“Back to one!” (Part 1)

IMG_1141Concussions from an artillery barrage ripple up the backs of Union infantry huddled behind a stone and earthen position nicknamed “The Angle.” Dust raised by cannon blasts swirl around the troops, penetrating their noses and mouths.

“Get out of the way!” roars an artilleryman at the prone figures. “Move, move, move!” Several blue-clad soldiers roll aside as a 1,500-pound cannon is trundled downhill by its crew to be re-positioned beside them. The order “Rise up!” is given and Federal troops prepare to repel a furious Confederate assault.

Muskets buck against the soldiers’ shoulders as they take aim at the butternut-and-gray mass advancing upon them. The air is rent by the rattle of musketry, cannon explosions, screams and curses. It’s the third and final day of the Battle of Gettysburg in the torrid heat of July 1863.

In time intermingled yells of “Cut!” and “Cease fire!” bring the battle to a halt, and the powder smoke from countless muskets and cannons starts to clear. The Union and Confederate “dead” rise to shake hands or slap one another on the back for a job well done. It was August 1992 once more, and Ted Turner’s TNT production company wrapped up another day of filming the dramatization of Michael Shaara’s 1975 Civil War novel, “The Killer Angels.”

The Pulitzer Prize-winning book explores the Battle of Gettysburg – often called the High Water Mark of the Confederacy – from the experiences of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet, Union colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and several other commanders. TNT filmed the movie from July to October 1992, on and near the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

I was one of some three thousand Civil War re-enactors that journeyed from around the USA and several foreign countries to participate in the week-long filming of the Pickett-Tremble Charge that August. The photo above is of a younger(ish) incarnation of this blog’s author, dressed as a Rebel. The Confederate Pickett-Tremble Charge was the largest sequence to be filmed for the movie, subsequently titled “Gettysburg,’ that made its debut in October 1993. This is the first part of a quartet of posts concerning how I got to participate in the re-creation of a terrible, yet momentous event in American history, one in which troops from Michigan played a pivotal role.

To begin with, here are a few words about Civil War re-enacting. The hobby got started in the early Nineteen Sixties, as centennial observances of the American Civil War took place in many places. Early re-enacting tended to be long on enthusiasm and short on authenticity: men wore blue jeans and modern army boots; they carried a bewildering variety of weapons (often genuine antiques) and homemade equipment into battle. As time passed and more people became involved in the hobby, a greater emphasis was placed on historically accurate impressions.

A cottage industry sprang up to supply re-enactors’ needs for reproduction uniforms, firearms and all manner of camp gear. Many of these items were initially sold at events by vendors that share their predecessors’ title of “sutlers.” Of course, the rise of the Internet transformed shopping for re-enacting gear. By the early Nineties there were an estimated 250,000 men, women and children involved in Civil War re-enacting groups in the United States, Canada and even Europe. People are often surprised that foreigners participate in this American pursuit. Some thousands of Canadians are reputed to have served in both armies, as did Irishmen, Germans and Swedes. Occasionally one encounters women in the ranks, something that actually happened when they followed their husbands or brothers into battle. No one knows how many women did so; some of them went because, like many men, they craved the adventure of being in combat. Virtually all modern re-enactors are older, taller and stouter than their Civil War counterparts.

Stay tuned for the next installment of this interesting account!

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