Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Reflections of the Gettysburg 150th

Rangers, Reenactors, and Remembrances

Custer's guidon unfurled at the Michigan Monument at East Cavalry Field on July 3, 2013.
Me pontificating!
The event is over.  According to most, if not all sources, the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg was a dramatic success.  Some quarter million visitors explored the park throughout the sesquicentennial events and half of them went on park ranger tours, ceremonies, and/or interpretive programs.  For the first day in nearly two weeks, I am off duty.  Having performed the last two days on fumes of adrenaline, I thought I would take this welcomed respite as a moment of reflection for these busy, albeit incredibly exciting days.  For myself, my colleagues, and the throngs of visitors, the event was a rewarding one.

My morning on July 3 began in the rain.  Delivering the East Cavalry Field tour with Ranger Bill Hewitt, some 400 people attended even as the showers became steadier.  The PCN camera crews threw ponchos over their camera to shelter it.  Splitting into two groups, my visitors and I had a somber reflection of death and the chaos that ensued from cavalry clashes east of Gettysburg.  We concluded by reading a letter written by Edward Corselius of 1st MI Cavalry.  A week prior to this letter, Edward wrote to his mother, stating that his brother Fred had gone missing.  But when Edward conducted a search he later learned that:

"His spirit had already taken its upward flight to mingle eternally with the angels.  While gallantly contending shoulder to shoulder with his comrades in the cause of the Union and Republican liberty, my brother fell pierced by a murderous bullet.  Calm and heroic still, he urged his companions to fight on.  When it was apparent our boys were overpowered, the last cartridge being fired at the traitors, he ordered his faithful gun destroyed so that it might not fall into their hands.  They left him there, uncertain as to the immediate issue of the combat without the glorious promise of peace to a distracted country.  But still with the most undying faith that the cause of his country would eventually triumph, that old Flag would triumph yet.  Just as the Fourth of July was to usher in memories that can never die, his spirit too will live on."
We too made memories.  We discussed how that even when considering how much death had been inflicted in this cavalry whirlpool, men such as Edward realized it was all in the name of something greater than themselves or their brothers.  The cost had to be worth something--as Lincoln articulated a short four months later.  150 years ago to the day, I stood in the same location as two of my ancestors--Josiah and Upton Nycum of the 3rd PA Cavalry.  So too was I surrounded by many a descendant whose family waged mortal conflict upon those soggy pastures.  The honor of doing so was immense.

While the honor was great, there was unfortunately little time for contemplation following our rainy East Cavalry Field expedition.  We had to huff it to the Emmitsburg Road in preparation for the Pickett's Charge Commemorative March that afternoon.  Flanking the town via U.S. 15 to avoid the congestion, I cut south and had the fortune parking at the Codori Farm at the halfway point of the march.  After a quick lunch with a colorful assortment of EMT and law enforcement rangers, I grabbed my Confederate officer's sword (shown heroically above) and embarked toward Seminary Ridge.  Crowds of thousands were already assembling on both lines, including news vehicles and satellite trucks.

By afternoon, the skies began to clear.  Two park rangers were assigned to lead each of the nine Confederate brigades (composed of visitors) forward across the open fields.  Each unit had a simple, colored banner with the brigade name sewn on it.  Here, Ranger Andrew Newman from Museum Services helped me out.  At 2:30 we began assembling the 700-some visitors in our sector into a rough formation.  At 2:50, nine artillery pieces fired as the signal to be prepared to march.  In the meantime, I offered a brief introduction to the brigade whose footsteps we were walking in.  On July 3, 1863, the infantry brigade of James Archer was actually commanded by Birkett D. Fry, due to Archer's capture two days prior.  As we prepared to move, I read the words of Captain J. B. Turney, Company K, 1st TN: 

"Early on the morning of the third day our division was moved to the front and right, and remained in line of battle until our artillery was massed to the front. At about 1 o'clock the fiercest cannonading known to warfare was begun. For two hours the old hills trembled as if affrighted. The limbs and trunks of trees were torn to pieces and sent crashing to the earth to add to the havoc among the gallant boys who waited anxiously an order to charge. Finally, as heaven's thunder ceases that the storm in its fury may ravage and riot, so became silent the quarter of a thousand death-dealing monsters, and before the echoes had died among the distant hills we were in line for a forward movement."
We were in the place and the moment.  I reflected upon what was on the line as these soldiers faced what was ahead of them: the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers, the fate of four million slaves, and the destiny of two nations--each with their own distinct visions of what freedom was.  Being taken back in time by Turney's words, we all stood together as we awaited the final volley of the guns.  The Rebel Yell echoing from thousands of throats echoed from the woods.  The sound was surreal beyond words.

