Matt Schickling, the Wire
It was 150 years ago this month that the U.S. Civil War unofficially came to an end with Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House.
The four-year war was violent, leaving more than 620,000 American casualties and a nation preserved, though still philosophically divided.
For each of the last 26 years, a piece of this struggle has been relived at Neshaminy State Park with a two-day battle reenactment. Chuck Gilson, the event’s executive director, sees it as an opportunity for observers to take in a realistic perspective of the war’s significance in American culture.
“I hope they take away some understanding of what made our country. There’s a lot of history. It made us what we are today,” Gilson said. “It shows the struggles that we went through to maintain what we are.”
Gilson, a Warminster resident, belongs to the 28th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment, a unit that does have historical basis in the Philadelphia area. The 28th will join several other forces, numbering around 1,000 soldiers in all, on April 25 and 26 to demonstrate actions that took place around Petersburg, Virginia leading up to Lee’s surrender.
Other than Gettysburg, it’s typically one of the largest Civil War reenactments on the East Coast. Past years have seen public attendance as high as 28,000, but with the 150th anniversary, Gilson expects those numbers to be around 18,000 to 20,000. While Neshaminy State Park hosts an event every year, others are popping up surrounding the anniversary, and those may detract from their numbers.
Gilson said that some from his unit went to a reenactment of the Battle of Bentonville in Four Oaks, North Carolina. That reenactment was specifically for the anniversary and took place in late March.
“If they have to opt where they go, they’ll go to the 150th anniversary,” he said. “When events are a couple weeks apart, you’re gonna lose people.”
But there are some who come back year after year.
Ralph Prince, another member of the Pennsylvania 28th, went down to reenact Bentonville this year, and has been as far south as Georgia and as far north as Maine for reenactments, but he still looks forward to Neshaminy every year.
“I’ve been part of this for 25 years, so I guess I’m longer than most,” Prince said. “I still get excited even though it’s in my backyard.”
Prince said that the bigger battle reenactments like Bentonville, where there’s 8,000 to 10,000 soldiers per side, give spectators an idea of scale, but the Neshaminy reenactment, which is average-sized, provides more immediacy.
“You can read a lot about historical events, you can read every book there is,” Prince said. “But you get just a small piece of what the common soldier had to go through. Standing in the cold rain, knowing you’re going to get a cold meal.”
Apart from the actual battles, there are demonstrations that shed light on the life of an average soldier. The camps are representative of the era. They cook on open fires, there’s drill training.
“People are welcome to talk to any of the reenactors, wander the camps and see what life was like back in that time period,” Gilson said.
For spectators, there’s a traveling museum with the largest privately owned collection of Civil War artifacts. There will also be an artillery demonstration, which includes five full-sized cannons, as well as cavalry demonstrations, merchants, music and more.
“You get an idea of what they saw when they were part of the battle,” Prince said. “From the really big events to the really small events, you always get something out of it.”
If you go:
The Neshaminy Civil War Reenactment will take place April 25 and 26 at Neshaminy State Park, 3401 State Road in Bensalem, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free, but all donations will be put toward Civil War preservation efforts. This event is rain or shine.
For more information, visit www.neshaminycwevent.org.