Tenting on Hallowed Ground

Sunrise near The Angle at Gettysburg

As I mentioned in my last post, my company had the rare opportunity to participate in an encampment on the Gettysburg Battlefield on the anniversary weekend of the battle, July 1-3. The National Park Service allows very few encampments on the actual battlefield and, to the best of my knowledge, only one encampment per year of battalion size. It was an outstanding experience and something in which I felt fortunate to take part.

I here offer a countdown of some of the more memorable moments of the weekend:

5. The first night on the field: Having met up with some of my company in town, we arrived on the field just after sunset, found the other members of our group in the dark, and dropped down for the night. The camp was located near the Pennsylvania Monument. Just 150 yards behind the Union line on Cemetery Ridge and about 500 yards away from the Copse of Trees. As we lay there, looking up at the stars, we speculated as to what had taken place on this very spot of ground during the battle. Someone said they heard a field hospital had been set up there. I don’t know if that is true, but the notion was chilling. Drifting off to sleep with that sort of imagery in my head led to some unpleasant dreams indeed. Despite the fitful sleep, I wouldn’t have changed a thing about that evening.

4. Drilling on Cemetery Ridge: After setting up a proper camp in the morning, the battalion formed up and we commenced battalion drill. Our company is new to this battalion and, as company commander, I was very much absorbed in trying to make sure that we did not mess up. So absorbed, in fact, that I stopped thinking about where we were. It might have been any field at any reenactment. But when we paused for a moment, taking gulps from canteens and wiping sweat from our brows, I looked up to see the Roundtops in the distance. The notion that we were drilling on Cemetery Ridge hit me like a slap in the face. Then it was, “Attention, battalion!” and on to more drill.

3. Marching to the Angle: Sunday morning the battalion formed up and marched to The Angle. Also known as the High Water Mark. The only spot on Cemetery Ridge where Pickett’s Charge managed to break through, where the charge was ultimately repulsed, and where the Union won the battle. I have stood there many times. But never in full gear in a battalion formation. It was awe-inspiring to line up there on that stone wall where they did and look out at that field and try to imagine a formation of Confederates a mile wide coming right towards that point. Instead of 12,000 Confederates, however, there were but three tourists strolling towards us. The Colonel gave the order to charge bayonets which I’m sure frightened the dickens out of them. As we laughed, I heard one of them say words to the effect of, “Thank you, boys, for the perfect finale to our own Pickett’s Charge.” I liked that. These folks had walked the two-thirds of a mile course of Pickett’s Charge, as probably millions of tourists have, and concluded it by being met with an infantry battalion in blue on the stone wall. That must have been one hell of an experience for them.

2. Locating the Massachusetts Monuments: I stayed in Gettysburg an extra day after the event was over. Sunday evening and Monday morning I devoted to tracking down all 25 of the monuments dedicated to Massachusetts units. (Finding the 12th Mass monument just after sunset on Sunday, I managed to startle a group of ghost hunters who literally ran from me…and I wasn’t even in uniform any longer).  I got a picture of each Massachusetts monument and spent some time thinking about their actions. Good fodder for future blog entries. Almost every unit saw hard fighting, but for some reason the site that really got me during this scavenger hunt was the location where the 1st Massachusetts Infantry fought. Out on the Emmitsburg Road, towards the right of Dan Sickles’s ill-fated III Corps. So very exposed to the Confederate attack of July 2. When they were hit, they were hit awfully hard. Early Monday morning I stood there and there was something about the site that I found surprisingly palpable.

1. The Thunderstorm: About 2 a.m. on Sunday, in camp, I was awoken by thunder. Rain was coming sideways into my small dog tent. This was unpleasant. But, I figured, the storm would probably blow over in 15 or 20 minutes as they typically do in Massachusetts. I guess storms in Pennsylvania are different. 90 minutes later found me attempting to curl up in the one square foot of space beneath my dog tent that wasn’t getting soaked and growing increasingly disturbed by the constant lightning. And the storm only seemed to be getting worse. Abandoning my dog tent, I went for a nearby fly (a larger canvas canopy). Several other soldiers had taken shelter here as well. I stood there, groggy, looking out at the flashes of lightning illuminating Cemetery Ridge. The bolts were striking close at this point and the thunder was frighteningly loud and almost constant overhead. Chalk it up, perhaps, to the fact that it was 3:30 and I was overtired…but it seemed for just a few seconds as though we were in the middle of an artillery bombardment. The visual effect coupled with the not insignificant fear of a lightning strike made for a visceral experience. When a bolt of lightning struck really close, I did what any sensible Civil War soldier would have done…I retreated to my car. As did much of the battalion. We learned in the morning that the Confederate camp at the battle reenactment (a separate event well west of town) had been struck by lightning and five reenactors were injured. I very much hope that they are fully recovered. It was, to say the least, a memorable storm.

In all, an absolutely remarkable weekend. Unlike anything I’ve done in my years of reenacting. I do hope I’ll have the opportunity to do it again next year. With less lightning.

About Patrick Browne

I am a PhD candidate in History, former historical society and museum director of roughly 20 years, an author, and quondam Civil War reenactor. I specialize in early American History, particularly the Civil War era. View all posts by Patrick Browne

9 responses to “Tenting on Hallowed Ground

  • Carole

    It sounds awesome and I loved reading this post. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • Martha

    That sounds so cool. What a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

  • midaevalmaiden

    It had to be pretty amazing to get so up close and personal with history like that.

  • Doug Lyons

    Re-creating the charge of the 1st Minnesota was very special to me – we re-enactors are used to seeing bodies sprawled on the ground but to charge across the very ground that those brave westerners did and to see the small number of survivors returning from the “engagement” was humbling.

    Sitting around with the boys by candles held in place by bayonets was another highlight among many.

    And while I choose to believe it was shadow play from the lightning I did see two “figures” run from one tree to another during the storm. They appeared to be at “right shoulder shift” with fixed bayonetes. Shadows from monuments – most likely but …..

    It was indeed a memorable weekend.

    • Patrick Browne

      Yes, indeed, the demonstration of the 1st Minnesota charge on the ground where it actually happened was astounding. I was going to include it here. And I wonder about those figures…no statues at ground level at the right shoulder shift…

  • Scott

    What a great experience! I’m a Civil war buff myself and I was at Gettysburg July 16 + 17. I study Mass regiments and make a point to see their monuments and research them at any battlefield I go to. Gettysburg is simply awesome! I hiked the Wheatfield and saw the Mass monuments there. I’d like to get into reenacting,if you have info I’d be interested…

  • Doug Lyons

    Scott … I am the recruiter for the 22nd Mass; the regiment of which Patrick Browne (who keeps this blog) is the Captain. We would more than welcome your checking us out. Drop me a note and I will share details about the 22nd and what we have to offer – which is a lot :>.

    Thanks.

    Doug Lyons
    ddclyons1@aol.com

  • Cody Arnold

    I was there as well. I am a member of the 149th PA. It sure was a once in a lifetime exsperience. You toughed it out better then I did. I didn’t have a car so I high tailed it to my car instead.

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