Pilgrim Places: Civil War Battlefields, Historic Preservation, and America’s First National Military Parks, 1863-1900, Part IV

Editor's note: In part four of his look at the history and preservation of America's Civil War battlefields, as captured in Pilgrim Places: Civil War Battlefields, Historic Preservation, and America’s First National Military Parks, 1863-1900, historian Richard West Sellars examines the growing interest in reconciliation and reunions, as well as the increase in veterans' interest. (You can purchase the entire article, complete with footnotes and photographs, from Eastern National).

Pilgrim Places: Civil War Battlefields, Historic Preservation, and America’s First National Military Parks, 1863-1900

By Richard West Sellars

Part IV: Reunions, Reconciliation, and Veterans’ Interest in Military Parks

Once the national cemeteries were established, they were effectively the only areas of the battlefields in a condition adequate to receive the public in any numbers, and they became the focal points for official ceremonies and other formal acts of remembrance. Most widely observed was Decoration Day, begun at about the end of the war in response to the massive loss of life suffered during the four-year conflict. Known in the South as Confederate Decoration Day (and ultimately, nationwide, as Memorial Day), this special time of remembrance came to be regularly observed on battlefields and in cities and towns throughout the North and South.

As remembrance ceremonies spread across the United States and as battlefield tourism grew in the years after the war, another type of gathering also gradually got under way: the veterans’ reunions. Usually held on the anniversary of a particular battle, or on Decoration Day, these reunions began early on in communities around the country. They were initiated by local or state veterans’ groups, or by larger, more broadly based veterans’ associations that formed after the war in both Northern and Southern states.

Chief among many such associations in the North was the Grand Army of the Republic, founded in 1866 in Illinois. Aided by, but sometimes in competition with, other Union veterans’ organizations, such as the Society for the Army of the Tennessee and the Society for the Army of the Potomac, the Grand Army did not reach its period of greatest influence until the late 1870s. Due mainly to extremely difficult conditions in the postwar South, Confederate veterans organized more slowly —for instance, the establishment of the Association of the Army of Northern Virginia occurred in 1870, five years after the war.

Others followed, including the United Confederate Veterans, established in 1889 and ultimately becoming
the most influential Southern veterans’ association. These organizations were supported by a number of women’s patriotic groups, such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy and, in the North, the Woman’s Relief Corps.

Gettysburg, much as it did with national cemeteries and other commemorative efforts, played a leading role in the emergence of veterans’ reunions on the battlefields. For some time after the war, few reunions were held on any battlefield, given the vivid recollections of bloodletting, the veterans’ need to re-establish their lives and improve their fortunes, and the expense and logistics of traveling across ountry to out-of-the-way battle sites.

In the summer of 1869, the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association hosted a well-attended reunion of officers of the Army of the Potomac. Yet, reunions held at the battlefield in the early and mid-1870s, and open to Union veterans of any rank, attracted few. More successful was a reunion in 1878 sponsored by the Grand Army of the Republic.

Two years later, the Grand Army gained political control of the Memorial Association, giving the Gettysburg organization a much stronger national base. The Memorial Association then began promoting annual reunions, including successful week-long gatherings on the battlefield between 1880 and 1894. These reunions included huge encampments: tenting again on the battlefield, with camaraderie such as songfests, patriotic speeches, renewal of friendships, and much reminiscing—war stories told and retold.

The growing attendance at reunions in the 1880s increased interest in transforming Gettysburg into a fully developed military park, much as had been envisioned in the 1864 charter of the Memorial Association. Such features as monuments, avenues, and fences were to be located at, or near, key Union battle positions. By the end of the 1870s, however, little development had taken place, and the purchase of major sites by the Memorial Association had proceeded very slowly. But by the mid-1880s, with the 25th anniversary of the battle approaching, and with the Grand Army of the Republic’s backing, the Memorial Association was re-energized and revived its original concept of a monumented battlefield. It encouraged new monuments to commemorate prominent officers and the many army units that fought at Gettysburg, as well as each of the Northern states whose men made up those units.

Memorialization on the battlefield escalated during the last half of the decade. For example, in 1888, the 25th anniversary year, the veterans dedicated almost 100 regimental monuments. The decision to allow large numbers of monuments and markers at Gettysburg stands as a landmark in that it set a precedent for extensive memorialization in the other early military parks. In addition, by the 1890s, with greatly improved transportation and expanded middle-class leisure travel, Gettysburg Battlefield had become one of America’s first nationwide historic destination sites for tourists.24 In retrospect at least, the crush of tourism and entertainment attractions that flooded into the Gettysburg area in the years after the war demonstrated a need for a protected park to prevent the onslaught of economic development from overwhelming a historic shrine.

At Gettysburg, the connections that had developed between tourism and the historic battlefield foreshadowed similar relationships that would be a continuous and important factor in many future historic preservation endeavors, both public and private. Surely during the Civil War, the vast majority of soldiers at Gettysburg and elsewhere were strangers on the land—recent arrivals to the different scenes of battle and unfamiliar with the overall landscapes in which they were fighting, except perhaps during extended sieges. In most instances they had lived hundreds of miles away, had rarely traveled, and were geographically unlearned— thus many would have been disoriented beyond their most immediate surroundings, a situation almost certainly exacerbated by the confusion of battle.

And most soldiers were moved quickly out of an area and on toward other engagements. The creating, studying, and marking of a battlefield park should therefore be viewed as not only a commemorative effort, but also as an attempt to impose order on the past, on landscapes of conflict and confusion —a means of enabling veterans of a battle, students of military affairs, and the American public to comprehend the overall sweep of combat, and the strategies and tactics involved.

