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“We Have Found One Another again as Brothers”

Remembering Gettysburg in 1913 and 1938

 

LIKE NO OTHER battlefield of the Civil War, Gettysburg has lent itself to an iconic, almost mythologized, presentation of the war. It has served in this way for at least a century. In 1913, on the fiftieth anniversary of the battle, it was the site of a huge national celebration of reconciliation which drew 54,000 Union and Confederate veterans from around the
country. Twenty-five years later, in 1938, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the battle, the final “grand reunion” drew more than one thousand aged survivors from both North and South.

What exactly happened at these events, beyond the obvious socializing? What was “celebrated”? What “remembered”? What were the larger national (even international) meanings of the “reunions”? These are not simple
questions.

Both events were well recorded by the press, on film, and in 1938 on radio, and featured important addresses by the sitting presidents of the day, Woodrow Wilson in 1913 and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938. They offer
parallel windows into the changing ways in which the Civil War has been remembered and misremembered, the uses to which that history was put at different times, and into America’s conception of itself on the cusps of both World War I and World War II.

The remembering of Gettysburg – whether in 1913 or 1938, and for that matter 1963 or 2013 – is itself an artifact of history that may have little to do with the actual battle but much to do with the nation’s concept of itself, including the largely unchallenged racial values of the time.

Both anniversaries centered around encampments of Union and Confederate veterans. The veterans were filmed, recorded, lionized by celebrities, kissed by swarms of pretty girls, and generally employed as props by journalists and politicians – many of whom evinced a striking lack of interest in the actual events in which the vets had participated.

To most of us today, perhaps, the men who fought the Civil War may seem like the inhabitants of a sort of cinematic prehistory, memorialized in Currier & Ives prints, old newspaper engravings, and the sepia photographs of Matthew Brady. Up to the turn of the 20th century and beyond, Civil War veterans had been omnipresent in American life.
In both the North and the South they exerted a huge tidal pull on national, regional, and state politics. (William McKinley, elected in 1896 and reelected in 1900, was the last Civil War veteran to serve in the presidency.) Year after
year, they marched in memorial parades dressed in the blue uniforms of the Grand Army of the Republic, and the gray of the United Confederate Veterans. And they reuned – by regiment, by brigade, by army, by state.

In scale, the 1913 reunion at Gettysburg was the largest ever. It brought together not only men who had fought at Gettysburg in July 1863, but those who had served in all the theaters of the Civil War. For by
1913, inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s famous address there, Gettysburg had become
more than a simple battlefield, such as Bull Run, Antietam, or Shiloh. It had
methodically been transformed into a national shrine to the Civil War, and to
all the men who had died between 1861 and 1865. The bent and bearded veterans
who poured off trains in the tiny town of Gettysburg at the end of June 1913
found fields already studded with hundreds of often ornate and imposing marble
monuments to what had happened there fifty years before.

A vast camp was erected for them on the outskirts of
town, near the Bliss house, and on the Kutz property at the foot of Cemetery
Hill. They were billeted in hundreds of large tents, organized mostly by the
units in which they had served, fed on chow lines, and dined at long wooden
plank tables. Several companies of infantry, an artillery battery, and cavalry
units arrived to provide security. Hundreds of Boy Scouts were also on hand as
guides and escorts. In all, 44,713 Union veterans attended – about half of them
from Pennsylvania – and 8,700 former Confederates. Their average age was
seventy-two.

The camp opened for supper on June 29th, when
21,000 vets turned up, instead of the expected 6,000. Newsreels – silent, of
course – showed stiff-limbed and bewhiskered old men mingling with old
comrades, visiting monuments, swapping memories, and – a favorite trope of the
era – formally shaking hands with their former enemies. The most memorable of
all of them was the irrepressible and inimitable General Dan Sickles,
ninety-four years old, and the only surviving Corps commander who had fought at
Gettysburg. Sickles had almost lost the battle for the Union, on July 2nd,
by overextending his line from Cemetery Hill to the slaughter pens of the
Wheatfield and the Peach Orchard, and flamboyantly arrived in an open touring
car, wearing a broad-brimmed campaign hat, looking as self-important as he had
fifty years earlier.

The senior surviving ex-Confederate officer present was 77-year-old Evander Law, who had commanded a division at Gettysburg under Lee.

Again and again – on Cemetery Ridge, on Little Round Top, over campfires and cannon barrels – they were coaxed into handshakes and smiles by the photographers, or by organizers who were determined to impose a
narrative of friendship on every encounter.

