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Gettysburg: The Semicentennial

This year marks the 159th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, fought the from the 1st to the 3rd of July 1863. It was considered the most important engagement of the Civil War and quite possibly changed the course of American history.

Across the stone wall, which marked the boundaries of the famous "Bloody Angle" where Pickett lost over 3,000 men from a force of 6,000, these old soldiers of the North and South clasped hands in fraternal affection

After the war, numerous small Gettysburg reunions were held. In April 1908, Brigadier General Henry S. Huidekoper of the 150th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, a Philadelphia native who lost his right arm at Gettysburg in 1863, proposed the idea of a 50th anniversary reunion to then Pennsylvania Governor Edwin S. Stuart. In January 1909, Governor Stuart presented the idea to the state's General Assembly, envisioning a reunion of Union and Confederate soldiers that would be talked about for years to come. "Other States, both north and south, whose sons fought at Gettysburg, will surely co-operate in making the occasion one that will stand foremost in the martial history of the world," he said. On 13 May 1909 the Pennsylvania Assembly created the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg Commission. The Commission planned a four-day series of events, taking place from 1 July to 4 July.


John K. Tener, a former major league baseball player who succeeded Stuart as Pennsylvania Governor in 1911, oversaw most of the planning for the reunion. The Commission called upon the National Government and individual states to appropriate funds for travel to and from Gettysburg, predominantly by rail. With assistance from the War Department, the Commission helped prepare Gettysburg, a town of 4,500, for the 100,000 visitors, about half of them non-veterans, who were expected to attend the reunion.


On 13 April 1913, the Pennsylvania commission completed the Pennsylvania State Memorial by adding the statues on each side of the arches. The monument was initially dedicated on 27 September 1910. It is the largest monument on the Gettysburg battlefield and has the names of over 34,000 Pennsylvanians who participated in the battle.

The State of Pennsylvania Monument

Over 40,000 invitations were mailed to veterans. All honorably discharged veterans in the Grand Army of the Republic and the United Confederate Veterans were invited.


On 28 June, President Woodrow Wilson notified the Pennsylvania commission he would attend the reunion for a "very limited period". He had initially declined the invitation, having established a personal rule not to leave Washington for any speechmaking occasion while Congress was in session.


The War Department's "Great Camp" provided tents and support facilities for the Civil War veterans. After the state health department's Chief Engineer had estimated Gettysburg would be inundated with approximately 100,000 people, the borough agreed to the Commissioner of Health's request for his department to take over medical and sanitation efforts in the area from 25 June to 25 July.


The old veterans could not wait to come. Roads ran thick with automobiles and horse buggies. Most arrived on the nation’s sprawling rails. A few walked more than 100 miles. An 85 year old man, fearing that his son would prevent him from going, crawled out a window and caught a train.


Anticipating that some veterans might arrive early, especially those traveling distances, the Great Camp was opened for supper on 29 June. Pennsylvania veterans who had attended the state reunion, which had adjourned on 28 June, made up most of the more than 25,000 arrivals that day. Among the early arrivals was Major Gen. Daniel E. Sickles, the only surviving corps commander on either side. Other veterans arriving early included two Confederate veterans of Culp's Hill, who had arrived on 26 June. Captain McCaskey of the Quartermasters Corps had estimated 6,000 men might arrive on 29 June and for a time struggled with severe shortages of food and supplies. Some veterans left without staying another night.


By 1 July, the veterans and tourists had transformed Gettysburg into the third largest city in Pennsylvania.


One of the veterans who attended the reunion was 79 year old John F. Schoener (read about him here). He had not participated in the Battle of Gettysburg, but was an officer in the 14th and 55th Pennsylvania Volunteers where he had fought in the Carolinas and Georgia.

From the front page of the "Harrisburg Telegraph", 1 July 1913: "Governor Tener greeting Major John F. Schoener"

The tented villages in which the veterans would live during the event covered an area of 193 acres and were organized by state. However, the tents were assigned based upon where the veterans currently lived, not by the state they had served with during the war. Besides the tents that housed the veterans, there were 87 field hospital and infirmary tents, 30 bakery tents, and numerous kitchen and storage tents. The equipment for the veterans' sleeping tents included 41,640 cots, 40,000 blankets, 10,000 wash basins, 11,350 candle-burning lanterns, 60,000 wax candles and 6,000 galvanized iron drinking buckets. Most of the 50,000 non-veterans who traveled to Gettysburg to share in the celebration were housed at Gettysburg College.


