Turning point for re-enactors

Next weekend – just over 150 years after thousands of Confederate soldiers struggled in brutal hand-to-hand combat with Union defenders at a low stone wall outside Gettysburg – columns of re-enactors are set to simulate Pickett’s charge, the famed “high-water mark of the Confederacy.”

Many have saved for years, traveling across the country to don woolen uniforms and shoulder replica muskets on the battle’s sesquicentennial. But for some, Gettysburg’s 150th anniversary could represent a high-water mark for the hobby itself.

“There will be an enduring effect of this event,” said Rick Long, 62, a Hesston-based Altoona native serving with the 46th Pennsylvania Regiment Band, a musical re-enactment group. “The hobby sort of ebbs and flows. It’s been building up to this for the last four or five years.”

Officials at the Gettysburg National Military Park in Adams County have planned for tens of thousands of visitors each day in the coming week. The battlefield, a center for tourists and re-enactors even on less monumental years, will likely be packed as the country marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s bloody turning point.

Several battle re-enactments are scheduled, each representing key points in the three-day conflict.

Soon after that, as many as a fourth of active re-enactors could hang up their uniforms permanently, Long estimated.

“I see folks leaving and getting out of it – people who’ve been doing it 30 to 40 years,” said John Wagner of Altoona, a re-enactor with the 110th Pennsylvania Infantry. At 36, Wagner estimated he’s closer to the median age for a re-enactor, with some carrying on the lifestyle well into their 70s.

At 62, Long agreed, though he noted he doesn’t plan to quit.

“The knees aren’t as good as they used to be. I can’t march as much as I used to,” he said.

The fact that he marches at all is impressive when he’s compared with the average Civil War soldier’s age: roughly 25.

Some re-enactors are vastly younger, of course – local participants said many become interested in high school or college. But the older skew can be blamed partly on the hobby’s expense, with replica weapons alone setting re-enactors back hundreds of dollars.

Wagner once bought a $175 hat in Gettysburg, he said.

For the younger Civil War buffs – who want to join up but lack disposable income and free time – retired re-enactors offer an important lifeline, they said. With many likely to give up the hobby after the anniversary, the younger generation will find themselves without that help.

“They pack trucks, prep food … and they’re to be commended for that,” Wagner said. “Without them, we’d just have the working class, the younger folks like me. Our employers demand so much of us.”

And when younger re-enactors aren’t ready to buy full uniforms, older counterparts often lend equipment until they’re ready to take the final step, Long said.

But while thousands of veteran re-enactors prepare to leave their regiments, the attention surrounding the Civil War’s sesquicentennial could spur a massive younger cohort to research history and take up the hobby, said Jared Frederick, raised in Altoona and a seasonal park ranger at the Gettysburg battlefield.

“I think it’s certainly possible,” said Frederick, 25, who attributed his Civil War interest to TV showings of the film “Gettysburg” during his childhood. “That’s exactly what happened after the centennial in 1963: It spawned a whole generation and a whole re-enactor culture.”

Re-enacting grows strongest when “grassroots history” takes hold in popular culture, Frederick said. In the 1960s, everyday people read bestselling histories of the war; in the late 1980s and early 1990s, movies like “Glory” and “Gettysburg” inspired young people to seek out re-enacting groups, he said.

This summer’s anniversary, buoyed by movies like “Lincoln,” could affect younger people in a way school can’t, Frederick said.

Even if some younger people take up re-enacting, however, there’s no guarantee they’ll gravitate to the Civil War. Other time periods, especially World War II, have gained popularity since the 1990s – thanks to movies and shows including “Saving Private Ryan” and “Band of Brothers,” Long and Frederick said.

History buffs often take a particularly keen interest when they can connect with an ancestor, the Altoona-area re-enactors said. As the Civil War fades deeper into history, more recent family connections are easier to find.

“We have a couple members that are looking at World War II re-enacting. That’s starting to be a growing area. … And there are only so many weekends in a month,” Long said.

Still, most re-enactors seem confident that the Civil War will remain popular, especially with the boost of attention the anniversary will provide. And as long as regiments and families tell younger generations about their military heritage, more will join up, Wagner said.

“Most units pass it down. Most guys will pass it down through the lineage,” said Wagner, who served in the military after his father and grandfather, and whose distant ancestor fought for four years in the Union regiment he now simulates.

“I like to call it a way of life,” he said. “A re-enactor’s not there to glorify the horrors of war … to glorify the carnage, the fighting. The re-enactor’s there for the soldier’s story. That’s what they’re there for.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.