The reunion was tightly programmed. On June 30th, the Virginia monument, one of the battlefield’s best heroic sculptures was dedicated, on Seminary Ridge. On the following days, there was a solemn reading
of the Gettysburg Address, a review of the Virginia veterans contingent, and an
“impromptu Union raid” on the Confederate side of the Great Camp, followed by
joint parades and camp fires. On July 3rd, Unit reunions continued. A small group of former Confederates reenacted Pickett’s charge, waving hats and umbrellas, as they stumped through waist-high wheat, concluding with a flag ceremony and another hand-shaking at the High Water mark. That night, giant fireworks displays lit
up the entire face and crest of Little Round Top.

The climax came on July 4th, with Woodrow
Wilson’s address to the assembled veterans, and many thousands of guests, and
tourists. The president arrived on a private train at 11 a.m., and was escorted
to Great Tent, which held 13,000 folding chairs, through two rows of Boy
Scouts.

Wilson is today remembered primarily for his engagement
in foreign affairs, particularly his promotion of the League of Nations.
Although he served as governor of New Jersey before his election to the
presidency, Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia, in 1856, in a family that
was served by slaves provided to it by the local Presbyterian church that his
father tended. The Wilsons soon afterward moved to Augusta, Georgia, where the
future president personally witnessed the human ravages of the Civil War, and
absorbed the values and views of the Jim Crow South. (Wilson’s father Joseph
served briefly as a chaplain in the Confederate Army.) The future president
lived in Augusta, and later Columbia, South Carolina, through most of the
Reconstruction years, moving north to Princeton University only in 1875.  As president, Wilson systematically
resegregated the federal civil service, which for decades had provided a
slender ladder upward into the middle class for African Americans.

And in 1915, two years after the Gettysburg reunion,
Wilson would host a private viewing of the deeply racist film “Birth of a
Nation” at the White House, which he praised as a “terribly true” account of
Reconstruction. (In the film, director D.W. Griffith actually used quotes from
Wilson’s pro-southern History of the American People as inter-titles.)
The film, as we know, reinvigorated the Ku Klux Klan, demonized African
Americans and abolitionists, portrayed Unionists as hapless and deluded, and
indirectly helped to foster the epidemic of lynchings that swept America in the
years that followed its release.

In short, Wilson was very much a “southern president,”
and as such an incarnation of the pro-southern revisionism that gripped
Americans’, and historians’, views of the Civil War. Wilson used the 1913
Gettysburg reunion as a platform, a bully pulpit, to preach a version of
national reconciliation that celebrated the fighting men of both sections as
equally noble and “American,” as if the causes for which they were fighting
were essentially one and the same, and had equally contributed to the strengthening
of the modern nation.

Wilson, in his most idealistic mode, evoked the “ghostly
hosts” who had fought on the Civil War’s battlefields as the forerunners of
“another host, whom these set free of civil strife in order that they might
work out in days of peace, in settled orde,r the life of a great Nation. We
have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no
longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten,”
he declared. “Except that we shall not forget the splendid valor, the manly
devotion of the men then arrayed against one another, now grasping hands and
smiling into each other’s eyes. How complete the union has become and how dear
to all of us, how unquestioned, how benign and majestic.” His meaning was
clear, that: “all the strength and sacrifice on both sides equally had been
spent to make the nation greater.” The war, for Wilson, was not a great rending
but a great healing, and the “ghostly host” of the dead a continuing source of
inspiration for present-day Americans who were building an ever more prosperous
nation.

In all this, Wilson was not out of step with broad national sentiment.  A New York Times article in 1911 had declared: “All the battles of the Civil War were won by American soldiers. All the heroes of
that war were Americans.” Even The Nation urged Americans to embrace the
war as “a triumph of brotherhood.” Other writers urged the North to allow the
South to deal with the “burden of a crushing social problem” – that is their
large population of African Americans – in their own ways.

Over the quarter-century that followed, the ranks of
Civil War vets rapidly thinned. By 1938 – the year of the battle’s 75th
anniversary – nearly all who still remained were in their nineties, or older.
In 1936, when plans for the 75th were being finalized, there were
still 12,000 veterans left. Of these, more than 3,600 accepted invitations to attend,
and it was expected that about 2,000 would actually manage to do so.

Once again the reunion was promoted and financed mainly
by the state of Pennsylvania. After ruling out specially-built wooden barracks
as too costly, the veterans would again be sheltered in canvas tents on ground
north of town, where the Eleventh Corps had fought on the first day of the
battle. This time, however, the vets were assigned private tents. Water, sewer
and lighting systems were installed, along with a dedicated telephone and
telegraph exchange. Five on-site sawmills were built to provide lumber for
wooden walkways to connect the tents, and four hundred wheelchairs were
assembled and held ready in case of need. (Surprisingly, perhaps, given the
summer heat and all the activity, only one veteran died during the reunion,
although eight did so afterward, en route to their homes.)

