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Who 'dies' is tough decision at Gettysburg (+video, photos)

Published: Tuesday, July 28 2015 2:27 a.m. MDT

Re-enactors demonstrate Pickett's Charge during ongoing activities commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Sunday, June 30, 2013, at Bushey Farm in Gettysburg, Pa. Union forces turned away a Confederate advance in the pivotal battle of the Civil War fought July 1-3, 1863, which was also the war’s bloodiest conflict with more than 51,000 casualties. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
 (Matt Rourke, Associated Press) Re-enactors demonstrate Pickett's Charge during ongoing activities commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Sunday, June 30, 2013, at Bushey Farm in Gettysburg, Pa. Union forces turned away a Confederate advance in the pivotal battle of the Civil War fought July 1-3, 1863, which was also the war’s bloodiest conflict with more than 51,000 casualties. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) (Matt Rourke, Associated Press)

GETTYSBURG, Pa. — You're a Civil War re-enactor carrying an authentic musket, out on the field with your history-buff buddies making a charge under withering enemy fire. It's great fun except for one thing:

Someone's going to have to "die."

And lying motionless in the grass on a sultry July day in a historically accurate wool uniform while others are performing heroic deeds all around you does not always make for an exciting afternoon.

That's why deciding who lives and who dies — and when they must fall — is one of the heaviest responsibilities a pretend commander at a Civil War re-enactment is likely to face.

"That is the age-old re-enacting question, and that is a tough one," said Bob Minton, commander of the Union re-enactor forces last weekend at Gettysburg, the small town where the pivotal battle between North and South was waged on July 1-3, 1863.

Re-enactors recreate Pickett's Charge during ongoing activities commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Sunday, June 30, 2013, at Bushey Farm in Gettysburg, Pa. Union forces turned away a Confederate advance in the pivotal battle of the Civil War fought July 1-3, 1863, which was also the war’s bloodiest conflict with more than 51,000 casualties. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
 (Matt Rourke, Associated Press) Re-enactors recreate Pickett's Charge during ongoing activities commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Sunday, June 30, 2013, at Bushey Farm in Gettysburg, Pa. Union forces turned away a Confederate advance in the pivotal battle of the Civil War fought July 1-3, 1863, which was also the war’s bloodiest conflict with more than 51,000 casualties. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) (Matt Rourke, Associated Press)

For those whose hobby is dressing up in the blue and gray of the Union and the Confederacy, the Battle of Gettysburg is the pinnacle, and this week's 150th anniversary events are a very big deal.

Re-enactors are sticklers for historical accuracy, but sometimes, in the heat of battle, things go awry. Some people, especially those who might have traveled a long ways for the event, don't want to get shot, bayoneted or put to the sword a mere five minutes into a scene and miss all the fun, and so they keep on marching.

To make sure things unfold realistically, some re-enactor groups draw up scripts and work things out ahead of time with the corresponding enemy unit, deciding in advance who will be asked to give what Abraham Lincoln would later call "the last full measure of devotion."

Sometimes, casualties are determined according to participants' birthdays: Everyone born in April, for instance, might fall 10 minutes in; those in October might go down a half-hour later.

Sam Brown dressed as a Civil War Union solder demonstrates how to load a musket with fake powder for effect outside his home in New Palestine Tuesday, July 2, 2013. Brown has been involved as a re-enactor for the past 15 years and has a handsome collection of Civil War uniforms along with accessories. (AP Photo/Daily Reporter, Tom Russo)   (Tom Russo, Associated Press) Sam Brown dressed as a Civil War Union solder demonstrates how to load a musket with fake powder for effect outside his home in New Palestine Tuesday, July 2, 2013. Brown has been involved as a re-enactor for the past 15 years and has a handsome collection of Civil War uniforms along with accessories. (AP Photo/Daily Reporter, Tom Russo) (Tom Russo, Associated Press)

Donald Shaw of Flint, Mich., said some units designate which soldiers will fall on the battlefield by slipping black cartridges at random into their ammunition boxes before the fighting starts. Other times, he said, an officer might start ordering men on the spot to "start taking hits."

Dying gives re-enactors a chance to do a little acting.

The enemy fires, "you wait two or three seconds for the ball to get to you and you go 'Aarggh!,'" Union artilleryman Alan Mazur of Columbus, Ohio, said Wednesday, tilting his head and stretching out his arms.

During the Civil War, most wounded soldiers didn't die right away; many languished in hospitals. To account for that, some re-enactor units make up cards or slips of paper with different scenarios written out. Some people might be instructed to die on the spot. Other cards might call for a wounded man to slowly make his way off the battlefield.

Often, not even the commanding officers know what's going to happen with the rank-and-file — just like in real life.

Kierran Broatch, right, portrays his his great, great grandfather John C. Broatch, accompanies William H. Hincks, center, as he portrays his great, great, grandfather Medal of Honor recipient William Bliss Hincks taking a Confederate flag from a color bearer portrayed by Skip Koontz, second left, of Sharpsburg Md., at a re-enactment of Pickett's Charge during ongoing activities commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Sunday, June 30, 2013, at Bushey Farm in Gettysburg, Pa. Union forces turned away a Confederate advance in the pivotal battle of the Civil War fought July 1-3, 1863, which was also the war’s bloodiest conflict with more than 51,000 casualties. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
 (Matt Rourke, Associated Press) Kierran Broatch, right, portrays his his great, great grandfather John C. Broatch, accompanies William H. Hincks, center, as he portrays his great, great, grandfather Medal of Honor recipient William Bliss Hincks taking a Confederate flag from a color bearer portrayed by Skip Koontz, second left, of Sharpsburg Md., at a re-enactment of Pickett's Charge during ongoing activities commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Sunday, June 30, 2013, at Bushey Farm in Gettysburg, Pa. Union forces turned away a Confederate advance in the pivotal battle of the Civil War fought July 1-3, 1863, which was also the war’s bloodiest conflict with more than 51,000 casualties. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) (Matt Rourke, Associated Press)

"It's planned chaos!" said Evan Myers, a Union artilleryman from Pittsburgh.

One advantage of a big event like Gettysburg is that there will be a lot of fighting to re-enact, ensuring that someone who goes down early one day might be allowed to live until the end on another day.

This being a major milestone anniversary, "this is our last chance, our last opportunity, to give everybody a rewarding experience," said 65-year-old Stan Daywalt of Winchester, Va.

Of course, getting "killed" isn't so bad sometimes, especially when it's 90 degrees out, the wool uniform is getting uncomfortable and the legs are weary.

Lloyd Lamphere, 74, of Durand, Mich., said it's the perfect time to take a break.

"It's hot, I'm tired," Lamphere said, "and it's time to watch what's going on."

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