GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- Ulysses S. Grant beckoned.
Gray beard, blue coat, brown cigar; it was him, all right. The late, great Union Army general welcomed a visitor to his tent and explained himself.
"I am just a specter in the shadow of time," Grant said.
Surely, the whiskey was somewhere close. Everyone knows that story. But, no. Grant denounced the accounts of his drinking as libelous drivel, the work of scribbling hacks. People should know the truth, he said.
The truth, then.
Fact: This year kicks off the Civil War sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary of the conflagration that recast the United States. At the least, it's an excuse to revisit some great adventures: the lost orders of Antietam, Gen. Pickett's doomed charge across open ground.
The sesquicentennial, too, is a time to reflect -- on how the war came to be and what it wrought. Inevitably, it's a time when unresolved racial and political conflicts rebound. Ideally, it's a time to sift fact from fiction.
Fact: The real Ulysses S. Grant was never at Gettysburg during the pivotal July 1863 battle. He was elsewhere, still making his violent way along the Mississippi River. And the "Grant" in this tent was actually a middle school science teacher from Charleston, W.Va., named Barry Meadows. Old battlefields are his other classroom.
"I hope people will learn about the past and the cruelty of war," Meadows said.
He joined other Civil War re-enactors at Gettysburg recently to commemorate that battle's 148th anniversary. He held court from his command tent, one of many uniformed men anachronistically arrayed. He also was one of more than 8,000 re-enactors who turned out over the weekend to commemorate the July 21, 1861, First Battle of Manassas, called Bull Run in the North.
All things considered, First Manassas was a modest affair, though it shocked civilian sensibilities. About 5,000 were killed, wounded or missing. By the Civil War's end, total casualties exceeded 1 million, including more than 600,000 who died from combat or disease.
"Until First Manassas, the country didn't really have an awareness of what it was in for," National Park Service spokesman Mike Litterst said. "It was a real eye-opener."
The weekend's Manassas commemoration, too, was a curtain-raiser of sorts for the sesquicentennial, a national moment that has yet to reach critical mass.
Civil War commemorations once meant veterans tramping in parades, fewer and frailer each year until there were none to march at all. The centennial, during the civil rights era of the early 1960s, inspired records, playing cards and a great American Heritage book still beloved by many middle-aged men.
Now come websites, blogs and iPhone apps, the new-fangled reinforcing what's old-fashioned.
"I think the 150th anniversary is a great way to understand the Civil War," Richard Hill, a 64-year-old Seton Hall University administrator and Civil War re-enactor, said while standing at attention under the debilitating Gettysburg sun. "It made us who we are today."
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