'Never forget what they did here' -- Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address

Vancouver re-enactors will join Union forces in Gettysburg for 150th anniversary

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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photoProvided by Jim Waite Vancouver re-enactor Jim Waite says one of his relatives fought in the Civil War.

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Did you know?

• In 1913, about 50,000 Union and Confederate veterans held a reunion at Gettysburg National Military Park to mark the 50th anniversary of the battle.

• In 1938, about 2,000 Union and Confederate veterans — most in their 90s, fewer than 70 of whom veterans of the actual battle — gathered for the 75th anniversary of Gettysburg. Movie cameras recorded their reminiscences (including a genuine film Rebel Yell): http://bit.ly/o1NYMP

photoUnder the scrutiny of Mitch Rice, far right, Gregg Moore leads 1st Oregon volunteers on a Memorial Day marching drill at Vancouver Barracks. A national event like the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg can give re-enactors what Moore calls a "time-travel moment."

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photo1st Oregon Volunteer Infantry re-enactors frequently display their Union army-inspired uniforms and weaponry at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

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photoGreg Moore, left, and Mitch Rice, right, set the marching pace for members of the 1st Oregon Volunteer Infantry during a Memorial Day event at Vancouver Barracks. About 20 of the re-enactors will take part in 150th anniversary events at Gettysburg during the next few days.

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"I died at Antietam," Jim Waite said as he reflected on his Civil War experiences.

"I died at the Battle of Nashville," he continued.

And at the Battle of Franklin, he turned his blue-jacketed back to the Rebels and ran.

Now Waite is getting ready for the Battle of Gettysburg.

"This is the one everybody's been looking at," the Vancouver re-enactor said. "I've been targeting this."

The July 4-7 commemoration will mark the 150th anniversary of the battle that changed the course of the Civil War.

Waite and 19 other local participants will be among up to 15,000 re-enactors wearing blue or gray. The combined forces will include 400 horses and 135 full-size artillery pieces.

These Yankees and Confederates will replay nine different engagements that were fought from July 1-3, 1863, during the Battle of Gettysburg.

The 150th anniversary's re-enactment finale on July 7 will be Pickett's Charge, named for a Confederate general who had served at Fort Vancouver in the 1850s.

Waite is a member of the 1st Oregon Volunteers, who represent a unit that was stationed at Fort Vancouver 150 years ago. The volunteers held down the fort when U.S. Army troops left to fight in the Civil War.

The 1st Oregon is a familiar part of soldiers' bivouacs and living-history presentations at the Fort Vancouver National Historical Site.

Since the 1st Oregon served in the Northwest, the group adopts another identity for Civil War re-enactments: Company A of the 20th Maine, which played a major role at Gettysburg.

Waite doesn't know how he will fare in battle.

"There's no formulation for who lives or dies," he said. At one event, organizers randomly put colored cartridges in the re-enactors' cartridge boxes.

Cheating death

"If you pulled out a blue one, you would fire it and then you were wounded; a red one, and you would die," Waite said.

Re-enactors have been known to cheat death, in a manner of speaking -- especially if they're a long way from the spectators.

"You've traveled so far, you don't want to die and lie in a field," he said. "You get back up."

At other times, the casualties can have the best seat in the house.

"At Antietam, my unit was charging the Sunken Road. I was in the front row with the color bearer, and the front row just had to go down," Waite said. "A friend and I just watched, from 100 yards away."

Another memorable sight played out in a re-enactment of the 1864 Battle of Franklin, Tenn. -- the last big frontal assault of the war.

"The Battle of Franklin was worse than Pickett's Charge," Waite said.

It also was Waite's first national-level re-enactment held in an actual Civil War setting.

"Franklin was especially intense," Waite said. "I went from 300 re-enactors locally to several thousand there. I'd never seen so many Confederates in my life."

His unit was supposed to yield to the Confederate assault, but Waite admitted to getting an early start.

"They came over the hill and I heard the Rebel yell, and I literally broke ranks," Waite said. "I ran a quarter-mile back to the Union lines."

