Battle reenactors experience ‘magic moments’ of immersion

[From the Philadelphia Inquirer, where the story includes a photo gallery]

Gettysburg reenactors

Gettysburg reenactment is a campaign in itself

With 15,000 participants and 80,000 spectators expected, “I think of it as a historical Woodstock,” an organizer said.

Edward Colimore, Inquirer Staff Writer Posted: Sunday, June 30, 2013

The armies are already beginning to arrive, days ahead of the big battle.

Tucked away in the rolling Adams County countryside are rows of billowy white tents. Men in blue and in gray march with shouldered muskets. Officers on horseback ride by with sabers jingling at their sides.

One hundred and fifty years after the bloodiest clash ever fought on the continent, Union and Confederate forces are again gathering like storm clouds around tiny Gettysburg, this time for a bloodless re-creation of the epic battle fought there.

Beginning Thursday and continuing through next Sunday, scores of cannons will roar, the ground will shake beneath the feet of hundreds of horses, and long lines of federal troops will fire volleys, like sheets of flame, into the oncoming rebel soldiers.

“It’s extremely accurate and feels real — the noise, conditions, and spectacle — but you’re not confronting the likelihood of you or your friends being killed,” said Jon Sirlin, a Philadelphia lawyer who portays a Union officer and chief of staff, one of an expected 15,000 reenactors.

The event — put on by the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee at a cost of about $1 million — will cover the major engagements of the battle, which raged July 1-3, 1863.

Another smaller battle reenactment held by the Blue Gray Alliance is underway through today at the Bushey Farm on Pumping Station Road.

“I think of it as a historical Woodstock,” said Randy Phiel, one of the organizers of the larger July 4-7 event, which is expected to draw up to 80,000 spectators on the two farms outside Gettysburg.

The challenges of overseeing such large crowds and so many reenactors on two sprawling farms will be daunting.

“We train in individual units of maybe 30, 40, or 50 guys,” said Sirlin, 64, of Center City. “Then, we get together with a unit of 100, and a larger unit of 500.

“But nobody gets together with 10,000 guys,” he said. “We really do give orders on the field and have to follow a plan.”

Those plans, as in 1863, are known only to the officers. “You have to respond to what happens,” Sirlin said. “Mistakes happen, just like they do during the real thing. … You get a better feeling for how things go wrong.”


The coming fight “is key,” said Jon Sirlin, who has participated in many reenactments, assuming the persona of a Union officer and often directing troops from horseback. “These guys defeated us badly at Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg, and it seemed they were better than us.

“But think of what Lee has said — that the South doesn’t realize how much more powerful the North really is, and ultimately that the South will lose,” he said. “We should be winning this war.”

Most of the time, Sirlin has both feet planted in the 21th century as a civil litigator specializing in business, real estate, and creditor’s rights.

But at Gettysburg, he has entered a time when soldiers salute and address him as “sir.” He’s an officer in the Union army, and it’s do-or-die time for the Northern cause. He dons a wool uniform and heavy leather boots — everything necessary to experience the soldier’s life.

And when there are no cars, planes overhead, or utility poles in view, he can easily imagine the past — what reenactors call “magic moments.”

“I’ve had a number of them,” Sirlin said. “You feel immersed in the time. “My horse and I are one creature,” he said. I feel everything is real, and happening in front of me.”


Capturing the dramatic look of the coming battle was the job of artists such as Alfred Waud in 1863 — and Terry Jones 150 years later.

Jones, the sculptor of the Gen. John Gibbon bronze statue on the battlefield, will portray an artist of the time. He is outfitted for the role with high cavalry boots, a duster, slouch hat, Navy Colt sidearm, and sketch pad.

“I’m a combat artist, and there’s going to be combat,” Jones said as he sank into his role. “I’m going to try to position myself” to see the battle.

The Newtown Square man will spend his time in the Union camp, trying to capture the feeling of the event much as Waud did.

“The artists then had a certain panache and flamboyance,” said Jones, 66. They “tried to get close to the engagement.

“They’d sketch the broad outlines of what they saw,” he said, “take notes in the margin, then finish later.”


For [Harry] Sonntag, those moments when the present slips away — and the past takes over — often come at the end of the day.

“The camp is set up, the sun is going down, the lanterns are being lit, and the campfires are going,” said the Confederate reenactor.

“I’m sitting in the tent and people are coming in,” he said. “I’m on the same ground, hearing the same reports.”

That’s when Sonntag can easily forget he’s living in 2013. “I can only imagine that this is the way it must have been,” he said. “You don’t remember you’re Harry Sonntag. … It’s an interesting feeling.”



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