By Greg Toppo, USA Today
GETTYSBURG, Pa. - As she waited Wednesday afternoon to watch a giantre-enactment of perhaps the key moment of the Civil War, Jan Callahansquinted across the vast expanse of pasture that ends in a stand ofhardwood trees.
"It's personal for us," said Callahan, 66,visiting from Monroeville, Pa., with her daughter Julie Greenawalt,Julie's husband, Erik, and three grandchildren.
The turning pointof the war and its bloodiest battle, Gettysburg was the only major fightin Pennsylvania. Even after 150 years, the three-day battle seems tohold personal connections for many of the thousands who have come thisweek to commemorate it.
Two of Erik Greenawalt's ancestors foughthere - both were killed at subsequent battles. Callahan has been comingto Gettysburg regularly since she was a child and remembers when thisview was very different: A Stuckey's restaurant and souvenir shop,several houses and the Battlefield Motel cut through its middle untilpreservationists bought several parcels of land, bulldozed thestructures and restored thousands of acres.
"It's actually easier (now) to get an idea of what it looked like in July 1863," she said.
She was waiting for the re-enactment of Pickett's Charge, thehistoric mile-long march that was the climax of the Battle of Gettysburgand, historians say, the most pivotal moment of the war. About 12,000Confederate soldiers marched a mile that afternoon, clashing with 8,000Union troops. It was Gen. Robert E. Lee's last gamble, and it ended indisaster for the South.
In the course of just an hour, 6,500soldiers were dead, wounded, captured or missing. Three days of fightingat Gettysburg produced an estimated 51,000 casualties.
KevinFarrar, a Confederate re-enactor from Lovettsville, Va., said it was"mind-boggling" to think of the mile-long march that Confederate troopsendured under heavy fire. "It's like the beaches of Normandy," he said.
"Ifyou are any kind of history buff, this is the key day of the war," saidMatt Knox, 54, visiting from Bedford, Va., with his 23-year-old son,Eli. "One of them," his son corrected. "There's Vicksburg."
"One of them," the elder Knox said.
Cityand National Park Service officials expected an onslaught of visitorsand media this week, and they've largely gotten what they expected: Thecity's convention and visitors bureau handed out credentials for nearly700 reporters and other media personnel. An estimated 200,000 visitorsor more are expected to pass through town in the 10-day span from June28 to July 7, spending an estimated $100 million. The other 355 days ofthe year, only about 7,000 people live here.
Just before 3 p.m.Wednesday, cannons fired from beyond the trees and more than 1,000people - re-enactors and visitors alike - begin to hike the across thepasture, toward the Union line.
This time, the hushed click ofcamera shutters replaced the sound of guns. A half-hour later, themarchers arrived. First across the Union line: Nina Emery, agray-haired, retired special education teacher from Lynnfield, Mass. Shestrolled through in pressed blue jeans and a blue-and-white floweredblouse, tucked beneath a vivid red umbrella. Asked how she ended up atthe front of the pack, she laughed and said, "You never know whereyou're going to end up from one day to the next."
It was a greatday for re-enactors - crowd members sidled up to them with tiny digitalcameras and smartphones and asked if they could pose for photos. Nophoto subject was more popular than a smartly dressed Gen. Robert E.Lee, played by Don Vanhart, a 58-year-old surgical technician fromMaine, N.Y. He takes the long, hot walk across the pasture every year,and every year, he said, "different emotions come through." This year,he said, he enjoyed it.
As a tiny, middle-aged woman stood with her arm around Vanhart and posed for a photo, she admitted: "I cried."
Afew yards away, another familiar figure posed for pictures among thewelcoming crowd: Gen. Ulysses S. Grant? He wasn't even at Gettysburg,but there, posing for photos, was Steve Hatchette, his broad build andsalt-and-pepper beard making him a dead ringer for the Union commander.As he stood posing, he joked, "I should have been in Vicksburg today,but I had to come up to see what happened."
In real life,Hatchette, 58, owns a flooring company in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He hascome to Gettysburg twice a year for the past 10 years.
JerryRigg, 67, a retired Army sergeant from Mount Carmel, Ill., watched with asmile. "It's really neat," he said. "I'm glad to be a part of it."
Rigg'sgreat-great-great-grandfather, William Victor Rigg, fought farthersouth and west, in Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chickamauga and Chattanooga, amongothers. Like many in the crowd, he understood the significance not onlyof Pickett's Charge but of the turning point in the war that Gettysburgrepresented. Four months later, at the dedication of a new cemetery atGettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address.
"This is where it all changed," he said. "This is where we came back to be a real United States again."