19 November 2005 by Published in: General musings 8 comments

Today is November 19, the 142nd anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. The anniversary has really taken on a life of its own in Gettysburg.

Every year on Remembrance Day, as the anniversary is known, there is a parade of reenactors honoring the soldiers who fought at Gettysburg. I have never been there for the Remembrance Day parade, nor does the event hold even the slightest, tiniest little bit of interest for me.

I’m not a “living historian,” whatever that means (I say “whatever that means” because I have yet to come up with a definition of the term that more that two people agree with). Three very close friends of mine portray individuals who were at Gettysburg. One portrays Lt. Gen. James Longstreet. One portrays Col. Thomas C. Devin, and the third portrays Col. William Gamble. All three were there today, although I doubt that the fellows who portray Devin and Gamble participated in the parade–they usually set up shop on McPherson’s Ridge and educate people about John Buford’s stand on July 1. I’m not sure about General Longstreet. Because they do first-person impressions of figures who played significant roles in the Battle of Gettysburg, this is understandably an important event for them.

I’m also not a reenactor. I won’t get into the issue of farbs and realism. Suffice it to say that I am 6’3″+, I weigh more than 275 pounds, and I’m generally a big guy. I’m also 44 years old and have more gray hair than brown at this point in my life. Your average Civil War cavalryman was 5’3″, weighed 130 pounds, and was in his 20’s. I can’t even remember the last time I weighed 130 pounds, but it was probably in middle school. I also haven’t been on a horse since I was a child. Yet, my primary interest is Civil War cavalry. Given my own limitations, I would be one of the guys that people laugh at as reenactors. Hence, being painfully aware of my own limitations, I choose to avoid the issue. ‘Nuff said about reenacting.

I’m a guy who researches and writes, and who studies the war and the men who fought for something that they believed in. Consequently, the anniversary of Lincoln’s great speech–arguably THE greatest speech ever given by a politician–has never held much interest for me, even though the speech itself is compelling and fascinating. I absolutely hate being in Gettysburg when there are huge crowds there, and this, along with the anniversary of the battle, is one of two times per year when the crowds are immense. I get very uncomfortable in those kinds of crowds there, simply because the town does not have the infrastructure to handle it. You can’t park your car. You can’t get a table in a restaurant. The sidewalks are jammed. I could go on, but you get the idea. For me, it’s not a pleasant place to be at those times, and I try to avoid it all costs. That especially includes the anniversary fo the battle. So, I’ve just never had any interest in being there for Remembrance Day, and this year was certainly no exception.

To my friends who were there–I hope you had a great time. I know it’s an event that’s important to you, and I’m glad you were there enjoying camaraderie at an event you particularly enjoy. I hope it–and the parade–was terrific. To Mike and J. D., I hope you had LOTS of interested visitors out there on McPherson’s Ridge.

Having said that, I do regret not being there last year. Last year was the final time that my friend and mentor Brian Pohanka proudly led his Zouaves in the parade. Brian was already terribly ill, and he knew his days were numbered. He told me that he knew it would be his last parade, and that he was going to go and do it, no matter what, and he did. After the parade, he gathered his men around him on Little Round Top and told them that it would be his last time, and that he didn’t think he would be around this year at this time. He encouraged his men to carry the flame and to continue his work, even if he wouldn’t be there with them. I’m told that there was not a dry eye in the crowd, which doesn’t surprise me a bit.

Sadly, Brian was correct. He left us in June, and for those who regularly attend the parade, I’m sure it was strange not seeing him leading his beloved Zouaves down the parade route. I’m sure he was missed, and I hope someone sang “The Vacant Chair” for him this weekend. This was an event that meant a lot to him, and I’m sure he was watching over the parade from a better place, proudly cheering his Zouaves on. Rest well, Brian. You’re missed.

THE VACANT CHAIR

We shall meet but we shall miss him.
There will be one vacant chair.
We shall linger to caress him,
While we breathe our ev’ning prayer.
When a year ago we gathered,
Joy was in his mild blue eye.
But a golden cord is severed.
And our hopes in ruin lie.

We shall meet, but we shall miss him.
There will be one vacant chair.
We shall linger to caress him,
While we breathe our ev’ning prayer.

At our fireside, sad and lonely,
Often will the bosom swell,
At remembrance of the story,
How our noble Willie fell.
How he strove to bear our banner,
Thro’ the thickest of the fight,
And uphold our country’s honor
In the strength of manhood’s might.

True they tell us wreaths of glory,
Evermore will deck his brow,
But this soothes the anguish only,
Sweeping o’er our heartstrings now.
Sleep today o’ early fallen,
In thy green and narrow bed.
Dirges from the pine and cypress
Mingle with the tears we shed.

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Comments

  1. Kevin M. Levin
    Sun 20th Nov 2005 at 7:54 am

    Hi Eric,

    Thanks for the post and your thoughts about Brian Pohanka. The last time I was in Gettysburg was this past July on my way to Pottsville to do research. I had a chance to walk a bit with no one around very early in the morning – as you say a rarity these days. That said, the thought of people commemorating a speech and the ideas of one of our more thoughtful presidents is comforting given that much of the rest of the year is spent obsessing about counterfactual scenarios and where Lee’s army lost the battle and subsequently, the war.

