Fighting Gettysburg again, remembering those who perished

Gettysburg National Parks Military Living History Civil War Travel NPS100 AR ORIGWX_00000511
Gettysburg National Parks Military Living History Civil War Travel NPS100 AR ORIGWX_00000511

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    Living history at Gettysburg

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Living history at Gettysburg 01:56

Story highlights

  • Gettysburg National Military Park holds living histories for much of the year
  • Saturday will be a solemn day of remembrance for thousands killed there at Civil War battle

(CNN)Peter "Reynolds" Bedrossian marches steadily through a misty green pasture. The relentless summer sun beats down on his thick wool uniform as beads of sweat gather under his cap.

Slowly, he walks through the Pennsylvania farmland, musket at the ready to face the attacking Confederate army.  
    While Bedrossian appears ready to fight in the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, he's actually one of many reenactors at Gettysburg National Military Park who spend many of their weekends dressing, talking, eating and sleeping like Civil War soldiers.
    "When you go and the gunfire takes place," says Bedrossian, a longtime reenactor, "there's a visceral response to that."
    "The smoke smells, you see the smoke, you feel that gun blast going off," he tells CNN. "They may get the aroma of our coffee beans, or the bacon... or they feel the weight of a Minie ball, or 10 rounds of ammunition."
    It's all part of the park's commitment -- and the hard work of park officials and volunteers -- to bring the incredible historical events that occurred on this land back to life.
    On November 19, Gettysburg National Military Park and the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania mark a historic day that the Battle of Gettysburg made possible.
    To mark the 153rd anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's historic Gettysburg Address, there will be a wreath-laying ceremony at the Soldiers' National Monument, followed by the Dedication Day program with actor LeVar Burton speaking and Lincoln portrayer George Buss reciting the Gettysburg Address.
    And come springtime, the living historians who re-create the lives of those who fought at Gettysburg will be back.
    "Here at Gettysburg, they've even gone above and beyond the 'living historians.' They're educators," says park ranger Thomas Holbrook.
    These volunteers are actually everyday firefighters, veterans, retirees, teachers and Civil War enthusiasts.
    While the majority of soldiers are gray-haired, their ranks do include the occasional millennial or high school history nerd, happy to endure the discomforts of an authentically 19th-century life to teach visitors about the famous battle that changed the course of American history.
    Gettysburg was once a sleepy farm town, full of fields and pastures. All that changed after Confederate forces attacked a federal post at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, in 1861, launching the Civil War.
    In the summer of 1863, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee tried for a second time to invade the North.
    For three days, the two armies clashed in and around the small town of Gettysburg. More than 165,000 soldiers fought. By the end of the third day, the tide turned against Lee's troops, and he retreated through Maryland to Virginia.
    The war's bloodiest battle, with 51,000 casualties (dead, wounded, captured or missing), is considered a turning point in the war to Union victory. (Historians put the number soldiers killed outright at more than 10,000, said park spokeswoman Katie Lawhon.)
    Just four months later, Lincoln came to Gettysburg to dedicate the cemetery and deliver his now immortal words in the Gettysburg Address.
    "These dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth," Lincoln said.
     'Lincoln' delivers Gettysburg Address
     'Lincoln' delivers Gettysburg Address

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      'Lincoln' delivers Gettysburg Address

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    'Lincoln' delivers Gettysburg Address 02:21
    Some 1.2 million visitors came to Gettysburg in 2015 to explore the 6,000-acre site, which includes 1,320 monuments and memorials, 148 historic buildings, 410 cannons and the Soldiers' National Cemetery. (About 3,500 of the 7,756 total interments are Civil War burials. The rest came from subsequent wars.)
    "Gettysburg is important. It's important that we at least -- at the very least -- experience Gettysburg for the vast sacrifice that these men made," says Holbrook.
    Every weekend from April through October 30, guests can experience the living history program brought alive by Bedrossian and his comrades representing soldiers and civilians.
    Visitors can explore the soldiers' camps, see weapons demonstrations, smell the bacon and meet the volunteers up close.
    The participants forsake the luxuries of modern life, playing baseball with equipment from the time or playing music such as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" on large military drums and high-pitched flutes.
    "We sit around the campfire, we may smoke pipes and drink something, sing period music, and the 21st century goes away," Bedrossian says.
    These volunteers say they are dedicated to sharing their passion with the public.
    "We are a product of our past," Bedrossian says.
    "History may have happened long ago, that's very true. But it didn't happen far away. Everybody who is here, who comes to this battlefield, has a connection to that history."