It's not unusual to get caught up in the action, said Greg Moore, another member of the 1st Oregon. In 1998, Moore participated in the 135th anniversary of Gettysburg, which drew 40,000 re-enactors.

"The noise is unbelievable," said the Portlander.

"On that scale, you have a time-travel moment," said Moore, who was part of a May 24 living-history session at Vancouver's Alki Middle School.

Like the 1998 event, this week's re-enactment won't take place at the actual battlefield.

"Out of respect to the hallowed ground where so many fought and died, our event coordinators host these major events on private farmland" just north of town, Stacey Fox, with the Gettysburg Convention & Visitors Bureau, said in an email. "The National Park will host several living history programs."

The area expects 200,000 visitors during a 10-day span, Fox added. "We have been receiving requests for at least two years for accommodations and event details."

Moore said re-enacting has become more sophisticated over the years.

No more blue jeans

"People started doing it during the 1960s, during the centennial" of the Civil War, Moore said. "It was blue jeans and make-your-own stuff, although some of it was copied off museum pieces and pretty well made."

Now replica uniforms and other gear true to the era are available through "sutlers," which was the word for merchants who used to sell supplies to soldiers.

As far as other aspects of life in the 1860s, "It can go from hobbyists to hard-core; we're in the middle," Waite said.

"I've heard of some guys who starve themselves and try to get that skinny, gaunt look you see in those photos" that were taken during the Civil War.

Some purists are known as "thread-counters," Waite said. They can tell you everything there is to know about the weave of fabrics used to make uniforms.

While authenticity is the goal, the re-enactor, 56, said he will break form just a bit at Gettysburg.

"I will buy a disposable camera and stash it in my jacket and take pictures," Waite said.


Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://twitter.com/col_history; tom.vogt@columbian.com.


The Historic Battle

photoThe Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863.

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Gettysburg is the site of the largest battle ever fought in the western hemisphere, pitting some 90,000 Union troops commanded by Gen. George Meade against Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s 75,000-man Army of Northern Virginia.

• Tuesday, June 30, 1863: A Confederate infantry brigade marches toward the Pennsylvania crossroads town in search of supplies; they spot Union cavalry heading toward Gettysburg.

• Wednesday, July 1: Fighting begins at 8 a.m. when Confederate troops advance against Union forces at McPherson Ridge, just northwest of town. Reinforcements commanded by Major Gen. John Reynolds (who’d served at Fort Vancouver) help blunt the attack. Reynolds is killed, the highest-ranking officer to die at Gettysburg.

Union forces fall back; they regroup southeast of town at Cemetery Hill, whose high ground dominates the surrounding countryside and provides a position for Union artillery.

• Thursday, July 2: On the bloodiest day of the battle, Confederate forces try to flank the Union lines; fierce fighting takes place at Culp’s Hill, the Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den, the Wheat Field and Little Round Top.

After hitting both enemy flanks, Lee decides Thursday night to attack the center of the Union line along Cemetery Ridge the next day. Meanwhile, Meade and his Union generals decide to stay and fight.

• Friday, July 3: Fighting begins at about 4 a.m. Confederate artillery on Seminary Ridge, on the west side of the battlefield, opens fire at about 1 p.m. on the center of Cemetery Ridge. After a two-hour duel, Union cannons fall silent.

Under Gen. George Pickett, who’d also served at Fort Vancouver, about 13,000 Confederates advance from Seminary Ridge. Their objective, almost a mile to the east, is a defensive line of 7,000 Union troops sheltered by a stone wall, a copse of trees and a barn. Union artillery resumes fire, devastating the gray ranks. About 300 Confederates make it through an angle in the wall — dubbed the high-water mark of the Confederacy — then are forced to retreat.

• Saturday, July 4: Lee retreats from Gettysburg, with a caravan of wounded soldiers stretching 15 miles. With up to 28,000 Confederate casualties, Gettysburg ends the South’s last attempt at a major offensive in the northern states. Union losses are estimated at 23,000 soldiers killed, wounded, captured or missing.