Sunday, August 3, 2003

GETTYSBURG, Pa. — The Confederate and Union forces that clashed here 140 years ago were dust-covered and weary from a long, hot march through Northern Virginia and Western Maryland.

The soldiers who will begin arriving Friday morning aren’t coming in on foot, but once they reach the 1,200-acre site of the weekend’s anniversary event, they will go to great lengths to re-create 1863 conditions.

Fifty dump-truck loads of wood will fuel their cooking fires; they will spend the night under period-authentic canvas tents, and they will also have to answer to a military chain of command led by men acting as Gens. George Gordon Meade and Robert E. Lee.

Among those making the trek is Robert Rodkey, a 53-year-old millwright from Frewsburg, N.Y. Mr. Rodkey, who will portray Union Gen. David Bell Birney, has spent $7,000 on his uniform and tent, and painstakingly recreated the tent’s furnishings.

“Our heritage really needs to be brought out in the light,” he said. “It seems like in the past many times it’s been partially hidden because of political correctness or what have you.”

The Gettysburg re-enactment has become an annual event that draws several thousand people, but five-year milestones such as this year’s anniversary are far better attended.

An extremely wet spring forced organizers to postpone it from the actual anniversary, in early July, but they still expect about 14,000 re-enactors and 65,000 spectators during three days.

The Gettysburg Anniversary Committee Inc., a private corporation, is spending nearly $1 million to put it on, said partner and operations manager Randy Phiel.

It’s being held this year on several adjoining farms just north of Gettysburg, about two miles from the edge of the sprawling national military park, which plays no official role in the event.

The logistics include 3,000 hay bales for the 500 cavalry mounts, a 940-foot stone fence trucked in from last year’s battle site south of town, eight 6,000-gallon drinking-water tankers and 325 portable toilets.

Firearms are carefully checked, after the accidental shooting of a re-enactor in 1998 by a French salesman, Christian Evo, who later pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment.

On a field before a rented 10,000-seat grandstand, the two armies will re-create a series of scripted battle scenarios that include the first-day prelude, Confederate Gen. James Longstreet’s second-day attack, a cavalry battle in nearby Hanover, and the Sunday-afternoon climax, Pickett’s Charge, complete with 100 pieces of artillery.

Organizers have installed drainage culverts, cleared brush for campsites, put in new roads, built new fences and torn down some existing ones.

Hotel rooms have long since been booked solid, so latecomers are being directed to lodging 30 miles away in Frederick, Md., and Harrisburg, Pa.

Rick Beamer, president of the Gettysburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the five-week postponement could be good for the local economy because August can be a slow month.

“Because all of our hotel rooms are full, there’s going to be people, obviously, wanting to come and see the battlefield after they experience the re-enactment,” he said. “The town’s going to be very busy.”

Many of the spectators, paying $20 per ticket, will no doubt remain on the site all day, spending their money among the 100 vendors hawking such items as books and war relics to pizza and funnel cake.

Not everyone in the community is enthusiastic about the event. Tim Smith, a licensed battlefield guide and part-time employee of the Adams County Historical Society, said the re-enactment turns the battle into “some kind of big sideshow.”

“It frustrates me that people coming into town are more interested in these frivolous re-creations of history than actually seeing it themselves,” he said.

The long tradition of re-enactments can be traced to the late 1870s, when members of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans’ group, camped on the battlefield’s Cemetery Hill and put on what they called a “sham battle” with Roman candles and rockets.

Around the time of the 1963 centennial, a number of writers and cultural critics inveighed against re-enactments, calling them tasteless and inappropriate.

But now, 40 years later, that controversy seems to have faded, said Jim Weeks, author of the new book, “Gettysburg: Memory, Market and an American Myth.”

“There’s no commemorative activity at Gettysburg or any Civil War battlefield that doesn’t involve re-enacting,” said Mr. Weeks, a fellow with the Papers of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Ill.

“Let’s be honest and say this is a hobby,” he continued. “They’re enthusiasts, like people that play golf. And it’s acceptable nowadays, but half a century ago there were people … that thought it was ludicrous.”

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