Who ‘dies’ is tough call for Gettysburg re-enactors

GETTYSBURG, Pa. — You’re a Civil War re-enactor carrying an authentic musket, out on the field with your history-buff buddies making a charge under withering enemy fire. It’s great fun except for one thing:

Someone’s going to have to “die.”

And lying motionless in the grass on a sultry July day in a historically accurate wool uniform while others are performing heroic deeds all around you does not always make for an exciting afternoon.

That’s why deciding who lives and who dies — and when they must fall — is one of the heaviest responsibilities a pretend commander at a Civil War re-enactment is likely to face.

“That is the age-old re-enacting question, and that is a tough one,” said Bob Minton, commander of the Union re-enactor forces last weekend at Gettysburg, the small town where the pivotal battle between North and South was waged on July 1-3, 1863.

For those whose hobby is dressing up in the blue and gray of the Union and the Confederacy, the Battle of Gettysburg is the pinnacle, and this week’s 150th anniversary events are a very big deal.

Re-enactors are sticklers for historical accuracy, but sometimes, in the heat of battle, things go awry. Some people, especially those who might have traveled a long distance for the event, don’t want to get hit just, say, five minutes into a scene and miss all the fun, and they keep on marching.

To make sure things unfold realistically, some re-enactor groups draw up scripts and work things out ahead of time with the corresponding enemy unit, deciding in advance who will be asked to give what Abraham Lincoln would later call “the last full measure of devotion.”

Sometimes, casualties are determined according to participants’ birthdays: Everyone born in April, for instance, might fall 10 minutes in; those in October might go down a half-hour later.

Donald Shaw of Flint, Mich., said some units designate which soldiers will fall on the battlefield by slipping black cartridges at random into their ammunition boxes before the fighting starts. Other times, he said, an officer might start ordering men on the spot to “start taking hits.”

Dying gives re-enactors a chance to do a little acting.

The enemy fires, “you wait two or three seconds for the ball to get to you and you go ‘Aarggh!,”’ Union artilleryman Alan Mazur of Columbus, Ohio, said Wednesday, tilting his head and stretching out his arms.

During the Civil War, most wounded soldiers didn’t die right away; many languished in hospitals. To account for that, some re-enactor units make up cards or slips of paper with different scenarios written out. Some people might be instructed to die on the spot. Other cards might call for a wounded man to slowly make his way off the field.

Often, not even the commanding officers know what’s going to happen with the rank-and-file — just like in real life.

“It’s planned chaos!” said Evan Myers, a Union artilleryman from Pittsburgh.

One advantage of a big event like Gettysburg is that there will be a lot of fighting to re-enact, ensuring that someone who goes down early one day might be allowed to live until the end on another day.

This being a major milestone anniversary, “this is our last chance, our last opportunity, to give everybody a rewarding experience,” said 65-year-old Stan Daywalt of Winchester, Va.

Of course, getting “killed” isn’t so bad sometimes, especially when it’s 90 degrees out, the wool uniform is getting uncomfortable and the legs are weary.

Lloyd Lamphere, 74, of Durand, Mich., said it’s the perfect time to take a break.

“It’s hot, I’m tired,” Lamphere said, “and it’s time to watch what’s going on.”

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