America's national celebration, July 4, must have rung hollow to the thousands of soldiers marching away from Gettysburg after the bloodiest battle ever fought on this nation's soil.
From one point of view, it was a fight between family, friends, neighbors and fellow countrymen. From the other, it was a fight for independence hardly different from the one that began 87 years before.
Even today, the men who portray either side on battlefields where no blood is drawn have different views about what happened in Gettysburg and during the Civil War.
Like the real conflict it imitates, Civil War re-enacting hinges on choosing sides. Men and women decide to invoke the ideal of a single America with a strong central
government, or to embody the romance of a lost cause and its dream of what might have been had fate played out differently on those three July days in 1863.
Their reasons for making their choice vary from person to person, and so do their views of what happened on that day 150 years ago.
“Americans fought and Americans lost,” said Paul Hanley, 64, of Ohio. He sat with others sporting the blue uniforms of the Union, living historians portraying Battery A of the 1st Ohio Light Artillery division.
“Both sides lost because of the casualties,” his colleague, James Rush, agreed. The 63-year-old Ohio man clutched a lit cigar between his lips as he made a stool of two stacked ammo boxes stamped with the name “Allegheny Arsenal” in a Union re-enactor camp Tuesday near the Pennsylvania Monument on the Gettysburg battlefield.
The men in the Union camp were well dressed, mostly in full uniform, wearing the matching coats and pants that northern factories at the time of the battle were able to mass manufacture. Their tents were neatly pitched in perfect rows. Soldiers gathered to listen to drummer boys while eating hardtack and drinking coffee _ a luxury not afforded to the rebel South.
Re-enactor Ross McNerney, also of Ohio, has a somewhat different view of why he wears Union blue.
“It'd be like re-enacting the ‘87 Super Bowl and pretending to be the Broncos,” he joked, speaking of those on the other side of the line. “No one wants to be on the losing team.”
But it's not all a joke to McNerney.
At sunset, the view from his tent reminds him of the sacrifice made on the green field he is calling home this week - an area once staked out by the Second Army Corps of the Union Army.
“For us,” McNerney said, “what we're fighting for is still here.”
A mile away, a rebel encampment sat hidden at the end of a wooded path in Pitzer's Woods.
The smell of burning wood wafted through the air as more motley men gathered around fires, eating lard-laden biscuits, rice and cornbread. Tents of all varieties were scattered in the woods in no particular order, as if someone set it all up in a hurry.
The men's clothing reflected a reality of the war. With less access to state-issued uniforms, Confederates were known to take what they could get from the dead and dying on the battlefield. The result was mismatched attire made up of raggedy-checkered shirts that bore hints of local loyalties.
In this makeshift camp, there were many views of the men and cause to which they bear witness, much like people's feelings about flying the Stars and Bars in 2013. Some men joined units representing the places they live now. Others felt connections to ancestors who died for the cause.
“You'll find anyone from a Ph.D in history to a redneck who wishes we still had slavery,” Sam Cathey, a re-enactor from Hagerstown, Md., said.
Cathey belongs to a group of re-enactors that “galvanize,” switching between blue and gray uniforms depending on what's needed to make an event look historically accurate.
Some call it “cross dressing.”
Chris Stevens refuses to do it.
The re-enactor, who lives in Chesapeake, Va., knows how the story ends. He knows the South lost, but chooses to represent the Confederacy out of conviction.
“Does the outcome change the principles we stood for?” he asked rhetorically. “Your basic liberty-minded American can understand what they fought for - wanting to live free from the shackles of an over-burdensome government.”
The South wasn't fighting for slavery in his view. To Stevens, that's a common misconception echoed by the tourists that have crossed his path this week.
In the 1860s, he said, slaves were like any other property - an integral part of the southern economy.
“We know that today to be wrong,” Stevens said. “But they were valuable property. This is like your John Deere tractor that you need to harvest crops.”
And that's where some animus still shows through.
“Southerners will tell you until they're blue in the face that their ancestors didn't fight for slavery. They believe it. They really do,” said Brad Keefer, a history professor at Kent State University, who portrays a member of Company B, 8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.
“But look what they did after the war,” Keefer continued, taking a sip of water from a tin cup. “They restored white supremacy to the South. It's satisfying to know we fought for the right cause.”
“But whether you're Confederate or Union, you're honored to be representing those guys on their battlefield,” he added. “They were a noble enemy. Why were they a noble enemy? They were Americans.”