A soldier's point of view is restricted to what he himself participated in and what he saw directly in front of him. My experiences at Gettysburg may have been far different from the fellow bivouacked in Federal or Confederate camp.
I arrived Thursday after a five hour ride from my house outside Lynchburg. The ride took me through the beautiful Shenandoah Valley with mountain ranges on one side of Interstate-81 or the other. The skies overhead were cloudless and deep blue. The first two days of weather were comfortably cool.
As early as Thursday most of the sutler merchants were in place ready for the crowds to come spend their money purchasing items resembling what they hoped were available 1861-1865. There were racks and shelves of blue and gray sack coats, sky blue and butternut trousers, vests of every color and of course lots of hats. You had your choice of kepis, bummers, straw hats, slouch hats in blue and black. There were wooden toys, tin plates, eating utensils, buttons, leather goods, shoes, boots, lady's dresses, hoop skirts and plenty of toy guns and little trinkets to attract even the smallest soldier or young lady.
There was one wide main street for the sutlers and one street for the food venders. Bleachers were just past the food vendor avenue along with EMS medical people in case someone was injured or went down from heat stroke.
The white canvas sutler's tents stretched for about two city blocks with shops on either side of the boulevard. Beyond the merchants was the living history camp. Troops were camped a good distance away up in the hills.
Gettysburg Civil War reenactments are a staple of the town. The events are well coordinated and well attended. Civil War is the economy of the city. Signs are well placed to find your way to the event and spectators come from all over the country and the world to see what America's Civil War was all about.
Thursday was a set up day. Friday the troops arrived in numbers of about twenty-five hundred and did so through the night until Saturday. There were battles starting Friday and lasting through Monday but they appeared like a weekend football game with an announcer doing the "play by plays."
The Gettysburg event is very commercial and yet, not unpleasant. Music was played all day over speakers planted in front of the bleachers. It was impossible to escape or ignore it. Most of it was from CDs recorded by the 2nd South Carolina Regimental String Band who were also in attendance doing live music as was the 46 Regimental Brass Band.
There was an activity tent where speakers presented period fashion shows, General Lee gave his views and regrets on the battle, actors from the movie Gettysburg gave talks and pitched Civil War driving tours. It was a well managed show.
My direct participation was with Bob Szabo the tintype photographer. He had his big tent set up in place before I arrived. It was about twenty-five feet long and fifteen wide with a room divided off with additional white canvas for a sleeping room and finishing room for the photographic plates.
The tent even included a skylight divided into what was meant to look like glass panes. This way pictures could be taken in what amounted to a light box and could be used even if the weather turned rainy. It never did. But oh how the sun did pour down! Each day grew progressively hotter reaaching into the upper nineties. Nights however would drop down into the sixties, a merciful contrast to the blistering days.
The crowds of spectators walking up and down sutler row were substantial. At thirty dollars a head for adults and fifteen for kids it was surprising how many there actually were. There were three of us working the photography tent. A fellow named Ed Mantel brought period clothing sufficient to outfit a family of five or so in either Yankee or Confederate gear.
Neither Bob Szabo nor I was comfortable with having to dress out spectators and do reenactment photos of the uninitiated but if we had had to rely on reenactors alone we would have starved. It came down to an argument of adapt or go broke. The choice was obvious.
I acted as salesperson, Ed, the outfitter, and Bob the camera operator/darkroom wizard. Each day we worked the crowds of people who showed at the entrance to the tent and managed to pull off approximately twenty-five jobs per day. We never had a moment to sit. The work was steady, the business excellent. With prices set beyond the nickel and dime category it was amazing to consider though the economy was tight, these people had money to spend.
Remember, the soldier or merchant's view of even the biggest event is limited to what is directly in the line of what that individual experienced. Throughout the day I heard the announcer doing play-by-play descriptions of the battles, cannon fire going off, the music blaring and the unsophisticated comments of the spectators as they tried to take it all in.
What was wonderful to see were the number of parents who had brought their families from all over the U.S. to see this event and to learn about our American heritage. It was amazing also how many of the kids knew about the battle for Gettysburg and wanted to know more. They were like sponges asking questions about the photography and anything else they could pump from us.
At the end of the day the three of us would go into town to get a change of scene. The town was crowded with summer tourists buying every conceivable souvenir with tee shirts decorated with pictures of soldiers or slogans and flags being the most popular. We tried two tourist restaurants and left substantial portions of our wallet behind. We visited two other tintype studios and made a trip out to the Cashtown Tavern where Confederate troops had marched by on their way to do battle. There we did see a number of young Confederate reenactors dressed in jean cloth butternut carousing and having a good time. There was also a most excellent fife and drum corp band providing live music.
Seeing these younger fellows having a good time gave me hope that not all reenactors are becoming gray beards. But a surprising comment from so many reenactors was that after the 150th events take place many plan to stack their weapons and pack away their woolen uniforms permanently. At least that was a prevalent comment. Whether that's just a comment for the moment remains to be seen depending on how the enthusiasm for the upcoming events materializes or doesn't.
For me, the interest in antique photography will remain whether I'm pointing my camera at a Civil War reenactor or a dilapidated tobacco barn in Virginia. History will always grab and hold my interest.