For Gettysburg re-enactors, it's authenticity in the name of history

About 11,000 re-enactors donning the colors of the Union and the Confederacy stage an epic battle to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg at a park just a few miles from the historic battlefield. Videojournalist: Thomas A. Ferrara (July 3, 2013)

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GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- In a field where Civil War cannon once thundered, Mark Adler and Guy Smith huddled together in an open-ended "dog tent" last Sunday night, as a steady downpour soaked them and the ground around them.

"It came down in buckets," Adler, 63, of Oceanside, said the next morning. "I was curled up like a baby. Half of my kit is wet."

For the next three days, the men played the roles of Pvt. Alfred Noon, a harness maker from Roslyn, and Sgt. George Rudyard, of North Hempstead, who were with Company H of the 119th New York Volunteer Regiment when that Long Island unit fought at Gettysburg.

Adler and Smith are among some 200 "living historians" invited by the U.S. Parks Service to serve as historical interpreters for the more than 100,000 people expected to visit Gettysburg National Military Park by the end of Sunday to mark last week's 150th anniversary of America's deadliest battle.

Recreating Civil War personae is a passion for Smith and Adler. Like the dozen other Long Islanders who participated in the Parks Service's living diorama, the men adopted the clothing and mannerisms of Civil War soldiers -- right down to the camp rations, days of not washing and heavy woolen uniforms they endured during last week's thunderstorm-punctuated humidity.

They said only by living as authentically as possible -- sleeping on the ground and firing muzzle-loading rifles, and eschewing such conveniences as rainproof tents or even manufactured cigarettes -- could they help visitors fully appreciate the courage and sacrifice of Gettysburg veterans.

"I just went through, and everything was what it was like at the time," said Adler, as he walked among rows of canvas camp tents pitched a quarter-mile from the legendary Copse of Trees that had been the focus of the July 3, 1863 "Pickett's Charge."

The quest for authenticity has been particularly personal for William Carman, 60, who with Adler and Smith is a member of Company H, 119th New York Volunteers Historical Association, based in Old Bethpage.

His great-grandfather, Pvt. John Carman, had been a member of Company H when the Long Island-based unit was called to Gettysburg in 1863. According to "Nassau County in the Civil War," by Arnold Gates, the regiment left Maryland at 5 a.m. and marched 11 miles through a drenching rain to confront the Confederates on the battle's first day.

According to Gates, Maj. Benjamin Willis, a Roslyn man who recruited Long Island members of the 119th, wrote in an after-battle report: "Our regiment did not yield, but stood firmly until the First Division, Second Corps had fallen far back toward the town . . ." The 300-member 119th suffered a nearly 50 percent casualty rate at Gettysburg, with 11 killed, 70 wounded and 59 captured or missing. But Carman's ancestor survived.

"The cool part of being here is now I know exactly where my great-grandfather was at that time," Carman said. "I know where they camped every night."

Long Island is home to at least six groups of Civil War living historians -- three Union and three Confederate, said Matthew "Max" Kenny, who has been president of Company K, 67th New York Infantry.

Historians say the Civil War holds fascination for re-enactors because it crystallized questions that still resonate today.

"Gettysburg is really a symbolic battle over whether the principles of American democracy will survive, or will they be too unstable to endure," said Allen Guelzo, professor of the Civil War era at Gettysburg College. "But ultimately the story of Gettysburg is whether the Confederacy would succeed in creating a slave-based society."

Only a handful of black visitors, however, were among the throngs who toured the battlefield last week.

James Knowles, a black re-enactor and former Huntington resident who avoided Gettysburg, said Civil War re-enactments often discourage black enthusiasm by glossing over slavery's role.

"As far as I'm concerned, the Confederacy was a criminal state," said Knowles, 47, of Madison, Conn., who participates in re-enactments representing the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry. "When you whitewash slavery, it discourages black involvement."

Smith, 69, a retired Huntington contractor, says Civil War lore has swirled in his head since he was invited to paint a Civil War mural by his seventh-grade history teacher.

His fascination with Civil War minutia zoomed in 1980, when he and Adler witnessed a re-enactment staged by Old Bethpage Village Restoration.

They've since traveled to dozens more.

"We've been hungry, thirsty, wet and miserable, and loving every minute of it," said Smith. "Because we know what they went through. That's why we do this."

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