Rare Motion Pictures Show Civil War Veterans at the 75th Gettysburg Battle Anniversary Reunion

Union veteran (1862 enlistee) William Henry Jackson at the Gettysburg 75th anniversary reunion in 1938. Jackson was one of the last surviving Civil War veterans when he died in 1942 at age 99. National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection.

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.

Comments

Bob - Thanks for bringing us these old films. I wasn't expecting the goosebumps and tears that the second one brought.
Seeing these old soldiers and imagining what horrors they had lived through, and seeing them make the extraordinary effort to attend and shake hands with men who had once been their mortal enemies, make one forget for a few moments the stresses of today.
This is a great example of the best kind of use of the internet.

Simply awesome! Most touching since this being the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth. Thanks for sharing the precious films clips

To bad we don't do the same for our vets today. Very moving

Thanks for the write-up of Gettysburg and the video footage. I remember visiting the battlefield as a kid and even then it moved me tremendously. Of course playing on Big and Little Roundtop was also a lot of fun. Went back as an adult and the effect was the same.

What happened at Gettysburg can be described as history, re-enacted, and even made into a Hollywood movie or two. If it's not the most important event in our nations history, it ranks up there. Thanks for reminding us that real people were actually there when it all happened.

Bob -

A fascinating piece of history that stemmed from an even larger historical event. Thanks for making us aware of this.

Short, but very moving. Having been to Gettysburg and several of the other War Between the States battlefields (which by the way are disapearing at an alarming rate due to urban sprawl) and stood where the battlelines were formed on Cemetary Ridge, and tried to imagine..... And stood above looking down into Devil's Den and hearing the voices....and wondering how we could ever forget....

And now our World War II veterns are dying by the thousands every year as they reach their 80's and 90's. Then will come our Korean and Viet Nam vets as they move up the ladder...

Please do as I do, when you see a vetern - anywhere, anytime - walk up to them, shake their hand and thank them sincerely for their service to their country.

And stop by Arlington Cemetary sometime...and look at the thousands and thousands of white tombstones marching in perfect formation onto the horizion....and try not to be permanently touched...

The handshake is a good suggestion, Franz; I can attest to the worth of it from personal experience. Let me make an additional suggestion. If it isn't feasible to stop and thank the uniformed military personnel you see, say a soldier hurrying past you in an airport terminal, just salute him/her by placing your hand over your heart. You'll see a lot of smiles.

Great pictures/videos, can't wait to see more!!! ;]

My son is now serving our Country via the US Army, I am so proud of him and the desire to "fight for our freedom". I have always admired and appreciated all the men and woman that have served our country's fight for freedom, saluting a soldier, standing at attention when they pass by, smiling to them...are all little gestures of my appreciation for their service. WE ALL need to do this, no matter where we live, what we believe in. Showing our support and appreciation is the LEAST that we can do.

When next you see your son, Stephanie, please thank him on my behalf for his service to our country. I heartily endorse all of those gestures of respect and support you've listed. They help us to remember and appreciate that freedom is not free.

These old film clips are most touching that it moves the human soul. Now, that we have a black President...makes it even more touching.

I have a picture of a veteran at the 1938 reunion which I attended at Gettysburg, I was 8 years old and would like to see if there is a list of veterans that attended, to see if the name on the picture is right. How could I get copy of the veterans that were there?

John, I hate that I can't be more help, but I'm afraid that I'm way out of my depth on this one. Perhaps one of the Civil War buffs who read these posts can help us out. I do hope that the information you need is archived somewhere.

Hi John,

I would try contacting the park directly, either by phone or email. They have a huge archives that includes documents related to the history of the park as well as the battle itself. I'm sure that they would have a program or some other document from the 1938 reunion that would have a list of attendees.

The park phone number is 717-334-1124 or you can send a form email at the park web site www.nps.gov/gett

Good luck!

is it not amazing that after all these years that tears still fall over this war

I have and continue to enjoy my trips to Gettysburg. I hope that the Park Service will once again display the incredible collection of photographs of these reunion as they once did in the old visitors center. There is no place more moving to me than Gettysburg National Military Park. Thanks for this well done page.

