Gettysburg 4th of July 1913 Reunion Between Yankees & Rebels

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100 years ago today. We are creatures of time and time is a kind of amnesia. Most of what falls into the past is lost to us while that which is recalled becomes filtered through the present. Baz Luhrmann's 2013 movie The Great Gatsby is an example. With its modern-music sound track the film seeks to please modern sensibilities rather than lead viewers into how the world was seen then. For some, TV commercials and movie stars are the way the world is, without question, without doubt. Yet we are descended from ancestors whose stories and lives are unknown to us--from 1861 to 1865 mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, lost over 700,000 loved ones in the American Civil War.  Their world was fragile, not to be trusted.  It is a war that defined the United States of America and today its citizens go about their daily business without knowing whence they came.

Today the public forgets that this nation, the United States, was once regarded as a federation of states, and only slowly did the idea of a nation united come into public consciousness. After Abraham Lincoln offered him command of the Union Army, Robert E. Lee instead chose to general the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia because Lee felt more allegiance to his state than to the states united.

The public can no longer feel the pulse of those times, when the song "Dixie" stirred the hearts of Southern men and women, when "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," brought tears to the eyes of their Northern counterparts. There were so many songs, unknown to moderns. Who today has heard of "The Invalid Corps"? Of "The Grant Pill (or 'Unconditional Surrender')"? Of "Just Before the Battle, Mother"? All those who sang them are long dead, just as those who now sing the latest pop hit will be dead inside 85 years.

For those who lived then, the Great Reunion of 1913 revived old memories of Johnny Reb and Billy Yank, and the old veterans also knew that in getting together they were doing so in a new nation, one in which the idea of states-only was slowly giving way to a united states. The Reunion was the largest gathering ever of Civil War veterans, North and South, who came together on July 4th.  President Woodrow Wilson arrived and made a speech.

Listening to him were 54,000 old soldiers, many with canes, some in wheelchairs, who shook hands, blue and grey, on Gettysburg, once a great battlefield of that war. Yankee and Confederate, they proudly wore their uniforms, recalling their youth, knowing that soon they would be gone, and hoped their joint history would not be forgotten.

Who today recalls the Great 1913 Reunion?  They wanted to be remembered, to be recorded for history. They stood before movie cameras, a marvelous contraption of the times, and there was Mr. Edison's recording machine, into which the Johnny Reb's, now with grey hair and beards, gave a Rebel yell, something that once sent chills through the Billy Yank's trying to hold the line.

In 1913 the nation had prepared for the event. Its progress appeared in newspapers across the land. The Civil War had ended 48 years before, closer in time to them than WWII is to us at 68 years ago. People read that the city of Philadelphia and State of Pennsylvania were organizing an extravaganza for the 4th of July to commemorate the Battle of Gettysburg, 50 years old on July 3rd.

Johnny Reb showing Billy Yank his unit's position during Pickett's charge.

The State of Pennsylvania spent eight years and much money to host the Reunion. Officials had an idea few would find appealing today.  It was to erect a tent city in Gettysburg with sanitation provided by privies, water by wells, or water wagons. Cleanliness through showers was not feasible and unheard of.

With the city erected, and July 4th near, old Civil War veterans were invited to stay a week there. Expectations were for 20,000 and they ended up with 50,000 — 50,000 old men, for the term senior citizen had not been coined. From North and South, in canes and wheelchairs, they camped on the battlefield. The men knew the significance, one that few recall today. At Gettysburg the Union Army's victory eventually decided the war.

The youngest veteran was 61, which meant he was 13 at war's end, and probably a drummer boy, carrying the flag for his unit. Children were prevalent in both armies because both needed warm bodies and because they did not ask questions if a volunteer lied about his age.

The oldest claimed to be 112. Youngest or oldest, with the rest in between, in any case they all remembered those years as the most intense of their lives, and walking through the battlefield park brought back all they felt as a minie ball whizzed past their ears while they reloaded.

With canes, some being pushed in wheelchairs, others unaided, they explored the park, and gathered in the great tent set up on the field of Pickett's Charge. They met there daily, and there they talked about the past, what it felt like when they were young, what friend was the first to fall, another whose wife and child died while he was marching through Georgia. They heard stirring marches, John Phillips Sousa and his band, then listened to dignitaries and state governors tell them why their friends died in a noble cause.

In 1913 veterans of the North and South were a year away from opening newspapers to read that in Serbia an archduke had been assassinated and that all of Europe was mobilizing troops for a great fight that came to be known as World War I. The veterans had their own war behind them and could not foresee that in four years the United States, that union Lincoln sought to preserve, would be plunged into the great war.  Now, the public recalls even that war as something quaint, long ago, but named by its survivors as The War to End All Wars.

But all that was to come. For Americans, 1913 was a good year, one in which the country's wounds had healed, and the gathering of veterans a sign that all had been forgiven on both sides. The Washington Post wrote, "Nothing could possibly be more impressive or more inspiring to the younger generation than this gathering. They feel the thrill of bygone days, without a knowledge of its bitterness, which, thank God, has passed us all. But even more touching must be the emotions of these time-worn veterans, as they assemble on an occasion that in itself constitutes a greater victory than that of half a century ago, and one too, in which every section of a reunited country has common part."

In terms of military tactics, Pickett's Charge was mainly what the reunion at Gettysburg was all about. But it wasn't a charge. Imagine yourself on July 3, 1863 among Southern infantrymen, marching deliberately in line, holding your pace until told to quick march. This, while Union cannon balls fall in your ranks and you see bodies torn, thrown into the air, return to ground without legs or arms.  You are one man of nine brigades of men stretched over a mile-long front. You are holding your rifle at ready while your ranks advance over three-quarters of a mile of open field. You think of your mother, your father, your wife, your girlfriend, and then you don't try to think at all, and only try to control the sphincter muscle in your rectum.

After the battle was over, General Pickett blamed Robert E. Lee for the disaster, saying "That old man destroyed my division."

Of high public note, then, was the meeting of South,  Pickett's Division Association and of North, Philadelphia Brigade Association, on July 3, 1913, 50 years to the day after that battle.

In the days before air conditioning and electric fans, and in torrid heat, veterans made speeches, traded ceremonial flags and shook hands over the stonewall that outlined the Angle where fifty years before, the two groups had met in mortal combat.

By 1938 veterans of The Great War, also known as The War to End All Wars, outnumbered the veterans of the Civil War, the war that defined America and what she became. That year marked the 75th anniversary of Gettysburg, and another reunion was considered but found little enthusiasm, for those who had lived through the conflict as soldiers, wives, daughters, or sons, were mostly gone. Another war loomed on the horizon as Hitler amassed troops, Japan invaded China, and Mussolini conquered Ethiopia. The country was worried and rather than deal in memories of Johnny Reb and Billy Yank, newspapers carried news of tanks, and airplanes, and invasions.

The 1938 reunion at Gettysburg did occur, and most of the able, surviving veterans, about 1,800 veterans from across the country, did show up, but the country was worried about events in Europe and Asia and the feeble old-timers arrived with litte fanfare.

Today, schoolchildren read about Gettysburg in history books. In his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln said of the battlefield, "The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here." Listeners must have thought, If not the world, at least Americans would remember.

Have we?

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