Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Polish Brigade at the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg

The celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg was expected to be special. All historical organizations interested in Civil War have been invited: thousands of invitations were sent to reconstruction groups, the media, writers and Civil War enthusiasts from all around the world. The organizers have made a huge effort to prepare the staging of three of the bloodiest days in the history of the United States. We knew we could not miss it.

One of our goals when we started as a reenactment group in Poland in 2008 was a trip to the United States to participate in celebrations of the anniversary of this battle. Then it seemed quite unreal, but we made it – the 14th volunteer infantry regiment from Louisiana, The Polish Brigade, consisting of five soldiers, including one non-commissioned officer, arrived in Gettysburg, took part in the battle and went down in history...

For the re-enactment of the battle more than 20 thousand reenactors arrived from all fifty states and 16 countries, mainly from Europe. Among the foreigners, I have met some Germans that I knew from European ACW reconstruction events. We also met the Italians, who, like us, recreated 14th Regiment of Louisiana. In our unit there served many foreigners, so do we not surprised that our Italian colleagues decided to reconstruct that very regiment. Also there were not many units in the armies of Confederation that could boast of such spectacular achievements as the Polish Brigade. The sites for the reconstruction battle and camps for the two armies were located just a few miles from the Gettysburg National Military Park, among some small overgrown hills and rolling meadows.

It was difficult to count the encampments of individual regiments, brigades, divisions. You could get lost in an anthill of tents scattered over the vast stretches of meadows and forests. In addition to the infantry camps there were also separate camps for the cavalry (more than 300 horses!) and artillery (close to 200 cannons). This all created an atmosphere of a big military camp. As the eye could see soldiers everywhere strolled in ragged gray or navy blue uniforms, the sounds of drums could be heard in the distance, singing, shouted hoarse commands, whinnying of horses, rattling of cannon wheels on bumpy tracks and sounds of gunshots.

Together we prepared meals, cared for weapons, fireplace and high morale of our troops. . . Band of Brothers, thrown somewhere in the Pennsylvania woods waiting for orders. Walking around the camp I got to know people in different shades of uniforms, Confederate and Unionists. Many of them started their adventure with reconstruction over 40 years ago. During the entire event we fought in several decisive skirmishes influencing the course of action of the battle, such as this so important for us attempt to take Culp's Hill. There was also fight on the Wheat Field, for the Devil's Cave and the famous Pickett's attack. There were also cavalry clashes. Also the artillerymen, to the dismay of local residents, conducted artillery duels over the heads of the huddled soldiers, which lasted for hours. Day after day, no matter the weather – deadly heat or rain, we stood in long marching columns, with full pouches and canteens, ready to fight.

The organizers stood up to the challenge to recreate as faithfully as possible each individual battle. In my opinion, the Pickett attack and the attempt to take Little Round Top must have been very close to the authentic historical events (except for the casualties, of course). We set off in the morning to the hardships of the campaign and we came battered back before evening. We drank gallons of water and we cooled the heads and necks with ice.

During the fighting, smoke stung mercilessly in the eyes and visibility was limited to 20 meters due to heavy fire. Through the smoke the shouts and harsh commands of the officers were heard, their curses mixed with artillery fire and soldiers’ screams. People were falling down in large numbers and crawled for cover against enemy fire.

Behind the battle line, couriers on horseback systematically delivered new orders from headquarters to the officers. We heard ominous explosions, which pressed us to the ground and threw our banners. We marched in ranks to the fortified positions of the Yankees and performed intricate regiment maneuvers in regiments counting a few hundred people. We hid in the ditches or dense woodlands from the rifle fire. We repeatedly tried to take the Little Round Top. Suffering heavy losses again and again, we were driven back. The terrain was unfavorable for the charge, in dense undergrowth and under intense fire we had to wade through the thickets several meters uphill. Little remained of my regiment. I myself, in the fifth or sixth attempt to take the hill I fell wounded, sank onto a fallen tree. Sweat poured into my eyes and the rifle barrel burned my hands. The canteen was empty. Moments later the Unionists led a counterattack with bayonets fighting off my comrades. Somehow I have avoided captivity and despite exhaustion managed to sneak to my regiment. A lot of time had passed before I could breathe evenly again.

On the last day of the event we took part in a breathtaking Pickett's Charge. All our brigades have developed into three long, deep lines. With the support of our artillery fire, with developed banners we marched on the Union troops’ fortified positions. Despite heavy losses and fatigue, me and my Polish colleague as the only ones from our regiment managed to cross the wall and start hand to hand combat. The rest of our comrades lied on the foreground, some were "wounded" or "killed" and some withdrew to regroup. My companion fell moments later, and I had been cut down to the ground by an overgrown artilleryman. I heard above me: “Come with me ... and live!” and I saw the massive silhouette of the first sergeant. I was taken prisoner by the non-commissioned officer from the 72th Regiment of New York. We quickly became friends and since then we e-mail each other frequently...

"Corpses" on both sides lied densely, but fortunately, apart from scratches and bruises, there was no real and serious damage. After each clash, the Blues and the Grays congratulated themselves on the involvement and training, patted each other on the back and a friendly spread out to their camps. We regained strength an hour after the fight and the camp life was alive again. The Confederate songs were heard and the smell of fried food wafted in the air. It was time to clean weapons, exchange views and prepare for the next battle. I will never forget a very touching moment when we were bidden farewell by one of the veterans from Kentucky who had tears in his eyes. He could not hide his emotions when he learned that we traveled so many thousands of miles, just to take part in the celebration of the anniversary.

Although we were not able to change the course of history, we left the battlefield satisfied. Common interests unite people, regardless of country or origin. During these few days spent in and around Gettysburg we made friends with many of the Grey and the Blue.

By Piotr Narloch

Note from the Editor, Maja Trochimczyk:

Reprinted from Polish American Historical Association Newsletter, Fall 2013 pp. 12-13.
Photographs provided by Piotr Narloch. Used by permission.
Prof. James Pula gave a paper at the Gettysburg Conference and his report from the event will be published in the next issue of the newsletter.