In the event, 1,359 Union veterans and 486 former
Confederates actually showed up – a total of 1,845. (Each veteran was also
accompanied by a personal attendant, usually a family member.) The youngest
veteran, at eighty-four, was Robert Tyler of Missouri, who had joined the U.S.
navy at the age of ten, and the oldest 107-year-old Charles Eldridge, of St.
Petersburg, Florida. Among them was 98-year-old James Whitecloud, a Native
American, who had fought with the 14th Kansas Cavalry, and showed up
in full tribal regalia. Also attending was Helen Longstreet, the widow of the
famous Confederate general.

Civil War veterans were no longer a significant lobby.
Indeed, the Civil War itself had taken on an almost quaint quality in public
memory, compared to the industrial slaughter of the First World War, and the
lengthening shadows of a new, even more horrific war that would soon extend
across Europe and Asia. To most Americans who were aware of the veterans at
all, the feeble nonagenarians of the Civil War had come increasingly to seem
like little more than ambulatory relics of a distant age of heroes.

Reporting on the veterans, and the 1863 battle, typically
had a tongue-in-cheek, “aren’t- these-geezers-cute” quality. Newsreel and radio
reporters, in particular, were clearly more interested in keeping things moving
than they were in eliciting detailed recollections of the vets’ experiences.
Veterans were strongly encouraged to articulate the officially approved theme
of national reconciliation, and discouraged from describing the violence
of the war itself. The truncated fragments of interviews that survive can be
tantalizing. One of the last survivors of Pickett’s charge, O.R. Gilette of
Louisiana, declared, in one newsreel, “We got about ten feet up the slope [of
Cemetery Ridge], then we had to turn, then we run, run, run like hell.” A
veteran of George Custer’s cavalry division who was present at Appomattox in
the last moments before Lee’s surrender, interviewed by the same NBC reporter
said, “We were about to charge, we had our sabers drawn, when a flag of truce
appeared…” – at which point the reporter abruptly cut him off, saying, “We
don’t have much time for all that.” In another interview, the reporter
repeatedly dissuaded a Union veteran from describing what he actually did at
Gettysburg, and repeatedly urged him to insisted that he declare how happy he
was to reune with his former enemies.

Faced with the growing threat of totalitarianism abroad,
Americans were more interested in national unity than they were in reliving old
divisions. Typically, in a sound-only radio address at Gettysburg covered by
NBC News in 1938, Overton Minette, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the
Republic (the leading Union veterans’ organization) declares, to the sound of
ceremonial cannon fire, “Let [us] be an example to the nations of the
earth…that the deepest hate can be resolved into love and tolerance.”
Following him, the Rev. John M. Claypool, the Commander-in-Chief of the United
Confederate Veterans, drawls, “I have to forgive my brother here for anything
that may have occurred between us. We can’t hold anything against each other.”

In the course of the commemoration’s four days, there
were parades, a concert by the Marine Corps band, and a performance of tactical
maneuvers by units of infantry, cavalry, field artillery, and the army’s 66th
Provisional Tank Battalion, on the battlefield. Later, forty-two warplanes
performed aerial maneuvers overhead. Solemn ceremonies were carried out at the
High Water Mark on Cemetery Ridge, including the usual ritualized handshakes
across the stone wall, followed by a band concert, and a searchlight display.

In contrast to the 1913 commemoration, the focal point of
this year’s events, was less the reunion itself than the dedication of the
Eternal Light Peace Memorial on Oak Hill, where fighting had taken place on the
first day of the battle. On July 1st, President Roosevelt arrived by
train and was driven to Oak Hill in a fifteen-car motorcade accompanied by
motorcycles and a troop of cavalry. The memorial –  an austere, square marble tower – was covered by a large American
flag. At a signal from the president, a switch was thrown and the flag dropped
into the arms of a Union veteran, a former Confederate, and two Pennsylvania
National Guardsmen. A flame was then lighted atop the monument as a tribute to
the soldiers who had fought at Gettysburg, and as a symbol of eternal peace in
the country.

Roosevelt used his platform to proclaim to both Americans
and the larger world a vision of patriotic national unity and shared
humanitarian values – embodied, he asserted, by the handshaking of the
survivors of the once opposing armies – in contrast to the war fever and racial
hatreds then seething in Europe. He was speaking to a nation that was exhausted
by the Depression, impoverished by unemployment, and facing an uncertain
future. For much of the decade, American democracy had been under assault
domestically from both the Right and the Left. In Europe, democracies were
crumbling. Italy had gone fascist. Nazi Germany had absorbed Austria, and was
about to dismember Czechoslovakia. Republican Spain had fallen to Franco’s legions.
Imperial Japan was on the march across China. Britain and France wanted peace
at any price. Americans, too, were deeply isolationist.

