War re-enactors help make past wars a vivid reality

As the temperature approaches 90 degrees at historic Laurel Hill Cemetery on Sunday, re-enactors Joe Lessman and Charles Beale, representing Privates of the 28th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment in the early 1860’s, are getting a taste of Civil War life inside their heavy wool uniforms.

Civil War re-enactors since 1976, they are proud to honor the memory of Union soldiers at the Grand Army of the Republic’s Meade Post 1 annual Decoration-Memorial Day Service, which among other veterans’ honors, pays homage at the Laurel Hill grave of Gettysburg hero General George Meade.


Laurel Hill’s historic role

Memorial Day honors here are particularly historic: in 1868, Laurel Hill was the site of the first Memorial Day Observance ever held in Philadelphia.

“Fall in!” comes the cry, and Lessman and Beale hoist their muskets alongside the rest of the 28th Regiment Honor Guard, who will fire the traditional three shots at the graves of the veterans remembered during the May 30th procession. Another soldier fans his sweating face with a white-gloved hand, and Master of Ceremonies Andy Waskie of the Grand Army of the Republic re-enactors calls the procession to order. Traditionally, this venerable ceremony begins with the ringing of the bell in the cemetery’s gatehouse, but this year a robin has made her nest on it.


Honoring America’s soldiers past and present

For this unusual and enveloping Memorial Day ceremony, re-enactors of the Grand Army of the Republic are joined by representatives of groups including the Philadelphia Brigade Band, re-enactors of the 3rd US Colored Infantry Regiment, the US Army and Navy, the Union League, and the Patriotic Order of the Sons of America, as well as veterans of WWII, Korea and Vietnam.

Participants Robert Houston, Joe Becton and Earl Weeks have been re-enactors with the 3rd US Colored Infantry Regiment since 1990. “We’re proud to be here representing US colored troops,” Houston says, noting that these troops numbered about 200,000 Army and Navy servicemen during the Civil War. This trio of re-enactors recently received replicas of the Butler Medal, the only US military medal ever struck for black troops, which was designed and commissioned by Civil War General Benjamin F. Butler.


General George G. Meade’s gravesite

Before reaching General Meade’s grave for an invocation and keynote address, the procession stops to lay a wreath on a brand-new plaque for the previously unmarked grave of Cuban-born Civil War Private Louis Matos, who fought and was captured at Bull Run. Cuba native Julio Zangroniz of Civil War News speaks on Matos’s allegiance to his adopted country, lays a wreath, and produces a silver flask to wet the gravesite with splash of Cuban run.

A massive maple tree grows over the grave of General Meade, where the ceremony continues. Waskie reminds a crowd nearing 100 that it is the same tree President Grant stood under during Meade’s burial. Keynote speaker US Army Lieutenant Colonel Marc Young notes that observances at venerable gravesites can make it hard to remember that “it’s the young who do the fighting and dying” when America is at war. He honors fallen soldiers arriving in Dover this very weekend, and urges attendees to respect all veterans past and present.


The unknown soliders honored

After the guns’ honor volleys and a rendition of Taps, the procession continues to a second new gravestone for the previously unmarked remains of Civil War surgeon Silas Updegrove, who served during the Virginia Overland campaign and the Siege of Petersburg and went on become a Professor of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

More brief ceremonies follow at the site of the Meade Post 1 Plot, where US veterans who wish it are provided a free resting place at Laurel Hill, in reciprocation for the Meade Post 1’s years of service helping to maintain the cemetery. Finally, the parade honors a grave for the cremated remains of 1,500 indigent or unclaimed deceased city residents, many of whom may have been US veterans, recently given a final resting place at Laurel Hill.

Attendees Roy and Emily Weiser of Southampton, PA have come to the event for the second year in a row. “It’s an impressive ceremony,” they say. The variety of costumed, reverent re-enactors, the musket firing, the music, the beautiful historic setting of the cemetery, and a range of heartfelt speeches and honors make this annual Memorial Day ceremony a worthwhile experience.

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