GETTYSBURG, Pa. - Jeff Speight, a Con Edison worker from Island Park, stood in a blue line of Union Army volunteers Sunday morning, a crumpled Union cap on his head, a Springfield rifle in hand and a 2-foot bayonet in his belt, poised for battle.
He is among more than 10,000 Civil War re-enactors who have descended on the rolling farm fields outside this small Pennsylvania town to commemorate the epic three-day Battle of Gettysburg that nearly ended the United States 150 years ago beginning July 1, 1863.
It was a place that Speight's great-grandfather, himself a Union Army veteran, had come to during a commemorative gathering 75 years ago.
"For me, it's like coming full circle," Speight said, the concussion of a distant cannon hurtling through the trees.
He then marched off to take part in one of more than a dozen re-enactment battles scheduled for the next week.
"One hundred and fifty really is a blink of an eye," said Speight, whose great-grandfather, Henry Washington Speight, served on a color guard when the body of Abraham Lincoln lay in state in Baltimore and was later invited to the 75th anniversary of the battle by President Franklin Roosevelt. His great grandfather died in 1946 at age 100 and is buried on Staten Island. "It's not something that happened so long ago. It's something that has a freshness to it. People are still fascinated by it."
Confined to an area of some 15 square miles, 51,112 troops from the Union and Confederate armies were killed, wounded or captured during the Battle of Gettysburg, a 72-hour spasm of cannon fire and panicked confusion, steely infantry thrusts and dogged resistance. During the culmination on July 3, 1863, with the Confederate assault known as Pickett's Charge, some 12,500 Southern troops advanced over nearly a mile of open fields toward dug-in Union soldiers. Savaged by cannon salvos, more than half of the Confederate soldiers became casualties.
The battle, which involved some 160,000 Union and Confederate troops, plus as many as 30,000 slaves forced to aid the Confederates, produced a decisive Union victory that ultimately preserved the Union.
This week, more than 100,000 Americans are expected at Gettysburg to relive the epic clash.
Many, Speight included, have adopted the character of Civil War participants by taking part in such re-enactments.
Kenneth T. Jackson, a Columbia University professor who studies New York City's history, said Gettysburg remains compelling in part because it cast in blood the most divisive issues in America's history.
Just days after Gettysburg, roving mobs in Manhattan angry over the first-ever military draft attacked establishments associated with the Union effort in general, and black people in particular, burning a black orphanage and black businesses and sacking the homes of abolitionists.
At least 120 people were killed, according to historian James McPherson, including 11 blacks, who were lynched.
Hundreds of soldiers from Long Island served at Gettysburg with volunteer units. Among them were the 119th New York Volunteers, who participated in the first two days of the battle, suffering 21 killed, 67 wounded and 32 missing, according to the New York State Military Museum. A 100-man company of the 119th Infantry -- Company H -- was recruited by Benjamin Albertson Willis, a lawyer from Roslyn, who enlisted in 1862.
Tom Demaria, 53, a psychologist from Garden City, said his fascination with the fervor that drove ordinary citizens to fight for abstract causes during the Civil War -- why, for example, would a white schoolteacher from Maine fight to abolish slavery in South Carolina? -- drew him to Gettysburg yesterday.
"You can read about it in histories, but living as they did -- sleeping outside and experiencing how much they sacrificed -- makes it much more emotional," said Demaria, a member of the 67th New York Volunteers, a re-enactment group in Old Bethpage.
"How they dealt with mourning, how they comprehended so many people dying. This war transformed our country."