The thing about B&Bs is, you never know whom you’ll wind up eating breakfast with. Last November in Pennsylvania, I found myself handing over family-style plates of crisp bacon and blueberry pancakes to a couple of middle-aged geologists from Ohio: one was in a full-sized 19th-century–style corset, the other in a full officer’s uniform of Ohio’s 29th Infantry.
Ted and Kathy come as Civil War re-enactors to Gettysburg every year. Their conversation, I’d soon glean, rarely leaves the 19th century. In one lapse to the present, Ted said, seriously, “It’s a joke how many re-enactors have big gray beards and beer bellies. We need younger people.”
Then he gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
“We have an extra uniform. Do you want to parade with us?”
A 90-minute drive from D.C., this south-central Pennsylvania town of 7600 is a pretty quiet place except for July and November, when waves of wool-wearing re-enactors and plain-clothes history buffs march in. The Civil War’s biggest battle played out here July 1 to 3, 1863, and Lincoln gave his 272-word Gettysburg Address on November 19. Commemorations are huge affairs, particularly this year, when both turn 150.
I’ve been to both events — once to ask battle re-enactors how they decide who dies first — and had some memorable moments: seeing a dad holding his young son’s hand atop Devil’s Den at dusk, Boy Scouts leaking a “so cool!” at first glimpse of the 19th-century “cyclorama” painting in the museum. The real star is the battlefield itself, a national park site spread along a driving loop that follows the landscape of low-lying green hills, forests and wide-open fields that surround the town. Even most skeptics are affected.
Two hours after breakfast I changed into my Union-blue private’s get-up in my car, and hit the streets. Re-enactors were everywhere: popping into souvenir stores, huddling curbside, jay-walking. I peeked into a McDonald’s and saw people with fake rifles ordering Big Macs. When I made it to the high school parking lot, my rendezvous for the parade, a half-mile of troops in blue and gray were already lining up.
Shocked that I had found the tiny 29th group, Ted pointed my place in line, next to a 40-something who resembled Jeff Daniels (star of the film “Gettysburg”). He told me he’s a doctor in “real life” and has to double during re-enactments as a lieutenant and “medical relief”: “These guys think if they have a canteen they don’t need to worry about exposure.” Behind me, and quite immersed in the moment, a barefaced “corporal” in his late 60s broke character to share his dreams of living in Gettysburg some day: “Not going to happen though. Houses are 40 percent more expensive than in Ohio.”
After half an hour we began our march along central Baltimore Street, lined with century-old buildings and perhaps as many onlookers as paraders. I had no gun. My job was simply to keep in step and stare straight ahead,but I couldn’t help turning to look when we passed a “Robert E. Lee” in the crowd.
The march wound past McDonald’s and ended on the battlefield, where we lined up at the Angle, a low-lying stone barrier where, in recent years, a handful of Union and Confederate re-enactors have met to shake hands, a gesture that began with real veterans in the 1930s. I stood to the side and watched two dozen 21st-century bearded men shake hands and murmur pleasantries for a couple of minutes.
I’m drawn to Alamo stories of underdogs who lose. Now that my parade duties were fulfilled, I drifted from the pack to survey the main reason I had come: the wide field looming below. The spot where I stood, had been the goal of Confederate soldiers on the wild Pickett’s Charge. The damning defeat would push the South into a retreat that essentially lasted 21 months, untilLee’s surrender at Appomattox.
I wanted to walk Pickett’s Charge.
I changed back into my tourist/civilian outfit at my car, drove over to the “rebel side” and parked by the Virginia Monument depicting Lee on his horse. Only two other people were there, a 50-something woman talking with her male companion and pointing out significant spots: “Pickett was there. See? By the red barn?”
No one stood in that mile between, out there where — as Morgan Freeman says in the film at the visitor center — “the future of freedom hinged.” The field was filled with clumps of bush and soggy grass that rose gently. At first glance, it seemed far less imposing than I had gathered from reading “Killer Angels,” Michael Shaara’s fictionalized account of the battle. I started retracing rebel steps, bracing for a powerful feeling to come over me. I tried imagining bullets or cannonballs whizzing by, or just the itch of wool jackets on a hot July day. But, to be honest, reverence came on recollection. At the time, I was more concerned that the mud slopping over my shoes would soak into my socks.
After reaching the “Yankee side,” I encountered some laughing re-enactors in blue coats, half expecting credit for making the walk unharmed. They were swapping tales about their experiences as extras for “Gettysburg,” filmed nearby in 1993. One mocked the “high ground speech,” another actor Tom Berenger’s painfully fake beard. I asked how they had gotten into the film.
“Oh, they needed anyone and everyone,” one readily answered.
“Yeah, I was a college student here at the time.”
“I was an extra for both sides actually.”
Did they get paid?
“Oh, no,” the beard critic said, as if it never really had crossed his mind before. “Guess they had to save the money for the crab cakes everyone was eating. It’s no wonder movies cost so much.”
I’d have volunteered for crab cakes. Anyone making a movie for Antietam?
My Gettysburg re-enacting “career” began at the breakfast table of Martin House B&B in nearby Fairfield. Park rangers give very highly regarded tours of the battlefield. There are many guidebooks and audio CDs for visiting the site. I enjoyed “The Battle of Gettysburg: A Guided Tour” by Edward Jackpole and Wilber Nye.