plaque now hangs in J.R.’s wall.

Day 7: Antietam/Sharpsburg

It was now Monday.  The GAC Gettysburg 150th Commemoration was now over, and an eight hour drive waited for us.  But the Antietam (or Sharpsburg, if you are die-hard Confederate) Battlefield was only about an hour drive away, and Joe had more than one area of Civil War battlefield expertise, so offered the Belgians, Dancing Dave, and I a tour of the battlefield of the bloodiest day in American history.

I actually found this tour more interesting than the tour of the Gettysburg battlefield, though I’m not sure if it was because Sharpsburg was only a one day battle, or because of the overall simplicity of the tour (only taking three hours) over Gettysburg (which took several days).  We covered the three main parts of the battle, starting with the Cornfield, proceeding through the Sunken Road, and ending at Burnsides Bridge.   I studied the land and could imagine the soldiers in the fight.  As I examined that steep hill with two rifle pits high up, from where the Confederates defended Burnsides Bridge, I imagined the rain of lead the Yankees encountered as they tried many times to take that bridge.


The GAC Gettysburg was definitely an event to remember.  I enjoyed myself thoroughly.  But it was Quinn who said, “I think I like the smaller events better.”  Our fun at Gettysburg came more from the camaraderie of friends spending time together, than from the action of the battles.  Those battles had their place, but they didn’t have the thrill we find at the smaller events, where it might be just our battalion, maybe one more, and anything can happen (and usually does), in spite of the planned scenario. With an event the size of Gettysburg, we are locked into our specific place, the scenario must closely follow the history (even though it still gets blown)—so it’s more of a disappointment when plans go awry, as the battle for us is more for the history.  At the smaller events, it’s just a basic, typical skirmish, so the history that is laid at a particular battle is irrelevant, plus we have the camaraderie of each other.

Basic video of the last day:
Videos of Pickett's Charge:

News articles:

Courtesy Matt Rourke, Associated Press

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