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Battle may be brewing over re-enactors' request

March 20, 2005|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

WILLIAMSPORT - After the Civil War's Battle of Gettysburg, more than 13,000 Confederate soldiers retreated 42 miles south to Williamsport.

They were accompanied by 2,000 teamsters (drivers), 200 doctors and 10,000 horses and cattle. Another 2,000 cavalrymen were sent to protect the procession from attack.

When they reached Williamsport, "they converted the entire town into a hospital," said Richard Lank of Forest Glen Commonwealth, a Kensington, Md., nonprofit group that wants to bring the mass evacuation back to life.

On Oct. 8, Forest Glen Commonwealth plans to re-enact the exodus, which is known as a "vast procession of misery" and "wagontrain of woe."

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Lank said the re-creation of the event will have modern adjustments.

The 42-mile road trip from Gettysburg to Williamsport on Oct. 8 will be by car and truck, instead of on foot.

And Forest Glen Commonwealth expects the number of participants to be significantly smaller than the original number.

Having 15,000 people descend on Williamsport (population 1,900) "would terrorize the town," Lank said with a laugh.

There are many details to work out in the next seven months - most notably, what, if anything, will happen in Williamsport when the march ends.

For a two-day weekend event, Forest Glen Commonwealth has asked to use nine places and buildings, many of which the town owns:

· Byron Memorial Park for a gathering of sutlers, or vendors

· Riverbottom Park for an encampment

· The canal house as a typical family home where a wounded person was treated and food was prepared

· The Great Barn for presentations, plus shelter if it rains

· The library's lower room for workshops

· The Community Building at Byron Memorial Park for the main speakers

· Doubleday Hill and Riverview Cemetery for part of a walking tour

· The C&O Canal towpath for a tour and hike

· The town museum for visitors to see displays

"That's an awful lot of things to ask for," Mayor John W. Slayman said at the February town council meeting, when the proposal first came up.

"I think we probably should have some more discussion with (Forest Glen) Commonwealth," Councilwoman Gloria J. Bitner said at the March 14 council meeting, when the issue came up again.

"And they want all this for free," Assistant Mayor Walter W. Tracy Jr. said.

"I would imagine," Slayman said.

Slayman said he was supposed to talk to the group, but the meeting was canceled when his niece died.

When Slayman said the event likely would feature people selling things in the park, newly appointed Councilman James C. Kalbfleisch said, "I don't think it should be done for free, either, if these people are going to make money for it."

Again, council members said they wanted to know more about the project.

As the chairwoman of the town's Buildings Committee, Bitner was asked to find out more details.

Lank said Thursday that he had not talked to Bitner yet.

Asked if Forest Glen Commonwealth would pay rent to use the town's buildings and grounds, Lank said the topic hasn't been discussed. The event would be a good tourism draw, he said.

Even if the town rejects Forest Glen Commonwealth's request to use buildings and land, the initial caravan from Gettysburg to Williamsport will carry on as planned, Lank said.

When the caravan of wounded left Gettysburg on July 4, 1863, the line of wagons and horses stretched 17 miles, according to Lank.

They went around Chambersburg to Greencastle, then south on what now is Md. 63, through Cearfoss, and across National Pike, before reaching Williamsport.

They stayed in Williamsport about five days because they couldn't get across the Potomac River, which was swollen from heavy rain.

The entire retreat was led by a brigadier general, John D. Imboden.

"He was credited with saving thousands of lives," Lank said.

Lank said Forest Glen Commonwealth, which has done other history projects in Washington County, wants to do more than a re-enactment to commemorate the Gettysburg retreat.

He thinks Washington County Public Schools might get involved.

He hopes that at least some of the weekend's activities - perhaps a ghost tour - will appeal to children.

Having music, games and other demonstrations of Civil War life, even the mundane things, should make the event more lively than a typical battle re-enactment, Lank said.

"What fun is it to watch people get shot and fall down dead," he said.

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