Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Civil War Reenacting: Gettysburg

By Matthew Pizzolato

Perhaps the most pivotal battle in American military history is the Battle of Gettysburg. It defined the outcome of the War. Its effects have resonated throughout history and are felt even today. 

The first notable reenactment also took place at Gettysburg and the participants were War Veterans. The Great Reunion of 1913 marked the 50th Anniversary of the battle and more than 50,000 Union and Confederate veterans participated.

The Chief Surgeon of the event was quoted as saying that, "Never before in the world's history had so great a number of men advanced in years been assembled under field conditions." Most of the men were in their seventies and eighties, and some were more than 100 years old.

It was not an actual battle reenactment like the modern reenactments we have today. Instead, the Confederate Veterans walked the path of Pickett's charge and were greeted with handshakes by the Union Veterans.

President Woodrow Wilson addressed the gathering on July 4th, 1913.   

“These venerable men crowding here to this famous field have set us a great example of devotion and utter sacrifice. They were willing to die that the people might live. But their task is done. Their day is turned into evening," Wilson said. "They look to us to perfect what they established. Their work is handed to us, to be done in another way but not in another spirit. Our day is not over; it is upon us in full tide."

Modern civil war reenacting is believed to have begun during the Centennial Commemoration activities that lasted from 1961 – 1965 and has evolved over the years into what it is today.  

Regardless of the fun and enjoyment we have at the reenactments, the primary reason that we do what we do is to honor those men, our ancestors, who fought and died and suffered for their beliefs, regardless of the side they fought on.

This year marks the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Matthew Pizzolato's short stories have been published online and in print. He writes Western fiction featuring his antihero character, Wesley Quaid, that can be found in his story collection, The Wanted Man and the novella Outlaw

Matthew is the editor and webmaster of The Western Online, a magazine dedicated to everything Western and can be contacted via his personal website or on Twitter @mattpizzolato


  1. Great post, Matthew. Quite fascinating to read about that first 're-enactment' by actual veterans. And good to hear that they met and shook hands.

    Over in the UK there are several re-enactment groups. I am a member of a group called the Friends of Sandal Castle and we are often supported by a re-enactment group called the Towton Battlefield Society. They re-enact the 15th century Wars of the Roses. Ever year a wreath is laid on the memorial stone just two hundred yards from the castle, for those who fell in the Battle of Wakefield in 1460. It is so long ago that it is hard to imagine the lives of the individuals, although the re-enactment groups give you a good idea. The annual commemoration is done seriously to honour the fallen on both sides.

  2. Matt, great post as always. What a sight that must have been, and how poignant for those men! Re-enactments are important, I think, so that we will never forget the actual happenings.

    Keith, that is something that helps everyone remember that these were actual men who fought and died, no matter how long ago it's been.


  3. Great post, Matt. I just watched The Blue and the Gray. The battle scenes looked very much like re-enactments to me. It was a good series, but did not give you a sense of the absolute scale of those Civil War battles. It's mind boggling to try to realize there were tens of thousands of casualties in those battles.

  4. Really interesting post! There are actually some wonderful photos of the July 1, 1913 commemoration at Gettyburg in the Time-Life Civil War series – the final volume: The Nation Reunited (War's Aftermath) by Richard W. Murphy and the Time-Life Editors. Incredibly moving!

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  6. Thank you for a wonderful rememberance of a horrific and demanding time in this country's history. That the men could meet on the battlefield and shake hands speaks loudly to the character of those who fought in the war. Doris

  7. Great post, Matt. There's a small Civil War re-enactment which takes place every year at Hammonasset Beach State Park, a few miles down the road from where I live. No Civil War battles actually took place in New England, of course, but it does give folks, especially the kids, a sense of history.

    Jim Griffin

  8. It would seem that the American Civil War was fought long, long ago, but it really wasn't that long ago. My grandfather was born in 1866--a post Civil War baby. I have pictures of my great grandfather sitting in the backyard. He fought in the PA Calvary for the Union. It just amazes me to see those pictures and know he fought in the American Civil War.
    How wonderful that the first re-enactment had the Union and Confederate soldiers walk to each other and shake hands. That must have been such an emotional scene.
    Great post, Matthew.
    I like that re-enactors really know their history.