At Gettysburg 150 years ago, a country divided sometimes pitted brother vs. brother, father vs. son. But mother vs. son? That's just another re-enactment for the Griffey family of Moon.
"It's very surreal," Cathy Griffey said about facing her 27-year-old son, Nicholas, across a battlefield.
On Saturday and Sunday, while he fights with the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves, she'll be manning a Confederate cannon with her husband, Don, 66, son Erich, 31, and daughter Christina, 29.
Female re-enactor is part of cavalry unit at Gettysburg
Robin Shields is one of a few female Civil War re-enactors. She's part of a cavalry unit and portrays a male soldier on horseback. (Video by Julia Rendleman; 07/02/2013)
As many as 15,000 re-enactors and many more spectators are in Gettysburg this week for battlefield demonstrations and full-scale re-enactments of the pivotal Civil War battle. For Pennsylvanians, the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg is the Super Bowl of re-enactments, said Robin Shields, 50, of Slickville, Westmoreland County, a member of the 6th Ohio Cavalry. Cathy Griffey, 57, says it's even bigger than that.
"I love football, but the Super Bowl is held every year. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I will never see another big anniversary battle like this," she said.
Ms. Griffey and the rest of her family were drawn into re-enacting nearly 10 years ago by Nicholas. Though he usually portrays a Union officer, he occasionally switches sides and fights alongside his siblings and parents in Carpenter's Battery, which is named for an actual Confederate artillery unit from Alleghany County, Va.
At a re-enactment several years ago, Nicholas Griffey recognized his family members as they fired upon his position. He counted the seconds until impact from the phantom shell:
"1, 2, 3, 4 -- we're dead," he told his Union division. "That's Carpenter's Battery over there, and at this range they don't miss."
Christina Griffey and her mother initially portrayed civilians, then switched to soldiers.
"It's more fun being able to fight and being part of a unit," Christina Griffey said, adding that her soldier's uniform and gear cost less than her formal ball gowns.
As a corporal this weekend, she will lead a gun crew that also includes Sam and Beverly Vaughan of Ligonier, who own the 3-inch ordnance rifle, and Valetta Shuppe and her daughter Yvonne, 17, of Saltsburg, Pa.
Historians believe as many as 500 women fought in the Civil War, on both sides. Some were discovered when they died or were wounded in battle. Others were found out later when they applied for pensions. As documented in the book, "They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War" by De Anne Blanton and Lauren Cook, women who passed as men were often assigned to artillery crews because of their "attention to detail," Cathy Griffey said.
Ms. Shields believes women also rode in cavalry units. She was the only active woman among the 6th Ohio's 50 members until this year, when three others joined. To pass as a man, she wears "a sports bra two sizes too small, a jacket two sizes too big and a goatee I made" out of blond horsehair.
A hospice nurse, Ms. Shields takes part in one or more re-enactments a month astride Gunner, a 12-year-old former show jumper. She is smaller than most of the other riders.
"This is full contact, high speed. I'm 130 pounds. I'm beat black and blue," she said.
Cathy Griffey is proud to be one of four women in Carpenter's Battery, which can fire as rapidly as every 52 seconds for a short time. They performed so well at the 150th re-enactment of the Battle of Shiloh last year that they have been invited back to Tennessee to portray a Confederate unit at the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Chickamauga in September. That's unusual for a Northern re-enactment group and "a huge honor for us," Mrs. Griffey said.
For this weekend's re-enactment organized by the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee, she made the battle flag that will fly over her son's Union regiment for the first time since 1863.
"I hand-painted it as a winter project," said Mrs. Griffey, an associate member of the 9th Pennsylvania. "All that was left of the original flag was fringe and a 2-inch strip of cloth. It took a tremendous amount of research. It was a labor of love for these guys."
Erich Griffey, meanwhile, is looking forward to fighting against his brother, Nicholas. "You try your best to gun for him. It's a free-for-all."
The brothers also participate in more modern military re-enactments, including World War II battles.
"They tried to get me to do Vietnam with them, but I said, 'No, thanks. I was there,' " said their father, who served in the Air Force's Military Airlift Command during the Tet Offensive.
The retired firearms instructor and bomb squad member for the Allegheny County Police said re-enactments usually feel more like a game than real warfare.
"Most of the time they're laughing at us and we're laughing at them," Don Griffey said. "But once in a while, it'll hit you. Guys are coming at you rifle down and you feel it."
The Griffey gunners see nothing odd about living in Pennsylvania and portraying Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg. Three sets of Mrs. Griffey's relatives fought for the South during the Civil War.
"I think it's mostly what your family did. I'm Confederate at heart," she said.
Kevin Kirkland: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1978. First Published July 3, 2013 4:00 AM