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Monday, July 1, 2013
“Here they come,” a federal officer said. Look at this,” another said. “You’ll never see anything like this again.”
Thousands of Confederate soldiers had just stepped from a tree line about a mile away, moving briskly in massed formations to commence the assault known as Pickett’s Charge, which would finish the three days of spectacle by the Blue Gray Alliance coalition of re-enactor groups just as it closed out the three-day battle, fought July 1-3 150 years ago.
Earlier that morning, Niles Clark, 54, of Westfield, Ind., portrayed the Richmond-born Confederate Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett, whose name later became attached to the disastrous charge by his Virginians and two other divisions, during a living history demonstration for spectators.
“We’re going to attack the enemy at the center of the line at a copse of trees. We figure they’re weakest there,” Clark said. “We are repulsed. There are promises unkept. … That’s why we failed here at Gettysburg. My division is decimated. I have no brigadiers, no colonels — a few captains and lieutenants left — so I have no division.”
Within an hour of leaving the shelter of the woods, the exposed Confederates, raked by cannon and musket fire, had lost 6,800 soldiers killed or wounded out of the 12,000 who started the attack, ordered by Gen. Robert E. Lee against the advice of one of his top commanders, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet.
“Volley after volley of crashing musket balls sweep through the line and mow us down like wheat before the scythe,” wrote Richmonder John Edward Dooley, a lieutenant in the 1st Virginia Regiment who was wounded in the attack and taken prisoner. “Oh may no such day of horrors ever dawn upon my sight again.”
Many of the dead would wind up in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, where the remains of nearly 9,000 Confederate soldiers were moved after the war from mass graves at Gettysburg in an effort organized by the Hollywood Memorial Association of the Ladies of Richmond, one of the women’s memorial groups that sprang up in the years after the war.
“This was gruesome work,” said Caroline Janney, a Purdue University professor who grew up in the Shenandoah Valley and has written a book about the reburials.
Since Civil War regiments were frequently formed of men from the same place, the charge was also devastating for Virginia communities, said Bert Dunkerly, a National Park Service ranger at the Richmond National Battlefield Park.
“Towns took immense casualties,” Dunkerly said, adding that the charge also created rifts between Confederate veterans and their generals.
“After the war there was a huge controversy among veterans about who got farther, the Virginians or North Carolinians, and whose fault it was,” Dunkerly said. “The generals blame each other. Not many people spoke ill of Lee, but Pickett certainly blamed him for this.”
For the more than 12,000 hobbyists who suited up to portray Union and Confederate soldiers at the event – the first of two that will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the fighting at Gettysburg — it was a climactic finish to a weekend full of campfires, mock battles, camaraderie and shared historical fascination.
“I don’t see how those guys looked across that distance and said: ‘We can do this,’ ” said Dustin Herr, 27, who traveled from Jackson, Miss., for the event and made the charge with an ad hoc group of historical interpreters who prided themselves on visual accuracy, down to the stains and rips on their uniforms and soles flopping off their shoes.
For example, Robert Lee Hodge, 46, who lives in Arlington County and is something of a celebrity in the re-enactment community for his devotion to detail and his appearance in Tony Horwitz’s 1998 book “Confederates in the Attic,” said he tries to keep track of how many days of wear his handmade period shoes have endured to get a better understanding of how real soldiers’ footwear might have deteriorated.
“You read accounts of soldiers having shoe problems. … That’s part of visual accuracy,” Hodge said.
Eric Brown, 40, from Chattanooga, Tenn., said the moments before the charge, with the Confederate soldiers massing in the shade of the trees, were “kind of overwhelming.”
“It was really emotional,” said Brown, who has an ancestor who was shot and captured in the charge. Other re-enactors described having “period moments” during the weekend, especially during engagements that were staged for the participants, not spectators, and prompted by the sounds, sights and smells of battle.
Hodge described them as “very short nanoseconds of believability” enabled by the boom of cannon, shouting of men and black-powder smoke.
Chris Clarke, 32, who grew up in Short Pump but lives in Arlington, said one of those moments came when the Confederates waiting to rush the federal positions during Pickett’s Charge broke out in an impromptu wrestling match. It was similar to how their real-life counterparts lobbed green apples at each other to break the tension hours before they went into battle, according to Dooley’s account.
“I had a great time,” said Clarke, who spent the weekend sleeping out in the elements, including during a Saturday night downpour. “There are times I wanted to get out of here.”
Perched in a shady spot overlooking the start of the charge, Bentley Boyd, a 46-year-old former political cartoonist for the Daily Press in Newport News, was portraying a freelance war correspondent while his son Truman Brody-Boyd celebrated his 16th birthday in the center of the Union line, firing at the rebels.
“He looks more like a soldier from the old photographs than the 65-year-old, overweight guys with gray hair,” said Boyd, who lives in Williamsburg. “He doesn’t ride the rides at Busch Gardens, this is what he does.”
For other Virginians, the attraction to Civil War history was simply a matter of family and place.
Sam Harrelson, a 25-year-old apprentice gunsmith from New Kent County who has an elaborate tattoo of Confederate President Jefferson Davis riding a moped, raised more than $800 for battlefield preservation when he was in fourth grade but was sidelined from the fighting by a real bullet wound to his foot, a self-inflicted accident, he said.
“My family has been in Southside Virginia since the 17th century,” Harrelson said. “Between my dad and my mom we had an entire generation of men who fought in the Confederate army. … It’s in your backyard. You become immersed in it.”