10th Michigan Infantry on the march with others as the 24th Michigan Infantry
Gettysburg: the Pennsylvania town where the greatest single battle in American history was fought. Over the course of the three-day Battle of Gettysburg nearly 55,000 soldiers were slain, resulting in more bloodshed than all 12 years of combat in Vietnam.
My son, Peter, and I had the experience of a lifetime participating with the 10th Michigan Infantry – Civil War Reenactors in the 150th Anniversary Reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg back in July. Over 10,000 players participated as soldiers in the reenactment of the great battle and 150,000 others spectated over the four day event. While very likely THE largest Civil War reenactment in history, it paled in comparison to 1863’s battle where 175,000 soldiers took to combat.
The event was hosted by the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee. If not for the Blue-Gray Alliance breaking away from the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee and holding their own event a week earlier, the reenactment likely would have totaled some 17,000 participants. Rumor had it that the separation resulted from the Alliance’s reputation as “stitch counters,” feeling strongly that every aspect of the gear had to be historically correct whether or not in public view. Gettysburg Anniversary Committee participants joked about the Blue-Gray Alliance inspecting the underwear of their reenactors.
Preparing for Gettysburg was much like other reenactments where the goal is that spectators see only period dress, equipment, camp gear and food. Peter and I stocked a week’s worth of jerky and sausage from The Meat Market in Allendale and my wife Leslie cooked up a batch of hardtack. We also procured apples, cheese, and nuts. To stave off thirst, we packed up water plus instant coffee, which was invented for use by Civil War soldiers. For a fee, my entrepreneurial daughter Amy prepared 900 black powder cartridges for our use.
Taking the field with 10,000 reenactors was a simply put, an awesome experience. We had never participated in anything nearly so colossal. Being in a division with almost 1,000 men provided many new experiences such as learning how to form and march in division and battalion fronts and drills.
During 1863, the 10th Michigan Infantry did not fight in the Battle of Gettysburg, but instead served in the Western theater in the army under the command of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. They saw action predominantly in Tennessee, where a monument to the unit’s heroism stands in Chattanooga, and Georgia including Gen. Sherman’s March to the Sea. We were assigned to reenact the roles of Michigan units that were present at the Battle of Gettysburg with the exception of Pickett’s Charge in which we reenacted the role of Stannard’s Vermonters. Our six performances were:
Day #1 – 24th Michigan Infantry—Battles of Willoughby’s Run and McPherson’s Ridge
Day #2 – 4th Michigan Infantry—Battle of the Wheatfield
Day #3 – 3rd Michigan Infantry—Battles of the Peach Orchard and Culp’s Hill
Day #4 – Stannard’s Vermonters—Pickett’s Charge
I “died” three times out of the six battles. On the first day, the 24th Michigan, originally from Detroit, and part of the famed “Iron Brigade” fought at McPherson’s Woods. Company B was wiped out in the ferocious fighting with the 26th North Carolina Infantry. The “real” 24th Michigan Infantry lost all but one man out of Company B. We chose the one soldier who lived and the rest of us “died” in battle.
The Battle of the Peach Orchard was fascinating because the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, the largest Confederate unit in both real and reenactment life, refused to join the battle due to unresolved disputes between the commander and Union Generals. Thus, even though the Union lost this particular engagement, it looked very awkward because we outnumbered the rebels 3-1 on the field of battle.
Camp life consisted of drills, inspections, eating, warding off dehydration and congregating around the fire. We had some great surprises. On Independence Day, we stood atop of the hill in the battleground and enjoyed a distant fireworks display. Another surprise was the Camp Chase Fife & Drums Corp performance at the top of the hill beginning at dusk and ending long after night had fallen. The 5th Michigan Band set up camp near us and their practice provided variety throughout the day.
The temperature during the entire reenactment was approximately 95 degrees with a heat index of near 100 each day. Coupled with the heavy, wool uniforms, we were in for an intense sweat-bath all week long. Interestingly, these were the same conditions under which the original Gettysburg was fought. As our last battle, Pickett’s Charge, ended, a light rain ensued. On our march back to camp the heavens opened up and we were caught in a deluge that left all drenched to the bone. Fittingly, the heavy rain echoed that which poured down on troops following Pickett’s Charge 150 years earlier. The parallels were uncanny.
As the week went on, I noted another parallel between past and present day. The conduct of the Battle of Gettysburg and management of county government were quite comparable, both requiring leadership, resource management, funding, communication, coordination, teamwork, execution and politics. Of particular note was the leadership styles of the top brass.
Leadership capabilities, styles and lapses had a great deal to do with the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg. Gen. George Gordon Meade was commander of the Army of the Potomac and in charge of Union forces at Gettysburg. His inclination was to withdraw after the second day of fighting, however he left it up to a vote of his command staff. They voted to remain. Gen. Robert E. Lee, on the other hand, entered the Battle of Gettysburg with a 9-0 battle record. He was not inclined to leave after the second day of fighting as strongly recommended by his top General, James “Pete” Longstreet, the best battle field technician among Civil War generals.
Many believe that one of the greatest leadership losses occurred when famed Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson was accidentally shot by his own troops at the Battle of Chancellorsville, prior to Gettysburg. Had Gen. Jackson survived to fight in the Battle of Gettysburg the finale could have been different. Gen. Lee tended to think big picture and give orders that were not completely clear, such as his discretionary orders to Gen. Richard Ewell at the Battle of Cemetery Hill to take the heights “if practicable.” Gen. Ewell chose not to attack and many historians believe that this failure to act might have been a major factor in the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg. Ultimately when Gen. Jackson died, the mediator type communication between the big picture Lee and the heavily detailed Gen. Longstreet faltered, likely impacting the end. Those of us who have used the Kolbe instinctive measurement test extensively see Gen. Lee as a high green/red or red/green and Gen. Longstreet as a high blue/red or red/blue. Gen. Jackson was likely more of a purple, or mediator, with most scores in the mid-range 4-6. It became clear that the various leadership styles working collectively, rallying their troops, were imperative to the conclusion.
Participating in the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg Reenactment was an experience I will never forget. If only for a moment, I lived in history and glimpsed life of an American soldier during the greatest battle in our history.