Thousands flock to Gettysburg to honor town's decisive spot in American history, 150 years after the battle that turned the tide of the Civil War.
GETTYSBURG, Pa. — As she waited Wednesday afternoon to watch a giant re-enactment of perhaps the key moment of the Civil War, Jan Callanan squinted across the vast expanse of pasture that ends in a stand of hardwood trees.
"It's personal for us," said Callanan, 66, visiting from Monroeville, Pa., with her daughter Julie Greenawalt, Julie's husband, Erik, and three grandchildren.
The turning point of the war and its bloodiest battle, Gettysburg was the only major fight in Pennsylvania. Even after 150 years, the three-day battle seems to hold personal connections for many of the thousands who have come this week to commemorate it.
Two of Erik Greenawalt's ancestors fought here — both were killed at subsequent battles. Callahan has been coming to Gettysburg regularly since she was a child and remembers when this view was very different: A Stuckey's restaurant and souvenir shop, several houses and the Battlefield Motel cut through its middle until preservationists bought several parcels of land, bulldozed the structures and restored thousands of acres.
"It's actually easier (now) to get an idea of what it looked like in July 1863," she said.
She was waiting for the re-enactment of Pickett's Charge, the historic mile-long march that was the climax of the Battle of Gettysburg and, historians say, the most pivotal moment of the war. About 12,000 Confederate soldiers marched a mile that afternoon, clashing with 8,000 Union troops. It was Gen. Robert E. Lee's last gamble, and it ended in disaster for the South.
In the course of just an hour, 6,500 soldiers were dead, wounded, captured or missing. Three days of fighting at Gettysburg produced an estimated 51,000 casualties.
Kevin Farrar, a Confederate re-enactor from Lovettsville, Va., said it was "mind-boggling" to think of the mile-long march that Confederate troops endured under heavy fire. "It's like the beaches of Normandy," he said.
"If you are any kind of history buff, this is the key day of the war," said Matt Knox, 54, visiting from Bedford, Va., with his 23-year-old son, Eli. "One of them," his son corrected. "There's Vicksburg."
"One of them," the elder Knox said.
City and National Park Service officials expected an onslaught of visitors and media this week, and they've largely gotten what they expected: The city's convention and visitors bureau handed out credentials for nearly 700 reporters and other media personnel. An estimated 200,000 visitors or more are expected to pass through town in the 10-day span from June 28 to July 7, spending an estimated $100 million. The other 355 days of the year, only about 7,000 people live here.
Just before 3 p.m. Wednesday, cannons fired from beyond the trees and more than 1,000 people — re-enactors and visitors alike — begin to hike the across the pasture, toward the Union line.
This time, the hushed click of camera shutters replaced the sound of guns. A half-hour later, the marchers arrived. First across the Union line: Nina Emery, a gray-haired, retired special education teacher from Lynnfield, Mass. She strolled through in pressed blue jeans and a blue-and-white flowered blouse, tucked beneath a vivid red umbrella. Asked how she ended up at the front of the pack, she laughed and said, "You never know where you're going to end up from one day to the next."
It was a great day for re-enactors — crowd members sidled up to them with tiny digital cameras and smartphones and asked if they could pose for photos. No photo subject was more popular than a smartly dressed Gen. Robert E. Lee, played by Don Vanhart, a 58-year-old surgical technician from Maine, N.Y. He takes the long, hot walk across the pasture every year, and every year, he said, "different emotions come through." This year, he said, he enjoyed it.
As a tiny, middle-aged woman stood with her arm around Vanhart and posed for a photo, she admitted: "I cried."
A few yards away, another familiar figure posed for pictures among the welcoming crowd: Gen. Ulysses S. Grant? He wasn't even at Gettysburg, but there, posing for photos, was Steve Hatchette, his broad build and salt-and-pepper beard making him a dead ringer for the Union commander. As he stood posing, he joked, "I should have been in Vicksburg today, but I had to come up to see what happened."
In real life, Hatchette, 58, owns a flooring company in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He has come to Gettysburg twice a year for the past 10 years.
Jerry Rigg, 67, a retired Army sergeant from Mount Carmel, Ill., watched with a smile. "It's really neat," he said. "I'm glad to be a part of it."
Rigg's great-great-great-grandfather, William Victor Rigg, fought farther south and west, in Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chickamauga and Chattanooga, among others. Like many in the crowd, he understood the significance not only of Pickett's Charge but of the turning point in the war that Gettysburg represented. Four months later, at the dedication of a new cemetery at Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address.
"This is where it all changed," he said. "This is where we came back to be a real United States again."