The Last Full Measure

Gettysburg bites the dust in Brunswick.

Gettysburg bites the dust in Brunswick.

After two days of brutal fighting at Gettysburg, casualties have overwhelmed the medical tent. Surgeons in bloodstained frocks treat an endless stream of the wounded. “Peel back the skin!” they shout, or, “It looks like gangrene!” and, “Give me the bone saw — even though it’s getting dull!” They dig into flesh with probes and forceps, use belts as tourniquets, numb their patients with ether and whiskey, and discard amputated limbs in a heap.

Meanwhile, perched on a slight rise above the battlefield, Union Brigadier General Alexander Webb charts the ebb and flow of fighting lines on a tabletop map. Yesterday, Webb points out, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the 20th Maine Infantry crucially preserved the Union’s left flank with a last-ditch, bayoneted charge down Little Round Top. But the rebels haven’t quit.

“We’ve seen them gathering here,” he says, indicating a position across from the center of Union lines.

It bears noting that the stalwart General Webb is an 11-year-old girl. Most of his (or her) troops stand about 4-foot-8, and they’ve all drawn on their beards, mustaches, and mutton chops with markers. The bucolic Pennsylvania hills are actually an athletic field outside Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School in Brunswick, where, for two decades, fifth graders have reenacted the Civil War, always with unwavering commitment to their characters.

“So the fighting has made its way all the way up to Maine?” a spectating grandmother asks playfully.

“No ma’am,” General Webb replies gravely. “This is Gettysburg.”

Since students’ first Civil War reenactment in the mid-’90s, the event has grown into a popular community affair that hundreds of parents, townsfolk, and other students attend. But, to the disappointment of many, this year’s exhibition is also the last, because next year, fifth-grade history will cut off at the American Revolution. The day’s main draw — Pickett’s Charge, a desperate Confederate gambit that marked a turning point in the war — is doubling as the long-running spectacle’s last stand.

On the field, Southern troops form up to attack, and Union soldiers take defensive positions. Officers pace both lines, sabers drawn, hollering encouragement. Artillery fire commences. Puffs of smoke (flour) and thuds of shells (base drum) fill the air.

General George Pickett gives a blood-curdling scream: “Forward! Forward march!” His men respond with a wild rebel yell. Bursts of gun smoke (flour again) pour from rifles. Union troops send volleys into the oncoming wave of butternut and gray. Fallen Southerners strew the field behind their advancing comrades. “Come on boys, give ’em the cold steel!” Confederate General Lewis Armistead cries, and it seems for a moment that the brash charge might succeed. Frantic hand-to-hand fighting ensues. Finally, though, it becomes clear that the Union line will hold.

Confederate soldiers stagger back across the field. Barely audible above the din, General Robert E. Lee wails, “All my fault!” A hearty huzzah rises from the Union troops. The battle is won.

Afterward, soldiers from both sides present white crosses with the names of 20th Maine fighters who perished at Gettysburg, and buglers play taps. Spectators applaud. The tired troops disperse glassy-eyed into the crowd. A bedraggled rebel spots her mother and gives a toothy grin that reveals a mouthful of braces.

Then, from across the field, a teacher calls out a final order: “To the classroom!” — Will Grunewald

Photographed by Lauryn Hottinger. 

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Will Grunewald

Will Grunewald is Down East's associate editor.