The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

June 29, 2013

Real lives, real suffering

17-year re-enactor to address battlefield tourists

By Rick Dandes
The Daily Item

NORTHUMBERLAND — For veteran Civil War re-enactor John Deppen, this week — marking the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg — is of particular significance.

So much so that Thursday through Sunday, more than 10,000 re-enactors will re-create the battle on the very same grounds where it occurred in 1863.

When Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee came north in the summer of 1863, he was hoping to accomplish three goals, Deppen said: Carry the war to northern soil, locate the Union Army and have a decisive victory on northern soil.

Gettysburg is considered by many historians the most important engagement of the Civil War. After a great victory over Union forces at Chancellorsville, Lee marched his Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania in late June 1863.

On July 1, the advancing Confederates clashed with the Union’s Army of the Potomac, commanded by Gen. George G. Meade, at the crossroads town of Gettysburg.

The next day saw even heavier fighting, as the Confederates attacked the Federals on both left and right.

On July 3, Lee ordered an attack by fewer than 15,000 troops on the enemy’s center at Cemetery Ridge. The assault, known as “Pickett’s Charge,” managed to pierce the Union lines but eventually failed, at the cost of thousands of rebel casualties.

Lee was forced to withdraw his battered army toward Virginia on July 4.

While not part of a re-enactment, Deppen on Wednesday will be on Cemetery Ridge for the anniversary of Pickett’s Charge, in uniform and portraying Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, of the Union Army, to answer questions for those touring the battlefields.

Deppen said he will not portray Hancock during this week’s re-enactments because “a more experienced horseman than I am” will do so.

Gettysburg, he said, was not the only important Civil War battle in 1863.

“But those of us in Pennsylvania take pride in the fact that we are home to one of the decisive engagements in the Civil War, along with Vicksburg, Mississippi,” he said. “They have a pretty honest claim to the fact that the Union capture of that city was also of great strategic significance in the final downfall of the Confederacy.”

Every anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg is important, Deppen said.

“But the fact that we have now reached the century-and-a-half mark is of some significance in that we look back over time and all the Civil War veterans have now been gone for over half a century.”

The further the events fade into history, “the more we tend to lose sight of what is really important about them,” he said.

That is one of the reasons he is proud to portray Hancock.

“(He) grew up in Montgomery County, went to West Point at the age of 16, graduated at 20 and spent almost all of his entire adult life in the United States Army,” Deppen said.

“Hancock was real, and so were the people who fought under him. I always talk about how these were real people who fought at Gettysburg, with real lives, and the soldiers who fought on both sides suffered terrible wounds and painful deaths.

“This 150th anniversary is not something that we celebrate. It is something that we commemorate.”

Deppen, who is best known in the Valley for lecturing at schools and social service organizations while dressed as Hancock in meticulously researched Civil War garb, first began re-enacting in 1997.

The cost of putting together his outfit was more than $1,000.

“I was lucky,” he said with a laugh. “In all the photos I have of Hancock, he did not wear a firearm. He did carry a sword. The frock coat the Union officers wore and that I have, I bought from a company in California that makes props for motion pictures. It costs more than $500. When you add the sword, belts and boots, it was well over $1,000.”

It’s more expensive for the average foot soldier re-enactor.

Foot soldiers have to invest in a rifle, black powder, cartridges, and some are carrying 40 to 60 pounds of equipment.