This will be an extraordinary weekend for Connecticut residents William H. Hincks and Kierran Broatch.
Today, the two men will join 12,000 other blue- and gray-clad participants in the conclusion of a three-day re-enactment commemorating the 150th anniversary of the greatest battle ever fought on North American soil, at Gettysburg, Pa., July 1 through 3, 1863.
For Hincks, 40, of East Hampton, and Broatch, 30, of Milford, it is not simply play-acting, but an opportunity to honor the Civil War heroism of their great-great-grandfathers who, as members of the 14th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment, took action for a brief, but consequential, moment at the battle's dramatic conclusion.
For two days, Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had launched a series of bloody but inclusive attacks against General George Meade's Army of the Potomac. Now, on the afternoon of the third day, Lee decided to roll the dice and attack the massed center of Union soldiers with the fresh divisions of Maj. Gen. George Pickett and Brig. Gen. James Johnston Pettigrew.
Positioned behind the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge, the men of the 14th Connecticut were blazing away at the charging Confederates when the commanding officer shouted a challenge to capture the regimental flag of the 14th Tennessee Infantry Regiment planted in their front.
Sgt. Maj. William Bliss Hincks, Capt. John C. Broatch and Sgt. George Brigham responded.
Brigham was instantly shot and wounded. Hincks beat Broatch to the flag, grabbed it and raced back to his line, bounding atop the wall with a triumphant yell. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism.
Descendants Bill Hincks and Kierran Broatch have never participated in historical re-enactments before. But when leaders of the 14th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry history group approached them to portray their ancestors on that pivotal day, the opportunity was too precious to pass up.
"I'm honored to be a small part of it,'' said Broatch, a development officer at Quinnipiac University. "I'm blessed to be a keeper of my family history."
"I'm doing this for all the members of my family,'' said Hincks, whose family retains a number of cherished heirlooms from their ancestor, including his saber, belt and sash, but not, unfortunately, his Congressional medal. "It want to come the closest that I can to possibly understand the events of July 3, 1863."
Critical Turning Point
The Battle of Gettysburg is viewed as a critical turning point in the Civil War and remains a subject of endless fascination and debate.
It has been refought and analyzed in countless academic and popular histories, articles, lectures and documentaries. A great historical novel of the battle, Michael Shaara's "The Killer Angels," was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1975 and was successfully adapted for the screen a generation later.
More than 1 million visitors are drawn each year to Gettysburg National Military Park, where 1,328 monuments, memorials and markers are maintained across 6,000 acres of ridges, hills, fields and ravines.
At the dedication of its national cemetery, in November 1863, to honor Union soldiers killed in the battle, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the most famous speech in American history.
That 165,000 men collided so violently in this small Pennsylvania town of 2,400 in the early summer of 1863 was largely happenstance.
In late May 1863, after routing a much larger Union army at Chancellorsville, Lee decided to take the war into enemy territory, as he had done the previous September at Antietam.
Confederate leaders realized that although their best general kept winning battles, they were no closer to achieving independence. Also, continued Union success along the Mississippi River, which culminated July 4, 1863, with the fall of Vicksburg, was splitting the Confederacy.
During June, Lee's army advanced west, then north behind the Blue Ridge Mountains, leaving Virginia and crossing Maryland into Pennsylvania. The Confederate movement galvanized Union forces, which were placed under Meade's command that month. As the two sides began concentrating forces, the gap between the armies shrank.
On the final day of June, troops from Gen. A.P. Hill's Confederate corps headed for Gettysburg looking for shoes they heard were there, and the next morning the lead elements of the two armies made contact.