Gettysburg National Military Park celebrates its 114th on February 11, but it was the battle anniversaries that interested the men who actually fought in battle. In 1938, the 75th anniversary of the battle, motion picture crews filmed the aged veterans as they gathered for their final reunion on the battlefield. There’s some amazing film footage on the Internet.
In the immediate aftermath of the biggest and bloodiest battle of the Civil War -- the July 1-3, 1863, Battle of Gettysburg that produced 51,000 casualties and a key Union victory – few survivors were interested in revisiting the scene of the carnage. With the passage of years, however, a good deal of interest in veterans reunions emerged.
Many veterans reunions took place at Gettysburg. At first these reunions were only for veterans who took part in the epic battle. Later, when fewer Civil War veterans remained alive, the Gettysburg reunions were for any and all Civil War veterans. The reunions held in 1878, 1913, and 1938 are especially noteworthy, being larger in scale and marking “touchstone” battle anniversaries.
15th Anniversary Reunion
The first of Gettysburg’s three larger, more heavily publicized veterans reunions was held in1878 on the 15th anniversary of the battle. It was strictly a Grand Army of the Republic affair, and it isn’t hard to appreciate why Confederate veterans weren’t on the scene. Only 15 years after the cessation of hostilities, the North and South were still divided in spirit even if not in fact. The burden of recent defeat still lay heavily on the South. Reconstruction had been a protracted humiliating experience, and some southern locales still hosted Federal occupying troops. (Here in South Carolina where I live, the last Reconstruction-era Federal troops didn’t leave until 1879.)
50th Anniversary Reunion
The largest of all the veterans reunions, a gathering that drew more than 50,000 Union and Confederate veterans, took place in 1913 on the 50th anniversary of the battle. The passage of half a century had tempered regional animosities a good deal and the surviving veterans on both sides felt a sense of kinship – the Brotherhood of Battle, as it were. There were still plenty of veterans around, too. Though getting on in years, some Civil War veterans were still in their early sixties and the youngest was said to be 61.
The reunion gave the veterans a chance to visit the battlefield hotspots of their memories, swap stories and souvenirs, and do the myriad little things that make battlefield reunions so special to the surviving veterans. There were plenty of programmed activities, of course, including speeches, reenactments, ritual expressions of friendship between Union and Confederate veterans, and ceremonies at battlefield monuments and markers.
Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the huge 50th anniversary reunion was the “Great Camp,” the 280-acre encampment that was set up to accommodate the hordes of veterans on hand. Each veteran was assigned a cot in a tent sleeping eight men. The thousands of tents set up for the Great Camp created nearly 48 miles of avenues and company streets. (What a sight that was!). Hot meals were provided from173 field kitchens.
75th Anniversary Reunion
The years following the 1913 reunion took a very heavy toll on the ranks of the remaining Civil War veterans. By 1938, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, records indicated that their numbers had dwindled to somewhere in the neighborhood of 8,000 to 11,000. Given that the youngest of the Civil War vets were in their late 80s, it’s a wonder that nearly 2,000 attended the reunion that was held at the battlefield from June 29 to July 6, 1938. It’s thought that fewer than 70 of the attendees had actually been present at Gettysburg during the battle.
This final major reunion of Civil War vets didn’t have the aura of spectacle that prevailed at the 50th anniversary reunion. You just couldn’t do a lot of physically taxing things with elderly gents (average age 94) who had “lost the pep in their step.” In fact, many were no longer ambulatory and some even arrived in Gettysburg on stretchers.
Most of what transpired at this last reunion was ceremonial in nature and arranged for the tens of thousands of spectators -– a wheelchair-prominent parade of veterans (of all wars), a military flyover, that sort of thing. The big event was the dedication of the Eternal Light Peace Memorial (on Oak Hill), a ceremony highlighted by President Franklin Roosevelt’s speech and a joint Union/Confederate undraping of the memorial and lighting of its eternal flame.
A sense of closure or finality pervaded the 1938 reunion. Everyone realized that the advanced age and frailty of the veterans would make further reunions of any decent size impractical, and that most of the old vets would soon be dead.
The academicians and media representatives on hand were primed to take advantage of the grand opportunity this final reunion presented. Historians and ethnologists gathered oral histories. Journalists conducted interviews. Photographers took scads of black and white stills. And much to the delight of generations to follow, cinematographers were on the scene to take motion pictures (some with sound).
You Can Step Back in Time
Do you want to step back to a time when Civil War veterans were still alive and sharing their stories?
If so, check out the following video and see what is probably the most interesting of all the Civil War veteran movie clips. It shows Union and Confederate veterans shaking hands over the stone wall at the Bloody Angle on Cemetery Ridge, the place that marked the crest of Pickett’s Charge and the High Tide of the Confederacy. Several Confederates spice up the occasion by rendering their version of the “rebel yell.” (This is apparently the only authentic audio recording of a Confederate veteran rendering this battle cry on a Civil War battlefield.)
There’s more archival film footage, but I especially like the well-edited montage of digitally enhanced archival motion picture footage of the 1938 reunion that you can view below.