Cumberland Times-News

July 14, 2012

You think it’s hot? Try this on for size

Jim Goldsworthy, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— Paul Barnett was on the links with Digger Merritt, Mother Martin and me (all of us being members of The Famous Company of Myrtle Beach Golfers) when he got tired of our griping.

“You think this is hot?” he asked. “Try spending four years in the engine room of a freighter in the South Atlantic.”

That shut us up. Back in the clubhouse, the TV time and temperature channel said it was 100 degrees out; a mild day for Paul, who had served in the Merchant Marine.

Paul’s love of Civil War history inspired me to learn more about it. On each trip south to Myrtle Beach, as we rode through the Shenandoah Valley, he would talk about what happened there.

My old friend has been gone for 15 years now, but I was thinking of him last weekend when Capt. Gary and I returned to our post on Little Round Top.

According to The Weather Channel’s almanac, it was 100 degrees in Gettysburg on Saturday. (The previous day, it was only 94.)

Paul would have understood why we were there in our woolen Union Army uniforms, but many of our visitors felt sorry for us or thought we were crazy.

When folks asked us about the heat, we pointed to Devil’s Den, a large gathering of boulders that is about 500 yards away and 150 feet feet lower in elevation. Tourists were crawling all over it, probably broiling in the sun.

We said, “Would you rather be up here on this hill in the shade, where it’s several degrees cooler and there’s a constant breeze ... or down there?”

 “Took me four years to find this place,” the captain added.

There methods to our apparent madness that help us endure the heat and also serve as a teaching tool we can use as living historians.

It’s not hard to talk about how the battle was fought (or to find someone who will argue with you). We prefer to tell folks things they might not read in books, see on TV or hear from tour guides.

We talk about the people who once came to Gettysburg for far less peaceful purposes than ours ... living, breathing people whose bloodlines live on in the captain and me and many others who visit us.

Folks often ask about our uniforms, which are authentic replicas fabricated in period-correct fashion from period-correct materials.

They are exactly what the soldiers would have worn and are made from wool, so they breathe. Your sweat evaporates through the wool, and that provides a cooling effect.

As an officer, Capt. Gary wears a vest under his knee-length frock coat. It keeps the cooler air next to his body. As a first sergeant, I wear a shell coat that comes down a little past my waist and no vest.

The evaporation effect doesn’t make the experience pleasant, but it’s far more bearable than most people think.

A loose-fitting, long-sleeved white blouse keeps the wool coat from chafing you. Even when my blouse is soaked with sweat, the inside of my coat is bone dry; that’s how well the process works.

Since I’ve been wearing my uniform — sometimes in the sun on 90-degree days when I’m giving a speech — the heat doesn’t bother me as much as it once did.

We bring water and stay hydrated. Our friends Cathy and Harry from King of Prussia, Pa., and Private Hayfoot Pete from Mount Savage brought us jugs of Gatorade. This allowed us to stay up there for six hours on Friday and five hours on Saturday.

Tourists ask to feel our uniforms to see how heavy they are. The captain occasionally lets little kids wear his coat to see what it feels like; on some, it hangs clear to the ground. They usually whoop and can’t wait to get it off, which brings grins to their parents’ faces.

Confederate Col. William Oates’ Alabamians and Texans charged four times up Little Round Top in the face of gunfire from Union Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s Maine soldiers.

Oates’ men had just made a forced march of more than 20 miles while carrying weapons and equipment that could have weighed as much as 50 pounds — more than a third of the average soldier’s weight.

The temperature wasn’t terribly hot on July 2, 1863, but the humidity was stifling. Oates’ soldiers had no water, but went almost immediately into action.

People ask us how and why anybody would do such a thing, whether at at Little Round Top, Pickett’s Charge or anywhere else.

Most of those men would say it was because they were told to. Another factor is that those units were composed of soldiers who came from the same town or county. They knew each other.

“If I’m in that line,” I tell folks, “I might have my brother on one side and my best friend on the other. Everyone around me is somebody I’ve known all my life.

“If I don’t make it home, I don’t want those men to go back and tell folks I ran ... and besides, I’m not going to let them down. Right at that time and place, I’m not fighting for God, country or anything else but my buddies, and they’re fighting for me.”

That is how it works, and it doesn’t matter who the soldier is, where he is, or when it happens. Ask one who’s been there, and that’s what he will say: The whole world consists only of you and the guy next to you.

Consider also that an estimated 60 to 90 percent of the Confederate enlisted men were farmers (for the Union, between 50 and 75 percent). Many on both sides were blacksmiths, machinists, carpenters and others who were accustomed to strenuous labor.

They got up every day before sunrise to plow fields or perform other physically demanding chores until after sundown in heat and humidity that might be far worse than what they experienced at Gettysburg. Maybe they took a break on Sunday for church meeting.

The difference is that that back home, nobody was shooting at them ... and they had water. Few modern Americans — except for our troops — could do what those men did.

More than two-thirds of the 620,000 who died during the war succumbed not to wounds, but to disease, infections, malnutrition or other non-combat circumstances. Some died from heat exhaustion, others froze to death.

P.S.: When we go to Little Round Top in the middle of November, the tourists usually envy our woolen uniforms.