Reenactors from the Pa. 69th make lives of solders at Gettysburg come to life for students
By Mike McGann, Editor, UnionvilleTimes.com
EAST MARBOROUGH — Once, it was a rite of passage. Spend a couple of hours on a bus, then a couple more walking around empty fields, looking at historical markers at places such as Little Round Top and Cemetery Ridge and then back on the bus to go home.
For generations of students, that used to be their exposure to the battle of Gettysburg and to some extent, the Civil War. While certainly of some educational value — especially to have a better sense of how and where the armies moved — it was time-consuming, costly and generally lacked much in the way of focus on the human toll, beyond the grisly casualty numbers.
But for the last two years, the war — in the form of reenactors — has come to Patton Middle School, giving eighth grade students a much better sense of what the soldiers had to endure, both in battle and just in coping with day to day life.
Members of the 69th Pennsylvania Irish Volunteers — a group that seeks to recreate the real Philadelphia-based unit that held the center during the famed Pickett’s Charge — came to Patton on a foggy morning last week to give the students a more human face to the war. Don Ernsberger, a retired history teacher, who recently published a book on the 69th, “At The Wall,” detailing the four-year history of the regiment, started the process of making the war — and those who fought in it — real for the students. Ernsberger has published a number of other books on the war and the 69th’s pivotal role at Gettysburg.
Ernsberger opened the program — which started in the school’s auditorium — rifle in hand, assuming the character of a soldier he often portrays during reenactments, Private John Harvey, Sr. Ernsberger speaks about serving with his son — John Harvey, Jr. was also a member of the regiment. In those days, solders were lined up by height and Harvey and his son, both well over six feet, usually found themselves shoulder-to-shoulder on the battlefield. The elder Harvey was a lawyer and despite his education and standing, served in the ranks with common laborers and tradesmen.
Harvey’s story ends tragically, with the younger man killed in battle at Gettysburg and his father later deserting the Union army and quite literally drinking himself to death in sorrow over his son’s death.
“In a very real sense, both father and son were both killed at Gettysburg,” Ernsberger told the students.
After learning a bit about the personal toll, the students were broken into smaller groups to learn more about weapons, close-order drill, every day life for soldiers and what they went through while fighting the Civil War.
Between disease, battle wounds, desertions and, the 69th (not to be confused with a similar regiment from New York, made famous in a 1930s movie), fought in virtually every important battle with the Army of Potomac between 1861 and 1865.
Patton teachers Neville Austin, Shannon Freehart, and Josh Thomas organized the event for the second straight year (last year’s event went off well, despite downpours throughout — meaning this year’s cool, foggy weather was an improvement).
The Patton Middle School Parent Teacher Organization provides an honorarium for us to give to the 69th Irish Pennsylvania Reenactors. The group uses this money to purchase gravestones at the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, as one of its key activities is to find and identify the final resting places of members of the 69th. In addition to the historic reenactments, and gravesite location, the 69th also recreates the music of the era (almost all military units had musicians during the Civil War) and they perform throughout southeast Pennsylvania.
For more information on the 69th, visit their Website.