For the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, this is a week that has been years in the making, as Gettysburg celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s most important battle on the 4th of July week.
Two of Erik Greenawalt’s ancestors fought here, both killed at later battles.
Four months after the battle, at the dedication of a new cemetery at Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address.
One of the re-enactors was Reggie Thomas, a Connecticut native living in Gettysburg who was portraying a slave. When walking down the path on the battlefield, shovel in hand, he had to be careful not to make eye contact with the three Confederate soldiers passing by because it is important to stay in character.
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When Thomas meets a lady in period costume, he can’t just shake her hand and say “hello.” He said he even considered wearing shackles to help people see what it was like to be a chained slave.
“For me to be an Afro-American in Gettysburg, we were cooks, stewards or helpers around camps,” Thomas said. “Back in the day, I couldn’t go to a ball because I would have been a server. I can’t go and dance with a general’s wife because that’s just how it was.”
While historians say no black units fought at Gettysburg, thousands of blacks on both sides served as teamsters (drivers of teams of animals) and in other support roles, both as slaves and free men.
Brian Jordan, an instructor of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College, said their participation in the war was critical to the Union victory.
“In the full scope of history, our knowledge of African-American involvement in the Civil War really just came to light in the past two decades,” Jordan said. “And it really surprises most Americans to learn that.”