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GETTYSBURG, Pa. — The Battle of Gettysburg is underway for the second time in a week and tourists are converging in droves even if the outcome of the Civil War’s pivotal encounter has been known for 150 years.
Soldiers back in 1863 never experienced conditions like the ones re-enactors had Thursday.
Big city-like traffic snarled two-lane rural roads. Green grandstands used at the U.S. Open golf tournament last month outside Philadelphia lined the battlefield, packed with visitors. A narrator recounted the moves of Union and Confederates over two loudspeakers, as if doing play-by-play and color commentary for a football game.
“All right, we’ve got early firing. What we call a skirmish unit,” the narrator said as crowds eagerly watched from the sidelines marked with red wire.
This re-enactment was held by the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee, the group which has held such events for roughly two decades. This event appeared to draw bigger crowds on the July 4th holiday than the re-enactments held last weekend by the Blue-Gray Alliance, which has had several battle depictions for the 150th anniversary around the country.
In between the two re-enactments, the real battlefield at Gettysburg National Military Park was the focal point of visitors on the actual anniversary days. Up to 10,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died in Gettysburg on July 1-3, 1863.
The Park Service finished up its special programs Thursday, focusing on the aftermath of the battle including the stories of residents, prisoners and the wounded.
At the re-enactment, John Schwamberger, 47, of Cincinnati, took pictures with his smartphone and whispered what was happening to his wife and two kids. He wore a shirt given to him by his family last month, especially for this trip, bearing the name of his great-great-grandfather, Henry Wittenmyer. Fighting for the 150th Pennsylvania Regiment, Schwamberger said Wittenmyer was wounded on the first day of battle, July 1, 1863 — the same fighting being re-enacted Thursday at the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee event.
“I’ve heard about this one a lot, but I’ve been here before,” Schwamberger. “This is huge. I’ve never been at something this big before.”
Earlier in the trip, he visited the spot where his distant relative was shot 150 years ago. Wittenmyer, he said, returned to Gettysburg 100 years ago.
“He came back for the 50th (anniversary), so we thought it would be awesome to be here for the 150th one,” Schwamberger said.
The first round of fake fighting was over after about an hour on a warm, humid Independence Day afternoon, and the crowds streamed to the living history presentations, the patriotic tent and the food stand.
Unusual scenes abounded, like soldiers in wool uniforms carrying their gear past TV satellite trucks. At the living history tent, David Townsend, 69, of Tampa, answered questions in the character of Union Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock.
At one point, someone asked “Hancock” if he would be in favor of furloughing Confederate prisoners. After a brief pause, he replied, “As long as the enemy was doing the same thing. That wasn’t always the case.”
Townsend stopped in midanswer to salute during the National Anthem, playing in the background before the first re-enactment scene.
For Townsend, Thursday was a little bittersweet, too. It was his last appearance as Hancock in Gettysburg after about eight years, though he still plans to play the role closer to home in the South.
“I’m 69. Hancock was 39. There’s not enough hair dye in the world to get me down to 39,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve really enjoyed it, but I’ve been Hancock longer than Hancock.”
This second re-enactment ends Sunday with another depiction of Pickett’s Charge, the failed Confederate attack that ended the Battle of Gettysburg.