At exactly 3 p.m. the artillery pieces reverberated through the valley.  As the brigade of direction (just as in 1863), Archer's unit was the first to move forward.  We set forth in column up a mowed path until we reached an open area in which the group formed in line of battle to the best of their ability.  Reenactors representing the 14th TN formed the center of our line and the visitors gathered to their left and right.  Muskets were raised alongside digital cameras as we crossed.  The photo above is only a fraction of the overall number of people present.  (Can you spot me out front?)

Like clockwork, the hikers representing Pickett's Division emerged from the swales and treelines to our right.  Armistead's Brigade alone had some 3,000 visitors in it--far more than in the actual 1863 assault itself.  The sprawling mass of marchers was a sight to behold.  Maintenance crews in the park worked days and weeks beforehand to temporarily remove fence lines and cut the grass to a level that was passable.  Luckily, far fewer casualties were inflicted on this march in comparison to the one of a century and a half earlier, although the heat got to folks in both cases.

To the best of its ability, the National Park Service desired to keep this a tasteful and respectful culminating event.  The park did not desire reenactors and visitors engaging in mock battles or storming the stonewall with rebel screeches.  Accordingly, I raised my sword to halt the formation several yards out from the Bloody Angle.  There, we awaited the other brigades to arrive on our left and right.  Visitors gained a true realization of the struggles on these fields in 1863.  The weather conditions were exact to what they were like during the assault.  High eighties, high humidity, and partly sunny.  Yet few among us were wearing wool, even less had packs on, and nobody was firing live ammunition our way.  As a result, the event offered a somewhat horrifying recognition of what must have been felt there.

As we stood, more and more visitors swarmed in around us.  Of the many photos snapped that day, this one perhaps best captures the essence of the Commemorative March.  People were hot and some dehydrated, but nearly all were happy, appreciative, respectful, and awestruck.  A lot of Confederate flags?  Yes.  A Lost Cause celebration?  Hardly.  Firstly, visitors were and are allowed to carry largely whatever flags they wish in their National Parks.  These public lands always have and will likely remain one of the greatest venues for freedom of expression in the country.  Secondly, one must examine the event in its totality--an anniversary week in which the causes, complexities, and (sometimes flawed) memories of the conflict were discussed time and again.  Even so, one can understand the academic historian wincing at a display of such banners.  Indeed, the image of the Confederate flag remains one of the most single divisive issues in regard to the historical memory of the war and its gruesome aftermath.  Sadly, this debate is nowhere near a resolution.  In what context is the flag an appropriate symbol to utilize?

(More to come on a small handful of rogue reenactors in the next blog post plus some commentary on the future of that hobby.)

A small part of a very large and dedicated crew, left to right: Supervisory Historian Scott Hartwig, Jared Frederick, Chris Gwinn, Dan Vermilya, and Philip Brown.  This anniversary was perhaps the crowning event of Scott's much celebrated career at the park.  Many good things and projects await him in his future years as a historical writer.  As for the rest of us, we were simply glad to be part of the noble endeavor.

Of all the reenactor participants in the march, this one was one of my favorites.  There's nothing quite like arming yourself with a fiddle rather than a rifle.  This gentleman was all but pleased to play period music (sometimes chipper, sometimes somber) for the multitudes present that afternoon.  Many just sat or stood there to soak in the scenes and sounds of the memorable day.  Some 40,000 people participated in the Pickett's Charge event--15,000 marching across while the other 25,000 watched from the Union lines extending the whole length of Cemetery Ridge.

In the background, Ranger Nate and I begin the trek home after a long day.
The week was a pressing one, but also a fulfilling one.  For some time to come, I will recall Wednesday July 3, 2013 as one of the coolest days of my life.  One lingering question is: Where do we go from here?  What does the future of Civil War History behold?  As the conference at Gettysburg discussing that topic highlighted last March, opinions are widespread, diverse, and varied.  In some ways, that is a good thing.  In other ways, it is not.

Some other final questions for us to consider: Will the sesquicentennial generate as much interest as the centennial?  According to the expressions and gestures of many visitors, I would like to think in the affirmative.  Will historians of 2063 judge us as harshly as we do of those in 1963?  Did we properly convey the meanings of the battle and the war?  Perhaps only those historians will be able to answer those questions.  Maybe some of these answers will be made self-evident come November 19.  We shall see.


  1. Great post, Jared, and the park is lucky to have seasonal employees like yourself who find a higher meaning in Gettysburg not only as a site of a great battle but also as a place of reconciliation and remembrance.

  2. Jared, I was your NPS photographer that day. It was a pleasure to join you up front of the column! I have other shots of you if you need them. Buddy Secor, Stafford, VA

  3. I follow Gettysburg National Park on Facebook and they posted great "At This Time" accounts throughout the anniversary. However, it's nice to read your reflections and insights about the event - having been so involved in it!

    Also thank you for including History By Zim in your "Cool Blogs", I really appreciate it!