CATAWISSA — With an ancestry going back to the 132nd Pennsylvania Infantry, Civil War history is in the blood of the Petros, a family of enthusiastic re-enactors who will participate in the 156th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg next weekend.
The family’s fondness for the era and history began when Bruce Petro, of Catawissa, was 5 years old and went to Gettysburg for the first time. It continued when Bruce and his wife, Michele, took their son, Chase, to a parade and then it became a full family affair with the inclusion of their daughter, MolliLyn.
“I started going almost out of necessity,” Michele said. “Chase was so young, and Molli was little and she wanted to go too.”
While Bruce was in the field joining the fight, Michele said she’d remain at camp with the kids, who were too young to participate in the re-enactments in the early years.
Since about 2008, the family has been involved with the 149th Pennsylvania Bucktails, a re-enactment group concentrated around the Gettysburg-Harrisburg region and the general Catawissa/Bloomsburg area.
Molli, 13, was 3 when she attended her first event, and she said she’s glad she was able to grow up in it because she really enjoys it. Molli plays a dual role, dressing as a boy during the battle and putting on a dress at night to attend the ball.
During the Gettysburg re-enactment, she’ll pile her hair under a hat and ride a horse onto the field carrying a flag for their general. When night comes, she’ll dress up with her mom and attend the ball.
She prefers being a boy because she gets to be part of the action, but she said she has a blast at the ball learning different dances from the time period.
The fighting fifer
Her brother, Chase, 17, plays the fife and also participates in battles. He learned how to play the fife by first starting out with the flute in middle school to get the feel for it. In order the join the re-enactment band, Chase was told he needed to learn 28 songs on the fife. His mom said he learned over 30.
“A couple of men jokingly call him the ‘fighting fifer,’” Michele said.
Chase plays with the band as troops enter battle and then changes roles to join the battle. During the Civil War, he said band members would march to play the soldiers out and then report back to carry stretchers onto the battlefield.
Preparation for each battle takes 10 months to a year in advance, Bruce said. The commanders for the Union and Confederate armies get together with event organizers to discuss the kind of re-enactment they’d like to have.
There aren’t enough re-enactors to make up the approximate 164,000 soldiers who fought the Battle of Gettysburg, so segments are chosen from the three days of battle that occurred, Bruce explained. Information is gathered from official reports to study the movements of the armies so they are able to recreate it to the best of their abilities.
“It’s almost Shakespearean theatre in the field,” Bruce said, “because you try to imagine what happened.”
The re-enactors decide who falls, based on the casualty rates of each unit from the battles. If a unit suffered a 75% casualty rate, word is passed down through the commanders that they need people to take a hit. Other times the re-enactors will fall if their weapon malfunctions or they run out of cartridges.
The battle re-enactments last about 1 1/2 hours, leaving 22 1/2 hours of the day to enjoy old camp life. While some re-enactors spring for hotels, the Petros prefer to camp just like their ancestors did.
It brings together people with the same likes and passions for the Civil War, they said. The thing Bruce likes most about the camps is that electronics disappear and people spend their time talking to one another.
“I think we’re losing the skill to communicate with people face-to-face, where it’s just each to text it and send it off,” he said. “That’s what I like most about it — the fact that we’re all talking and communicating.”
A special visit
For Memorial Day 2018, Bruce and Chase got to walk in the steps of their ancestor from the 132nd Pennsylvania Infantry in Sharpsburg, Maryland, where the Battle of Antietam was fought in 1862.
Chase played the fife in the Sharpsburg Memorial Day parade that Saturday and afterward they were able to follow the path their relative would have taken, beginning at the Roulette Farm and crossing to Sunken Road, which is now home to a monument from the battle.
Walking the path gave him a “tingly feeling,” Bruce said.
“We knew where they started and we just went in the direction, and you could not see because the hills are rolling in Maryland,” he said. “We just did what they did. It was surreal to do that, it really was.”