Roosevelt was one of the few leading Americans who saw
that a war more terrible than the last must come, and that the United States
would have a hard time escaping it. To him, what had happened at Gettysburg 75
years before was almost beside the point: the enfeebled veterans were props for
a message that underscored the urgency of national unity, if democracy was to
survive. Symbolically, the only surviving Jewish Civil War veteran, Daniel
Harris, was Roosevelt’s personal guest on the official reviewing stand. It was
a remarkable gesture of solidarity, given the widespread anti-Semitism in the
United States at the time, but it had much more to do with the politics of the
moment than it did with remembering the Civil War.

Roosevelt’s nine-minute speech was a defense of embattled
democracy at home and abroad. His words evoked Abraham Lincoln’s famous address
rather than the battle itself: “The issue which Lincoln restated on this spot
seventy-five years ago will be the continuing issue before this nation so long
as we cling to the purposes for which it was funded – to preserve under the
changing conditions of each generation a people’s government for the people’s
good… The challenge is always the same – whether each generation facing its
own circumstances can summon the practical devotion to attain and retain that
greatest good for the greatest number which this government of the people was
created to ensure.” He then underscored the urgency of maintaining national
unity in the face of threats to come, indicating the assembled veterans, “not
asking under which flag they fought then – thankful that they stand together
under one flag now.” Lincoln, said Roosevelt, understood that “a democracy
should seek peace through a new unity. For a democracy can keep alive only if
the settlement of old difficulties clears the ground and transfers energies to
face new tasks…worldwide in their perplexities, their bitterness, and their
modes of strife.”

To sustain the ideology of reconciliation among white
Americans, much had to be left unsaid. The Gettysburg reunions of 1913 and 1938
were unarguably deeply moving events. The mere presence of so many men who had
been born during the presidencies of Polk, Jackson, even Monroe served as a
multitudinous living link with the nation’s early years. The appeals to unity,
to white men’s brotherhood and shared heroism…the symbolic handshakes: these
were not empty gestures in a nation that had been torn apart within living
memory, and (despite all the hortatory rhetoric) had not yet fully healed All
the same, there were unacknowledged ghosts at the commemorations: the nearly
200,000 African American soldiers and sailors who had fought for the Union, the
millions of black Americans whose enslavement was the ultimate cause of the
war, and their living heirs, who endured the rigidly enforced segregation that
was still firmly in place in 1938.

They all went completely unmentioned, in favor of a
vaguer, safer portrayal of the war as a national “tragedy” for which no one –
certainly not the oppression of 4 million black Americans in the mid-nineteenth
century – was really responsible. No black veterans were invited to participate
in the 1913 reunion, although many blacks worked as laborers building the camp,
cooking for the vets, and performing menial services. Although a handful did
attend the 1938 gathering, they were not acknowledged in any official way, and
were not seen at the major events. (Of course, no black troops fought at
Gettysburg, but both reunions included large numbers of white veterans who had
never fought there either.)

As the historian David Blight has pointed out in Race
and Reunion
, there was widespread resistance well into the twentieth
century to admitting the roots of division in 1861, the fanaticism of the
secessionists, the moral claims of abolitionism, and – most importantly – the
fundamental problem of slavery itself. The story of the Civil War became “a
collective victory narrative,” followed by a few years of wrongheaded policy
during the Reconstruction Era. Americans had now survived their problems,
reunified, and put all bitterness behind them. “In the end, everyone was right,
no one was wrong,” and the war was a kind of mutual victory, Blight writes. “It
was a white man’s experience and a white man’s nation that the veterans and the
spectators came to celebrate.”

Both Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt collaborated
in tolerating, if not actively putting the battle of Gettysburg into the
service of this Jim Crow vision of the Civil War. Wilson was a southerner
openly committed to segregation. FDR, a New Yorker, was not antiblack, but he
was – like Wilson – a Democrat, and politically dependent on the support of
violently segregationist southern congressmen and governors, who were hostile
to any acknowledgment of African-American civil rights. With Africans and
slavery airbrushed from the grand national panorama of reconciliation, in both
1913 and 1938, the battlefield essentially became a giant stage set for an epic
fictional performance with a cast of thousands, who were drafted to represent a
vision of the Civil War as Americans of the Jim Crow era wished to see it.

 

 



This post first appeared on Fergus Bordewich: The Imperfect Union, please read the originial post: here

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