Gettysburg is the Pinnacle for Re-enactors
GETTYSBURG, Pa. - The commander of the Confederate army marched to the front of the makeshift classroom in jeans and a dress blue shirt to deliver battle plans to his top lieutenants, complete with a PowerPoint presentation and laser pointer.
Gen. Robert E. Lee would have been proud, if not perplexed, in seeing how Brian Gesuero took charge of the preparations for recreating the Battle of Gettysburg.
This year's commemoration has even more significance, given that it's the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and Gettysburg will represent the pinnacle of the re-enactment careers of thousands of Civil War buffs.
"This will be special, different than the other ones. It's the turning point of the war," said Gesuero, 44, a firefighter from Federalsburg, Md. "This is our one chance to do it right."
Actually, the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg is so big that it's getting two separate re-enactments.
A group called the Blue-Gray Alliance expects more than 10,000 re-enactors to take part in its event, June 28-30. This group has also held large-scale re-enactments, in honor of the Civil War's 150th anniversary, at Vicksburg, Shiloh, Twin Rivers and Wilson's Mill.
The National Park Service official events start June 30. The battle was fought July 1-3, 1863, at locations that have become legendary to war buffs, like Devil's Den, the Wheatfield and Little Round Top. Gettysburg was the bloodiest conflict of the Civil War, with more than 51,000 casualties.
But the re-enactments themselves occur on private property, not the actual battlefield.
The Gettysburg Anniversary Committee has more than 10,000 participants registered for the second gathering on July 4-7 on fields at the Redding Farm north of town. It's the group to which Gesuero, along with federal counterpart Allen Baldwin, methodically presented re-enactment preparations.
The groups had discussed holding just one re-enactment, similar to the 135th anniversary in 1998. Back then, two events were eventually combined into one large battle.
Not this time around. The topic's touchy to all sides, but essentially the groups couldn't reconcile differences over how to run the events.
The federal commander for the Blue-Gray Alliance event, Bob Minton, said his group is proud to have secured the Bushey Farm, the site of the 135th anniversary re-enactment. That piece of land contains a long sloping ridge that resembles the battleground for Pickett's Charge, the famous confrontation on the final day of the battle.
"It really gave us an opportunity for a wonderful piece of ground," said Minton, a Fostoria, Ohio, resident who works for an electrical supply company.
Pride is also evident in the voices of members of the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee.
Jake Jeanette, of Swansboro, N.C., was assigned the distinction of depicting Confederate Gen. Lewis Armistead, who fixed his hat to the point of his sword in leading his brigade before being mortally wounded at a spot considered the Confederacy's northernmost advance in the war.
"If we can pull these things off ... it's going to be something to remember," said Jeanette, wearing a gray hat with a yellow "CS" insignia.
Beyond the competitive edge and political squabbles - much like many other hobby groups - are genuinely affable feelings. Members of each group wish the others well and share the same goals of educating the public and commemorating the bloody skirmish.
The re-enactors are mainly a friendly, chatty bunch, eager to indoctrinate anyone curious about the hobby - especially for the 150th anniversary.
Ken Janson is traveling all the way from Chiloquin, Ore., as captain of a group that portrays Hurt's Battery, light artillery from Alabama during the Civil War. But this re-enacting crew is based on the West Coast, and it's lugging two cannons and three horses with them, too, to take part in both Gettysburg events this year.
"I figured driving that far, we might as well do as much as we can," said Janson, a retired teacher who will turn 66 while at Gettysburg.
Janson said he has no emotional or political allegiance to the Confederacy any more than he does to the Union. He's simply fascinated about the period and the complex nature of the war and its aftermath.
"I admit it, I'm just a big kid and I love making big noises with cannons," he said in a phone interview.
But for him, re-enacting is more than just about faux battles. He especially enjoys the interactions with visitors to the re-enactor camps - and yes, the participants will stay in tents, too, as the real soldiers did.
"Just to get people to think that (the war) was way more complicated than what people believed," he said.
Minton, the federal commander, started getting involved around the time that the 1993 movie "Gettysburg" was released. The film, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Killer Angels," by Michael Shaara, inspired many others like Minton to get involved, too.
Minton looks forward to the camaraderie built up around campfires at night, exchanging stories and ideas about the war.
"We all have different areas that interest us. What an incredible learning tool," he said. "If you picture talking to these people constantly, it just grows into real, good friendships ... It really makes an event almost a reunion."
One in which most participants are wearing wool clothing, anyway, to match the authentic uniforms of the Civil War.
Patrick Davis, 57, of West Chester, will serve as one of the top Confederate officers under Gesuero in the second re-enactment, overseeing camps. The purpose of re-enacting, he said, is to help ensure others don't forget what happened 150 years ago at the crossroads town in south-central Pennsylvania.
"It's the one everyone wants to do. I mean, Gettysburg is the most studied battle in the history of the world," Davis said. "It's kind of the Holy Grail for re-enactors."