Michael Kraus, 59, will be spending three days this week living in a small tent, wearing a wool uniform that will keep him “wet and sticky” in the summer heat and eating hardtack, a biscuit so tough it could damage your teeth.
It’s not a dream vacation for most people, but Kraus wouldn’t have it any other way: he’s one of thousands of Civil War buffs and ordinary Americans descending on Gettysburg, Pa., for the 150th anniversary of the battle that would scar the nation and change its history.
Kraus, a Civil War re-enactor since 1966, has been invited by the National Park Service to be part of a “living history camp” on the battlefield and show the public how the soldiers of the era lived – one of many special events taking place this week. He loves donning their uniforms, walking in their footsteps and recreating their daily routines.
“Without seeing the blood and the gore and jumping in a time machine – I understand what their life was like,” said Kraus, a civil war historian who lives in Pittsburgh.
“My interest is in the Union soldier. It feels like that’s who I was meant to be and I believe in the cause, and could fight for it and defend it.”
Like many people, he’s haunted by the Battle of Gettysburg, the Civil War’s bloodiest clash.
Some 51,000 soldiers from both sides were killed or wounded as the fighting raged during the first three days of July 1863 when Gen. Robert E. Lee invaded the North for the second time and was repulsed. The Union victory was turning point in the war, with the Confederacy struggling to recover after the defeat.
The battle also turned the nearby tiny town of Gettysburg, Pa., into a Civil War pilgrimage site, especially during big anniversaries.
About 300,000 people are expected to travel to the region for a 10-day period of commemorations that began on Friday, three times the number of visitors who typically come at this time of year, said Carl Whitehill, a spokesman for the Gettysburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The crowds will include some 25,000 Civil War re-enactors, he estimated. With the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address coming up in November, 4 million tourists are expected to descend on the region this year, Whitehill said.
EventsatGettysburg National Military Park
The National Park Service does not host Civil War battle reenactments on park grounds, believing they’re not appropriate on memorial sites.
But it has invited hundreds of re-enactors to camp on the battlefield Monday through Wednesday to show the life of the Union and Confederate soldier.
Special programs will also allow visitors to experience critical moments of the Battle of Gettysburg at the same times they happened 150 years ago, including a commemorative march across the field of Pickett's Charge on Wednesday.
For a full list of anniversary events at the park, click here.
Civil War buffs who worry they won't be able to get a tour guide's attention with all the visitors crowding the battlefield for the anniversary can download guides for their smartphones, such as the free Gettysburg 150th Anniversary Battle App created by the Civil War Trust.
150th Gettysburg Anniversary National Civil War Battle Reenactment
If you’d like to see the battle playing out before your eyes, this event – scheduled to take place on farmland just outside of Gettysburg July 4-7 – will feature thousands of re-enactors clashing with each other on the field.
You can also attend a Civil War wedding, get a crash course in loading a cannon and find out how to become a re-enactor. The event is organized by the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee.
Another, rival reenactment, offered by the Blue Gray Alliance, took place the weekend of June 30th.
"We are seeing people from all over the country and all over the world," said Whitehill. "This is our busiest time – during the anniversary -- but nothing like this. This is big."