150th Remembrance Day something special

Mike Donellan, Lew Ulrich and John Haynes, Jr., line up to begin the parade at the 150th Remembrance Day in Gettysburg Nov. 23.
By Candice Monhollan The 97th PVI, based in Downingtown, was one of the units which took part in the 150th Remembrance Day in Gettysburg Nov. 23.

When a teenager turns 16, you would think they’d ask for a car for their birthday, right?

Not me.

When that birthday came around, I wanted to be a Civil War reenactor. No, seriously.

I had fallen in love with American military history – and more specifically, the Civil War – when I had at eighth grade field trip. From that point on, I wanted to immerse myself into it by watching movies, TV shows and books upon books upon books.

I first met a reenactor on a birthday trip to Gettysburg and stumbled upon the 97th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry shortly after and within a few months, I became a member. That was 2003.

Fast forward to 2013 and this reenacting season has been one of the best and most memorable for me. Not only are we in the middle of the 150th anniversaries, but I have also been celebrating my 10-year anniversary in the hobby and with the same unit.

We close the reenacting season out with Remembrance Day in Gettysburg every November. The event marks the commemoration of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The speech celebrated its 150th anniversary Nov. 19 and this year’s Remembrance Day came on Nov. 23.

It’s typically a fun day to spend with fellow reenactors and parade through the streets of the small town and spend the rest of the time visiting the battlefield or walking around and shopping for some things at the Regimental Quartermaster for next season.

For me, at least, this year felt so different this time around. The day is supposed to be about remembering all those who not only fought in Gettysburg, but the entire war and I usually spend some time doing that every year, but this year I felt I had to really give all my heart in memory of them.

A lot of reenactors gather early in the morning to march into the Soldiers’ National Cemetery and pay their respects to the fallen. In all my years, I never had the chance to make it out because of the time, but I had to change it this year. Despite working a hockey game at 9:30 the night before and getting only four hours of sleep, I drug myself out of bed at 5 a.m. to make the two-hour trek down the Turnpike and Route 15.

I’m so grateful I did. It was such a unique and solemn experience. The Federal Volunteer Brigade, which my unit is a part of, marched around to different sections of the cemetery, stopping at the fallen from New Jersey and Michigan before making our way around to Pennsylvania.

With so many of us from the Keystone State, it was emotional. A few words were said and our brigade’s bugler played TAPS.

I couldn’t help but shed a few tears when I looked around the semicircle of the American flags placed at the more than 3,500 headstones of Union soldiers – and a few Confederates (when the burial process began four months after the battle, Rebel soldiers were not allowed to be buried there) – who died in Gettysburg.

Over three million Americans took up arms against each other and almost 20 percent of them – roughly 620,000 – never came home again (although new on-going research could increase the total to 850,000). At Gettysburg alone, there were over 51,000 casualties in just three days of battle.

In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln said, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here but it can never forget what they did here.”

Now, seven score and 10 years later, we still remember the brief two-minute speech he gave and continue to honor his legacy and those of the millions who fought and the hundreds of thousands who died.

I spent a good hour wandering the National Cemetery at dusk as volunteers set up luminaries at each grave – which eventually was canceled due to the wind. I took the time to stop and reflect and give my thanks to every state represented, something I have never done before.

Before leaving, I took a seat on a bench by the monument in the center of the semicircle. A woman in her mid-30s sat down on the bench beside me and commented on the ball gown I was wearing for the event. I nodded graciously, to which she continued by thanking me for what I do as a reenactor and even told me I was an inspiration.

No one in my 10 years has ever said that to me and it really stuck with me long after my drive back home later that night.

I originally started in this hobby because of my love of history. Since that time, I discovered I had at least two members of my family fight for the Union during the war and so my participation evolved more to honoring their memory.

I don’t see myself as an inspiration doing this. All I truly hope to do is make sure people won’t ever forget what happened in those four horrific years and that somewhere above, those men and women who lost their lives during the war can smile down at what we do in honor of them.

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