  2. Sun 20th Nov 2005 at 10:49 am

    Kevin,

    Glad you enjoyed it. To this day, I miss Brian. I had the following e-mail from old friend Tom Clemens, who reenacted with Brian, about yesterday:

    Eric,
    Indeed this was a special Remembrance Day, and it brought out a lot of “former” Zouaves, my brother and I included. Dusting off the old Zouave uniform, polishing brass, etc. I joined 37 other guys who marched today in Brian’s honor. It was a beautiful day, better weather than we usually have for late November, and the crowds were large. As we gathered on Little Round Top the members of the 5 NY were joined by Brian’s widow Cricket, his brother and sister-in-law, and many, many other friends and family. Two stalwart Zouaves, Pat Schroeder and Stan Magee gave speeches, and Pat read two letters written by Brian when he knew his days were numbered. In 1999 and 2003 he put away letters to be read at Remembrance Day after he was gone. To say that there were few dry eyes would be an understatement. It was a very moving ceremony, with lots of old friends embracing, and many prayers and mingled with the recollections and tears. Brian called on all of us to remember him by carrying on the things that were important to him. Of course these included honoring the Civil War soldiers and veterans, preserving battlefields, and patriotism. It was a day I will not forget, and will cherish as an example of the courasge with which Brian faced his own mortality. That, I think, was the greatest and unspoken remembrance.–
    Tom Clemens
    Keedysville, MD

    Pottsville, eh? What the heck were you doing there? Pottsville is about 30 miles from where I grew up, and my father was a salesman. As a boy, I used to enjoy spending the day with him, and we spent many an afternoon in Pottsville.

    Eric

  3. Kevin M. Levin
    Sun 20th Nov 2005 at 1:41 pm

    Thanks for sharing the letter from Clemens — obviously a very moving experience I only met Brian once back in 1997. I was working at a Borders Books in Rockville and decided to put on an all day Civil War book signing event. I had some pretty high profile authors, but I knew that convincing Brian to show up in uniform would add just the right touch. I actually called him at home and we had a very pleasant conversations that went on for about 30 minutes. He had an event that day in Gettysburg, but promised to try to make it. Not only did he show up at the right time, but he agreed to talk about his interest in the Civil War. It was a great time.

    As for Pottsville, the 48th Pennsylvania was raised in the area so I decided to check out the local historical society. Mike Cavanaugh donated almost all of his research material to the historical society that he used for his Crater book. I have to say it was not the most pleasant 2-day visit, but I found a great deal of primary and secondary material.

  4. Sun 20th Nov 2005 at 3:37 pm

    Keivn,

    Brian was definitely one of the most gracious people I have ever met, and you’ve just described another instance of that grace. I can only hope that when my time comes, I face it with the grace and courage with which Brian faced his.

    Eric

  5. Terry Walbert
    Tue 22nd Nov 2005 at 11:27 am

    Several years ago Brian was the guest speaker at the September banquet of the Baltimore Civil War Roundtable. He related some of his experiences as an advisor to the movies Glory and Gettysburg, and to the TV series North and South. The talk was lively and amusing, and I had a chance to chat with him afterwards. Quite a gentleman. I was saddened to hear of his death.

  6. Tue 22nd Nov 2005 at 12:00 pm

    Terry,

    “Gentleman” is certainly the correct word to describe him. Bill Styple likes to say that Brian was truly a 19th Century man. I think Bill’s got it just right.

    Eric

  7. Mike Peters
    Wed 30th Nov 2005 at 4:48 pm

    Eric:

    You know well my feelings about Brian. My last E-mail to him contained questions re: the part he played in Styple’s work on General Regis de Trobriand. Bill’s characterization of Brian as a “19th Century man” would please Brian. And if ever there was a prototype for a “gentleman,” it was definitely Brian Caldwell Pohanka.

    Mike Peters

  8. Sun 07th May 2006 at 10:18 pm

    Hi Eric–I know I’m quite late with this response. But I was deeply moved by your Remembrance Day 2005 thoughts. Especially where they concerned our mutual friend, the late Brian Pohanka. I didn’t know him as well as you, but I’m thankful I did get to meet him three times in the last ten years: at Gettysburg in 1997 and 1998, and at the 140th anniversary event at Antietam in 2002. He was always so gracious to me, during those moments when we were able to talk face-to-face.

    Even nearly a year later, I still miss him. I miss him, every time I do an update on my Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain Web site. When I would email him info on those updates, he’d usually write a short note to say he liked the new stuff. That meant a lot to me. I have to catch myself, when I want to email him, and remind myself that he’s gone. And it hurts.

    I wish I could have been at Remembrance Day last year, when his Zouaves gathered at Little Round Top. I wish I could have heard Patrick Schroeder’s words–he’s become a good friend to me (he spent his childhood in my hometown of Utica, NY). He let me post the eulogy he gave at Brian’s memorial service at Manassas on my Web site. It just moves me to tears. And I’m sure what he said at Gettysburg in November didn’t leave a dry eye in the house…..

    Anyway: let me end by saying “Thank You” for sharing your stories about Brian. He was a wonderful man. And I still miss him. Thanks.

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