Accurate placement of monuments, markers, and tablets required thorough historical research and mapping of a battleground, which was no easy task. The leading historian at Gettysburg was John Bachelder, an artist and illustrator who had closely studied earlier battles and arrived at Gettysburg only a few days after the fighting concluded. Bachelder’s in-depth investigation of the battle area extended over a period of 31 years, until his death in 1894. In the process, he used his accumulating knowledge to prepare educational guidebooks and troop-movement maps to sell to the visiting public. In 1880, his intensive research and mapping of the battlefield benefited from a congressional appropriation of $50,000 to determine historically accurate locations of principal troop positions and movements during the battle, which encompassed extensive terrain. Similar to what would be done at other battlefields, this survey was carried on in collaboration with hundreds of veterans and other interested individuals.

Their research directly influenced the positioning of monuments, markers, and tablets, and the routing of avenues for public access to the principal sites and their monuments. Historical accuracy was of great importance; and, not infrequently, veterans hotly disputed field research conclusions. Shiloh, for example, experienced a number of protracted, highly contentious arguments over the positioning of monuments and tablets. Two Iowa units even disagreed over what time of day they had occupied certain terrain on the battleground—the time, to be inscribed on the monuments, being a matter of status and pride to the units’ veterans. This dispute lasted several years and involved appeals to the secretary of war before a settlement was finally reached.

Similar disputes occurred at the other battlefield parks. At Gettysburg, the positioning of one monument was litigated all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court: In 1891, the Court ruled against the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, granting the 72nd Pennsylvania Infantry the right to place its monument in a front-line position, where its veterans insisted they should be honored for their role in confronting Pickett’s Charge on the climactic day of the battle.

Significantly, during the 1880s the South gradually became involved in commemoration at Gettysburg. As initially practiced at the battlefield, the marking and preserving of only Union positions presented a one-sided view of what took place there, confusing anyone not familiar with the shifting and complex three-day struggle and the unmarked positions of Confederate troops. The Memorial Association, firmly dedicated to commemorating the Union army’s victory at Gettysburg, did little to encourage participation by former Rebels until about two decades after the battle.

Four ex-Confederate officers, including General Robert E. Lee, were, however, invited to attend the 1869 Union officers’ reunion at Gettysburg and advise on the location of Southern battle positions. Lee declined the invitation; and with minimal Southern involvement no sustained effort to commemorate the Southern army ensued.

Beginning in the early 1880s, what became known as Blue-Gray reunions were held on battlefields and in cities and towns around the country, bringing Union veterans into periodic social contact with their former adversaries from the South. Southern participation in the Gettysburg reunions increased considerably during this decade. At the 1888 reunion marking the 25th anniversary of the battle, both sides collaborated in a re-enactment of Pickett’s Charge (one of the earliest in an amazing succession of remembrance rituals at the site of this renowned Civil War engagement).

The former Confederate troops made their way in carriages across the open field toward Union veterans waiting near the stone wall and the Copse of Trees that marked the climax of the Southern charge. The cheering and handshaking when they met reflected the ongoing reconciliation between Northern and Southern veterans. Yet, the gathering at the Copse of Trees reflected more than just reconciliation among veterans. Across the country, attitudes in both North and South were shifting from the bitterness and hatred of war and the postwar Reconstruction period toward a reconciliation between the white populations of the two sections. The existence of slavery in the South had been a malignant, festering sore for the nation, and the most fundamentally divisive issue between the North and South as they edged toward war. Yet, as the war receded into the past, the North relented, opening the way for the end of Reconstruction and the move toward reconciliation.

In so doing, white Northerners revealed a widespread (but not universal) indifference to racial concerns, and they abandoned the African American population in the South to the mercy of those who had only recently held them as slaves. This situation opened the way for intensified discrimination against, and subjugation of, recently freed black citizens of the United States. In the midst of such fateful developments, the North-South rapprochement fostered a return to the battlefields by both Union and Confederate veterans—an echo of the past, but this time for remembrance and reconciliation, not combat.

The Blue-Gray reunions, with the co-mingling of one-time foes who were becoming increasingly cordial, moved Southerners toward the idea of battlefield preservation and development. Proud of its military exploits against the more powerful North, the former Confederacy exalted the glory, heroism, and sacrifice of its soldiers on the battlefields. Yet glory, heroism, and sacrifice were dear to Northerners as well, and this they could share with Southerners in their memories of the Civil War while avoiding the moral and ideological questions associated with slavery, the war, and postwar human rights. Thus, after considerable controversy, including angry opposition from some Northern veterans, the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association approved proposals to erect two Confederate monuments of modest size: one in 1886, on Culp’s Hill; and another in 1887, near the apex of Pickett’s Charge—a highly significant location.

These were the only Southern monuments erected on the battlefield before the end of the century, even though in 1889 the Memorial Association stated its intention to buy lands on which the Confederate army
had been positioned, and to erect more monuments to mark important sites along Southern battle lines.
Although it lost the battle and the war in its attempt to split the United States into two nations, the South was gradually being accepted by Northerners as worthy of honor in recognition of the heroism and sacrifice of its troops at Gettysburg. The huge 50th anniversary reunion held on the battlefield in 1913 would become a landmark of reconciliation between North and South, but the urge toward reconciliation had been clearly evident at Gettysburg three decades earlier.

Next week: The African American Role