The Battle of Gettysburg–a Window Into the Past

In a year of big reenactments, TIME spent a weekend on Gettysburg's front lines.

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On the afternoon July 2, 1863, Union Major General Daniel Sickles commanded his troops from atop his horse just south of the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania when a Confederate cannon ball slammed into his right leg.

Sickles was of the most eccentric and controversial commanders on either side of the Civil War. In 1859, he shot and killed his wife’s lover and got off by employing the first defense of temporary insanity in American history. A political general, he had originally been in charge of volunteers, but by the summer of 1863, Sickles commanded a corps of nearly 12,000 men.

On the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Sickles had been tasked with holding the southern end of the Union line. Against orders, he moved his troops half a mile forward to higher ground, and when Confederate troops attacked from the west, his corps was nearly wiped out. After his leg was mangled, his men carried him from the field while Sickles puffed on a cigar and waved his hat, yelling, “I’ll be back boys!” He did not return. Later that day, surgeons amputated his leg, which he donated to the Army Medical Museum in Washington (it is still on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine).

The story of Daniel Sickles is one of hundreds to emerge from the farm fields of southern Pennsylvania, where for three days in early July 1863, Union and Confederate armies clashed in the largest–and arguably most important–battle of the Civil War. Fifteen decades later, people still recount such tales. In addition to the myriad books, films and articles on the battle, more than 3 million people visit Gettysburg each year. This year, the town is expecting more than 4 million.

Gettysburg is also hosting some of the largest Civil War reenactments of the past decade. Over the 4th of July weekend, 100,000 spectators gathered to watch more than 10,000 reenactors recreate segments of the battle on a field a few miles outside of town. From grandstands they watched troops clad in blue and gray march in neat lines. As the reenactors fired their rifles, smoke plumed from hundreds of barrels and snaps of musket fire crackled in the air. Cavalrymen galloped on horseback around the formations.

At 6 pm on the first day, the sun still cooking the grounds, I walked onto the field stuffed into a wool coat and pants. Sweat cascaded down my ribs and a metal canteen banged against my side. Marching beside a column of men portraying a regiment from Pennsylvania, a captain explained how the carefully scripted battle had suddenly gone awry. Instead of attacking our unit head on, the Confederates had continued advancing on the other side of a creek towards the other side of the Union line. “We had a meeting about this, and there was a PowerPoint with every unit’s movements,” the captain explained. But at the last second, amid the heat and the smoke, the chaos that often befalls real combat overtook this fake one as well.

In front of thousands of spectators, there was no time to complain about who was supposed to attack where. A Union general galloped over on his horse with several aides in tow. He ordered the unit to form up along a wooden fence and attack the rebels in the flank. The companies wheeled to the left, assembled shoulder to shoulder on the fenceline and trained their muskets on the gray-clad troops. On the captain’s command, they fired a volley that rattled my eardrums.

On command, the troops reloaded and fired again and again, until a bugle call signaled the end of the battle. The spectators leapt to their feet; a couple of casualties who had fallen dead a few minutes before rolled over in the grass and furtively pulled out camera phones. Surviving soldiers doffed their caps and waived to the grandstands, then marched back to their campsites to prepare to do it again the next day.

Being a Civil War reenactor is not cheap or easy. An authentic replica uniform can cost anywhere from $300 to $1,000 when you add in a musket, cartridge box, belt, buckle and boots. That’s the minimum required to portray a basic foot soldier, and many are happy to pay it. “This is the greatest hobby,” says Harry Sundstrom, who traveled to Gettysburg from Cape May, NJ. “It’s my golf; it’s my boating.” Sundstrom’s first major battle was the 135th Gettysburg reenactment. He has returned for the major anniversaries while also taking part in smaller reenactments throughout Virginia.

If basic reenacting will set you back the cost of a decent set of golf clubs, the artillery can be another matter. In a large reenactment, there are more than 100 cannons on the field. Each is privately owned and costs upwards of $20,000 to $30,000. The units tow the cannons from their hometowns, and when they’re not being used they sit in garages and barns where boats or hobby cars might otherwise be.

