When Lloyd Coates storms the battlefield at Gettysburg this weekend, his emotions will run strong.
In one sense, he'll be focused on the task at hand: as a battalion commander, leading his unit of Union soldiers through one of the most pivotal and downright brutal battles in American history.
In another sense, he'll be a semi-retired Omahan whose passion for the Civil War was born in Gettysburg two decades ago, who knows that the 150th anniversary of the battle will be his last big dance.
“I'm 66, so it's getting kind of tough for me, marching out there with the infantry,” he said.
Like dozens of Nebraskans and southwest Iowans, and thousands of other people across the country, Coates departed earlier this week for southern Pennsylvania to participate in the first of two major re-enactment events commemorating the sesquicentennial of a battle many historians consider the turning point of the American Civil War.
His re-enactment, organized by the national Blue Gray Alliance, begins Friday and concludes Sunday. The other re-enactment, run by the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee, takes place July 4-7. Each event will occur on private land near the actual battleground — re-enactments are not permitted on the battle site, maintained by the nonprofit Gettysburg Foundation in partnership with the National Park Service — and, in a divisiveness befitting the occasion, each claims a superior experience.
Relationships and allegiances play a role in which commemoration you commit to, said Coates, president of an Omaha-based group of re-enactors, the 1st Nebraska Volunteer Infantry, who align with the earlier event. It can mean the difference between receiving meaningful assignments in battle and being relegated to the periphery of living history.
“There are a lot of politics on the field,” he said.
Politics aside, re-enactors see it as their duty to create historically accurate representations of the Civil War, down to the thread stitching together their uniforms. As living history players, they're expected to appear and perform to the standards of the times. Women may participate, but, just like the female soldiers who fought undercover in the Civil War, they must disguise themselves as men. Spectators might opt for hotel accommodations nearby — several thousand are expected, according to a spokesman with the Blue Gray Alliance — but most impersonators will camp with their units in tents true to the era.
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To prepare for the event, Coates brushed up on the specific engagements within the larger battle. He reviewed guidelines from the Blue Gray Alliance, re-read history books and even perused a pair of influential military manuals from the era, one of them by Confederate officer William J. Hardee and the other by Union officer Silas Casey, now available online.
“As a battalion commander, I will have four companies under me,” he said. “Normally, in Civil War times, I would have 10 companies, but this is re-enacting.”
Throughout the weekend, Coates' unit will portray different Union groups — the 7th Wisconsin Infantry, the 83rd Pennsylvania Infantry and the 20th Maine Infantry — at various points in the battle, including assaults at Culp's Hill, the Peach Orchard and Pickett's Charge.
As many as 40 people from the Omaha area will participate this weekend, Coates said, including 14 members of his group.
Earlier this week, Rex Wright and a few of his unit brothers rented a van and headed east for Pennsylvania, stopping at some historical sites along the way.
For Wright, a resident of Glenwood, Iowa, who got involved with re-enactments 11 years ago, this weekend's commemoration presents an opportunity to honor the memory of those who fought while making some memories of his own.
“Gettysburg is kind of the royal crown on top of any Civil War re-enactment lifetime,” he said.
Organizers expect more than 10,000 re-enactors this weekend, a number that speaks to the widespread interest in re-enactments while also underscoring the magnitude of Gettysburg, where more than 160,000 soldiers fought and close to 50,000 were either killed, wounded or missing in action. The battle lasted three days — July 1-3, 1863 — and represents one of the bloodiest engagements in American military history. By no means did it end the Civil War, which continued for almost two years, but it marked a critical blow to Gen. Robert E. Lee's Confederate forces, which had been advancing northward until that point.
Four months after the battle, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his short but iconic Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery.
Fifty years later, in June 1913, several thousand veterans from both sides of the war convened at the site for a reunion, which included a re-enactment of the cataclysmic Pickett's Charge.
Though Lloyd Coates grew up in northern Pennsylvania, he'd never visited Gettysburg prior to a vacation back to his home state in the early 1990s.
“I walked into the cemetery, and, I don't know, something emotionally got attached to the place,” he said.
When he returned to Omaha, Coates couldn't stop talking about the experience to family and friends. He couldn't get the Civil War out of his head. When someone told him there were groups dedicated to re-enacting Civil War history, the concept just clicked.
“I said I need to find out about it,” he said.
Since 1997, Coates said, he's participated in more than 60 re-enactments, including the 135th anniversary at Gettysburg, and averages about four events per year. At home, he works part-time at Cabela's.
He expects a mixture of emotions from this weekend's re-enactment, an occasion with both historical and personal significance to him.
“Because of my age, this could be my last big re-enactment,” he said. “Being from Pennsylvania and having such an interest in the Civil War and understanding the significance of this battle, all rolled into one, and the fact that this is the 150th anniversary ... I think that's going to tie into the emotional aspect. It's going to be very difficult.”
Last year, Coates participated in the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee, and the memory of it remains vivid. As day broke, cannon fire filled the air, casting the horizon in a haze as he awaited his marching orders.
“You could just barely see the glow of the sun behind the smoke,” he said. “Just an awesome feeling (to experience) what it must have been like back then.”
He said he struggles to put into words what the coming weekend will mean to him. But the mission is clear.
“Portraying the battles and trying to educate the public as to what it might have been like to the best of our ability, that's special,” he said.