My husband, a Vietnam veteran of three tours, has always been fascinated and moved by anything regarding the Civil War. Our trip several years ago to Gettysburg had him speechless with awe and a deep sense of discovery (something that is unusual for him!). We hope to get back there soon. Thank you to whoever posted these wonderful old films of the Civil War veterans~~~~one day, there will only be a handful of Vietnam vets left, too. Will people become teary-eyed over them? Time will tell, I guess. Blessings to all!

Hello, Can anyone tell me if there were any Gettysburg gatherings in the late 1860's with the North and South? Parades? Reunions. Thank you, Bill

I would have loved to been there!

My great-great grandfather was here at the 1938 reunion. John Printer Meade from Printer, Floyd County, KY. He fought at Gettysburg. I thought I saw him in the video. This is wonderful footage.

My Great-grandfather fought with Illinois and attended the 75th with my Mother. Where would I find his name there?

Such a list does exist. It was first published in volume IV (4) of Pennsylvania at Gettysburg and then later by one of the men who began the plans for the 1938 reunion, Paul Roy. I have copies of both. So if you send me the name I will be thrilled to look it up for you!

Sue

Wow!

I work for the Department of Veterans Affairs. I had a really rough day today....I am a former Marine and combat veteran. I don't think I have room to complain, but be thankful for the veterans I serve every day. It's humbling to see these men who never received anything for their torment. I reluctantly accept anything I get with humility. I have seen men with lost limbs and less than....never mind. It's my job and duty to our American veterans to get the quality care they deserve. My duty will end with my death. No greater love hath a man than this, to lay down his life for his brother, quote from Jesus Christ my Lord and Saviour.
Fmr. Marine

It's not likely. The Veitnam Veterans of this country are getting older now. I have seen them pass a lot. I work for the VA and my heart is touched by every single veteran in need, we do what we can to help and have fought battles to improve the quality of care for them (red tape, nonsence). I am a part of that organization, the Local AFGE 2401. We are doing are part, Marines never give up, we only hold our ground and win, nothing less will do. I'm in the mix, this is my life's mission, to care for the veteran. I took an oath to serve the veteran and I will give my life to defend their honor for their sacrifice. A Fmr. Marine Infantry 3/4

[This comment was edited to remove a gratuitous remark. Ed.]

How many people who look at this will realize that William Henry Jackson, shown in the first photo, is the man who accompanied the Washburn expedition into Yellowstone and took the photographs that helped make Yellowstone the world's first national park?

Besides Yellowstone, Jackson was a prolific photographer of literally thousands of other parts of the American west. He was apparently a man who never sat still and hauled his wet-plate cameras to places that would be nearly impossible even today with our tiny digital cameras.

So not only did he fight to keep the nation whole, he worked tirelessly to document it as it was before the coming of the rest of us.

I was 1 year old at the time of the reunion. It's eerie.

"That's the rebel yell!" =D

I feel very honored to see the video of the men of the Blue and Grey. My great grandfather also fought at Gettysburg he was with the 28th Reg Co.d PA VIP.

My father attended this 75th and final reunion of the Blue and Gray as an escort (a 24 year old member of the Pennsylvania National Guard.) We have an actual program from this event in his memory box. It's sad that I only appreciated the signifigance of his stories about this after he passed away a number of years ago. I do remember being fascinated by the fact that he held conversations with actual participants from this conflict. God bless all those who have fought for our country, and hopefully we will be able to understand that, even with all our faults, we remain the greatest place on Earth! Happy Memorial Day-2012.

Does any one remember the last Civil War Veterans that sat on the inauguration platform of President Eisenhower or Kennedy? Any info would be appreciated. May they all rest in peace.

Thanks so much for posting these videos. My great great grandfather was in Company F 71st Pennsylvania, and fought at the Bloody Angle. his name was James Allen and his name is on the plaque at Gettysburg.

I couldn't find a name of any CW soldiers being at inaugurations but the last possible one would have been for Eisenhower. The last Union soldier died in 1956 and the last Confederate died in 58.