As the sun set after the first day’s battles, the men of the 1st North Carolina Artillery Regiment settled into their camp, sipping water and cold beers as they stripped off their gray wool coats. When I asked where they are from, most named towns in eastern North Carolina. “Ask this gentleman where he’s from,” said George Worthington, pointing to the bearded man next to him. When I asked, the man replied, “London, England,” in a deep British accent.

Roger Baker first started reenacting the American Civil War in Britain, where there are half a dozen or so established groups. He took part in the recreation of the battle of Shilo in 1997, then came back the following year for Gettysburg. When the unit who was supposed to host him fell through, Baker was adopted by the 7th North Carolina Infantry. He was forever grateful, he said, and he kept coming back once or twice a year. As the men got older and “the hips started to go,” they left the infantry and joined an artillery unit, which promised much less marching and chance to fire the big guns.

The next day, clad in a borrowed Confederate coat, I climbed with the crew into the back of a pickup truck on the edge of the Confederate camp. About an hour before the evening battle, three-dozen trucks towing replica cannons behind them drove slowly across the road onto the edge of the battlefield. They set their cannons in a line about six paces apart with large boxes of black powder behind each one.

Even though the cannons don’t fire actual projectiles, the explosion can cause grave harm. The crew explained how years ago, a friend held on to the wooden plunger as he rammed gunpowder down the barrel. The powder ignited, sending the plunger flying down the field and blowing off half of his hand. They’ve perfected a technique of ramming the powder into the cannon and ducking down just in case it goes off.

When the battle commenced, a battery captain stood behind the row of cannons. As he dropped his hand, a dozen artillery pieces thundered, sending clouds of smoke into the air and a concussion wave in every direction. The crowd, which by this point had seen this act hundreds of times, still cheered with each cannon blast across the field.

Half an hour into the battle, Worthington asked if I wanted to shoot off a few rounds. To fire the cannon, you attach a wire covered with primer to the end of a long lanyard and place the primer in a small hole at the back of the gun. On the captain’s signal, the gunner pulls the lanyard, creating a spark that sets off the powder inside the barrel.

As guns fired to my left and right, concussion blasts and sound waves pounded my skull. I set the primer like the crew showed me, and when it was in place I looked back to the gun captain, Bill McSorley, who stood poised to give me the signal. Bill raised his right hand, and as he snapped it down to his side I stepped to the left, tugging the lanyard. A flame erupted out of the mouth of the gun and the roar shattered the surrounding air. The other three men on the gun crew cheered and one slapped me on the back. “Alright,” he said, “do it again.”

As I fired off more rounds, I imagined a 12-pound ball–like the one that struck General Sickles–careening out of the barrel. It took a special kind of courage, I supposed, to stand tall or sit high on a horse with bullets and cannon balls flying at you. For a moment, ignoring the grandstands of spectators and the firemen ready for a real-life mishap, I almost felt like I was there.

It’s that feeling, reenactors say, that keeps them coming back. There is camaraderie in the camp after a long day in the field, with old friends and a flask of bourbon, far from the bustle of modern life. But the feeling most of them seek is that moment when they can be transported back 150 years ago.

“You’re rewarded with a momentary window, and if you look through that window, you’re back,” Baker says. “It can be hugely emotional.” He recalled a large reenactment in 1999 when he was asked to carry his unit’s colors. “When I took it out, and I’m waiving this thing about, with that much joy in your heart you can feel the tears well up in your eyes,” he says. “That’s just one example that touched my heart…and I will take that to the grave with me.”

As the sun set behind the trees, the artillerymen prepared to bed down for the night. Soon enough they would be headed back home, but first they had two more days on the cannon line.

Next year, the 151st anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, there will be fewer reenactors and smaller crowds. But the men from the 1st North Carolina Artillery plan to be there, forever chasing that momentary window into the past.