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Charging for history

"Charging for history" Continued...

“I always wanted to know where he was when the charge started,” Walsh said. “I couldn’t help but think he was up there watching me.”

As today’s visitors marched and cheered across the field, a group nearly as large waited for them where the Union army stood in 1863.  

Randy and Kay Hunsaker, both in their 50s, spent five days driving from Billings, Mont., to be here for Pickett’s Charge. They arrived at the battlefield on Wednesday at 6 a.m., staking out a spot at the center of what was the Union line. There they sat on their blue folding chairs for nine hours until the 3 p.m. commemorative charge, fishing out bottles of water from their cooler and offering some to those around them.

“It was worth it,” said Kay Hunsaker. “Can you imagine that day, hunkering down behind these rocks and they are coming at you firing bullets? What terror those soldiers must have experienced.”

Back on the field, Harman, the park ranger, urged his group ahead. The summer humidity led to a few casualties but not the carnage of 150 years ago.

“This is where they started running,” Harman told his group as it was about two-thirds to the Union line. “But we won’t do that.”

It took about twenty minutes for the visitors to get across the field. That is about the same amount of time it took the soldiers back in 1863. Then Pickett’s division lost about 60 percent of its men. Some of the bones of the dead are still buried on the field, Harman told his group.

“That is why this is sacred ground,” he said.

This time, no hand-to-hand combat occurred. Instead both those who marched representing Confederates and those who waited representing the Union forces shook hands, applauded and cheered. They then stood silently, taking off their hats, as a series of buglers in Civil War-era uniforms played “Taps.”

Most of the hundreds of re-enactors here, enduring the humidity in period wool uniforms, had a little more grey hair than the 18- to 20-year-olds who did most of the fighting 150 years ago. Today’s re-enactors included John Grant Griffiths of Fredericksburg, Va., who will turn 75 in two weeks. He missed out on the 100th anniversary here, even though he participated in other centennial re-enactments at other battlefields back in the early 1960s.  A re-enactor since 1956, he started out as a Confederate clad in grey because it was hard to get blue wool at the time. The 150th anniversary of Gettysburg was a redemption of sorts for Griffiths. He has since switched to the Union side, and for good reason.

Griffiths said he had three ancestors in the Union army, including Union General Ulysses S. Grant, who led the Union to victory in 1865. Griffiths said Grant is his great-great grandfather on his mother’s side.

“My other ancestors included an assistant surgeon and a private,” Griffiths said while leaning on a wooden cane and chomping on an apple. Chunks of the fruit fell as he talked, getting stuck in his thick grey bread. Griffiths himself is a private in his reenactment unit. “I don’t want to be promoted, I’m perfectly happy as a private.”

Asked if he planned on making the 200th anniversary in 2063, Griffiths replied: “I hadn’t planned that far ahead.”

After this year’s memorial charge, visitors seemed reluctant to leave the area called the “high water mark of the confederacy.” A man wearing a Rebel uniform played the fiddle while nearby another man wearing Union blue played a flute. Other tourists, cradling Confederate, Union, or state flags, swapped stories about their Civil War ancestors, read the many stone battlefield monuments or peppered park rangers with questions. Some just sat on rocks or leaned against cannons and stared out into the distance, reflecting over the ground they had just walked in the shadow of history and taking away hopeful lessons for the future. 

“You hear on the news today that you’ve never seen our country so divided,” said 54-year-old Tom Viezer from Cincinnati, Ohio, who has spent 11 years as a re-enactor and first came to Gettysburg as an 8-year-old boy in 1968. He went home and tried to recreate the battlefield using rocks in his backyard. “But here was a time when they were shooting at each other.”

After the commemorative charge, many of the re-eanctors began to pack up the period white tents. They had spent three days sleeping on the rain-soaked ground.

“It’s time for modern clothes,” said Rick Guth from Allentown, Pa.

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