Four Score and Seven

Ever since seeing the Battle of Hastings re-enactment in the UK a few years ago, I’ve had Gettysburg on my to-do list. I’d heard that Americans put a lot of effort into their Civil War re-enactments, and Gettysburg would surely be the biggest and best. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania is only about 5 hours drive from NYC, and the battles happen in early July so this was clearly my moment. To get in the mood, I re-watched the quality film, Gettysburg, with Martin Sheen, Tom Berenger, Jeff Daniels and Sam Elliott. I highly recommend it.

And so I found myself on a grassy field, with way too little sunscreen and water to counter the stiflingly hot sun. I watched rows of soldiers march about and take battle formations. I gaped at the lines of cannons as they began firing at each other, filling the air with deafening booms and thick smoke. The highly disciplined troops came within shouting distance and then unloaded their rifles into each other’s ranks, upon their officers’ commands. It looked about as messy as a real battle probably was and you’ll be pleased to know that the Union won, so we can all sleep safely.

Despite the heat, the re-enactors marched out in traditional, heavy woollen uniforms. They all follow strict codes of dress and equipment, so everything had to be authentic. They even used real, restored canons from the era. I was just there to watch a battle but the re-enactors come for so much more. Some soldiers bring their whole families and sleep in traditional tents for days, preparing their food and drink with traditional tools. The women and kids are involved too and everyone dresses like it’s 1863. It’s kind of like LARPing but much more committed.

I spoke with a family and they were quite proud of their yearly involvement there. It certainly seemed to have inspired their kids to be knowledgeable about their nation’s history and value their place in it. The act of remembering or even glorifying the Confederates seems contentious to some Americans who’d prefer we all leave it behind like a bad memory. I think that if something was important enough to divide a nation for 4 years then it’s worth remembering. The true unity of this country lies in embracing their differences.

I only had one beef with the day. On the particular battle that I attended, they had us all gathered around a large, cordoned-off field with a few grandstands to get a good view, but then instead of fighting there they fought in a smaller, distant field that was obscured by trees. Only the cannons were arrayed on our big field. Maybe the layout was historically authentic for this particular battle, but it resulted in a whole lot of puzzled looks and head scratching on the part of the entire crowd. As far as badly organised battles go, I’d say this rivalled even General Lee’s performance at Gettysburg.

A couple of interesting facts about the Battle of Gettysburg:
– Lincoln’s most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address (the one that starts with “four score and seven years ago”), was only 2 minutes long.
– After recovering all the lost rifles from the battlefield, many of them had 2 or more bullets loaded in the barrel. One rifle had a staggering 21 bullets loaded. I can’t imagine what kind of stress and confusion could make a man load 21 times while forgetting to fire.

My favourite local advertisement in town was a realtor’s sign that read: “Lincoln had a Gettysburg address. Get yours now.”

One Response to “Four Score and Seven”
  1. Scott says:

    Sounds fantastic. Might have to put it on my to do list.

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