Cooks served 688,000 meals from 29 June to 6 July. The Great Camp was stocked with 156,410 pounds of meat, 14,722 pounds of fowl, 7,008 cans of fish, 24,930 dozen eggs, 12,383 pounds of butter, and 403 gallons of pickles, among many other provisions. The dessert menu included 2,015 gallons of ice cream and 7,000 pies. Unused meat and vegetables were sold at auction after the camp closed. Fifty-four thousand mess kits were provided to the veterans as souvenirs. Each mess kit contained a fork, knife, small and large spoon, tin cup, and two plates.


In the mornings, after the rations of bacon and eggs and coffee, "fruit in season," and fresh bread and butter were disposed of, the inspection of the battlefield and the retelling of the story of Gettysburg began.


Public exercises were held in the Great Tent, equipped with 13,000 chairs, inside the camp. Colonel J.M. Schoonmaker, the chairman of the Pennsylvania Commission, opened the ceremonies on 1 July at 2 p.m. Lindley Garrison, the U.S. Secretary of War was the day’s keynote speaker. Like President Woodrow Wilson, who had appointed him, Garrison had no military experience himself. Still he felt qualified to pontificate grandly. "Fifty years ago today, there began here one of those conflicts between man and man, marked by such exhibitions of valor, courage, and almost superhuman endurance as to engrave itself upon the tablet of history," he intoned. "Equal met equal, and in the domain of physical prowess all were worthy of medals of honor." Garrison also contended that the veterans had put the past far behind them, claiming that "the last embers of the former time have been stamped out."


In speech after speech, bankers, congressmen, and governors proclaimed that there existed a collective, patriotic, unifying amnesia. Notably, relatively few veterans listened to any of it. Heads of state implored veterans to forget, when they could not. "The arrival of the Secretary of War," a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer observed, "stirred but passing interest in the hearts of the men … the vast majority [of veterans] spent the day out on the familiar old battlefield, in the tents of their comrades, or looking for the spots they occupied fifty years ago."


Throughout the next two days, the orations continued, placing veterans on pedestals. On the 4th, President Wilson arrived and delivered yet another ingratiating tribute to warriors and warfare. In a brief and stilted address, Wilson insisted "We are made by these tragic, epic things to know what it costs to make a nation—the blood and sacrifice of multitudes of unknown men …" Once again, few veterans were in attendance. Those who were present generally expressed disappointment. "President Wilson failed to stir the heart of the veterans," observed one reporter, "not once was he interrupted by a handclap or a cheer." Wilson departed after spending a mere 45 minutes at the event. At least he had made an appearance; former President William H. Taft and Chief Justice Edward White reneged on their invitations.


When they were not taking in the scheduled public exercises at the reunion, veterans spent their time in Gettysburg reminiscing with friends and getting to know former foes. It was common for a veteran to seek out a man who may have shot him or exchange medals with a soldier from the other side. Two veterans reportedly purchased a hatchet at a local hardware store, walked it to the site where their regiments fought and buried it.


The vast majority of the old soldiers spent their time at Gettysburg seeking something else: proof of life and a chance to heal. For half a century, survivors of the nation’s deadliest war struggled with memories of combat, the loss of comrades to bullets and disease, recurring nightmares, and lingering visions of killing fellow humans. Just as crippling was the loneliness. As supportive as family and friends could be, veterans needed other veterans to talk to, and their numbers were dwindling. An aging James Vernon, formerly a young lad in the 18th Virginia Infantry Regiment, said of warfare, “Those who were not there can form no idea of it.”


Temperatures climbed into the triple digits on the first few days of the reunion. According to a report by the U.S. Army’s Chief Surgeon, 744 cases were admitted to the camp’s hospitals, and 319 of those were for heat exhaustion (sunstroke and tonsillitis each accounted for one case). There were nine fatalities during the reunion, but considering that the average age of the veterans present was 72 and that most had traveled hundreds of miles to attend, it was a wonder that number the number was not greater. In the post-reunion report by the Pennsylvania Commission the number of fatalities was declared as "nothing short of marvelous."


From Ken Burns' "The Civil War" series:

The 50th Anniversary gathering of 53,407 veterans, of which 15.3% (8,174) were Confederate, was the largest Civil War veteran reunion ever. Of the 48 States that existed at the time, all but Nevada and Wyoming were represented.


A 75th anniversary reunion was held in 1938, but most Civil War veterans had passed away by then. Only about 25 veterans who had fought at Gettysburg and 2,000 other veterans attended.


Have a safe and Happy 4th of July!


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