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May 18,2007
Travel and Adventure: Re-live American history on the Fourth of July weekend
by Yvonne Pesquera

Since the Fourth of July falls in the middle of the week this year, a great way to continue celebrating the national holiday is to attend the 144th Annual Gettysburg Battle Re-enactment on the 6th, 7th and 8th.

 
BEGIN THE BATTLE - The 144th Annual Gettysburg Battle Re-enactment will be held on July 6, 7 and 8, staged by a private group of organizers, the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee. Photo by Paul S. Witt. 
 
THE FANS' FAVORITE - The three-day event is held in a large, rolling field north of the National Military Park and National Cemetery. Cavalry is always a favorite at the event. Photo courtesy of the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee.
 
HISTORY LESSON - The details of the re-enactments are faithfully re-created and the battles are narrated by a Civil War historian over a public announcement system during the event. Photo courtesy of the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee 
This event is not sponsored by the National Park Service because the actual Gettysburg National Military Park is considered sacred ground: Some 51,000 soldiers died on those fields over three days of fighting in 1863.

Instead, the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee, a private group of organizers, stages the three-day event on a large rolling field located only three miles north of the National Military Park and National Cemetery.

Witnessing a battle re-enactment changes forever the way visitors view Gettysburg history - even if they've visited the Gettysburg National Military Park before. The event is replete with booming cannons, the taste of kicked-up dust and dirt, and the acrid smell of spent ammunition mixed with sweat-soaked wool uniforms. Thick, gray smoke sometimes obscures the view.

And that's all experienced from sitting on the sidelines in the comfort of a chair.

The Gettysburg Anniversary Committee faithfully re-creates each day of the Gettysburg battle, with each event carefully narrated by a Civil War historian over a public announcement system so viewers always know what's happening and its significance in the course of the war.

On the first day, the two armies touch by chance in this sleepy farm town. The Confederates' attack is swift and sure-footed. The Union army is driven back a few miles. On the second day, battles occur in the early morning and late afternoon. The fields are strewn with volunteers playing dead or wounded. The Union holds a defensive position up on the hills.

On the third day, Confederate Gen. George Pickett leads 12,000 Confederates, hollering the infamous "rebel yell," across the open fields toward the well-positioned Union flanks. This last desperate attempt to salvage the battle is known as Pickett's Charge. Within one hour, there are 5,000 casualties.

Pauses in the fighting throughout the day allow visitors to walk around the living-history village and military camps. Re-enactors in civilian and military dress stay in character for the weekend. Their living conditions are harsh: canvas pup tents that don't keep out rain, worn-thin clothes and hardly any food.

Some re-enactors, among them descendants of Civil War veterans, give speeches about their ancestors and their family histories. The response is generally emotional, with the re-enactor often receiving a standing ovation.

Other presentations are made by re-enactors who physically resemble notable Civil War figures. There is usually standing room only in the tent where the actor playing Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee talks. His Virginia accent and trademark white beard make him a powerful draw. Even the actor playing the lesser-known Union Gen. George Meade attracts a strong turnout in his tent. Here he points out good-naturedly that it was he - not Ulysses S. Grant - who led the Union victory at Gettysburg, a historical fact that many Americans tend to fumble.

The generals tell about some of the deadly mistakes they made and how saddened they were by fighting their comrades. Many Union and Confederate officers had attended West Point and fought together in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48.

The three days at Gettysburg were the deadliest that American soldiers have ever experienced. When Lee withdrew his troops during a rainstorm on July 4, 1863, the Union army didn't exactly celebrate. They were exhausted and depleted, and if it hadn't been for holding the high ground during Pickett's Charge, American history would have been rewritten.

To take a break from the gravity of the battles and from the medical presentation held by a re-enactor surgeon, there are more lighthearted pursuits, such as the 1860s fashion show, Civil War weddings and a worship service. Rows of vendors offer reasonably priced meals, cold refreshments and Civil War memorabilia.

IF YOU GO

General information: Visit the Annual Gettysburg Re-enactment Web site at www.gettysburgreenactment.com or call 717-338-1525.

Battle re-enactment hours and prices: Friday, July 6: 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday, July 7: 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday, July 8: 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

General admission (ages 13 and over) tickets: $22 for one day, $37 for two days or $49 for three days. Youth admission (ages 6 to 12) tickets: $12 for one day, $18 for two days or $24 for three days.

The general admission ticket, similar to that of an outdoor concert, requires audience members to bring their own lawn chair or spread out a blanket. Many people do both, which allows them to sneak in naps during battle intermissions.

Grandstand seating is an additional $9 per person per day. Grandstand seats are hard, backless bleachers, but they offer the best vantage point for watching the battles take place.

All of the seating areas are exposed to the merciless July sun, so a good hat and sunscreen are essential. The "helpful hints" section of the re-enactment's Web site lists what cannot be brought into the area for security reasons.

Many tourists also dress up in Civil War-period costumes. Everyone is welcome to dress in costume; only those who want to fight in a battle must register as a re-enactor.

Where to stay: The "lodging" section of the re-enactment's Web site lists a number of hotels from which to choose in Gettysburg.

America's Best Inn (across the street from the National Military Cemetery and Visitor Center): www.americasbestinns.com or 717-334-1188. Prices start at $105.95 per night for two double beds.

Gettysburg Best Western Hotel (also directly across the street from cemetery and visitor center): www.gettysburg-hotel.com or 717-337-2000. Prices start at $141 per night for two double beds. Located in the quaint downtown area, this historic hotel is nestled in among galleries, restaurants and shops. Established in 1797, it was actually present at the Battle at Gettysburg.

Holiday Inn Gettysburg Battlefield: www.holidayinn.com or 800-315-2621. Prices start at $172.25 per night for two double beds.

Additional Gettysburg attractions/sources: Gettysburg National Military Park and National Cemetery: www.nps.gov/gett or 717-334-1124.

or 717-334-1124.

Gettysburg Chamber of Commerce: www.gettysburg-chamber.org or 717-334-8151.

Yvonne Pesquera is a freelance travel writer.  © Copley News Service

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