Between 1861 and 1865 thousands of farm fields and otherwise unknown villages in the U.S. were quickly turned into vast fields of carnage. In the decades after the surrender at Appomattox, Union and Confederate veterans undertook unprecedented efforts to preserve the war’s battlefields, including Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Antietam, Shiloh, Vicksburg and Gettysburg. Battlefield preservation was vital to healing the war-torn nation and reinforced reconciliation between the North and South. Americans created a memory of the Civil War that heralded the efforts of the Union and Confederate soldiers on the battlefields. Too often, however, the desire to find common ground in honoring the war’s soldiers encouraged many Americans to downplay the issue of slavery and dismiss the plight of millions of freed men in an increasingly hostile era of Jim Crow and segregation.
Battlefield preservation and commemorative activities, specifically monument dedications and reunions, advanced a desire for unity. The Battle of Gettysburg, considered to be the war’s defining moment, would become the pre-eminent site of reconciliation and commemoration.
At Gettysburg, commemoration activities followed in two phases. The first phase began in 1863, with the establishment of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery and concluded with the last grand reunion of the battle’s veterans in July 1938. The second phase began when the war department transferred the administration of Gettysburg and its other holdings to the National Park Service in 1938.
Commemoration: 1863 to 1938
Nearly 10,000 soldiers were killed at Gettysburg and the burden of their burial often fell on the local citizens. David Wills, a local attorney, purchased twelve acres of land along Cemetery Hill on behalf of the state of Pennsylvania for the establishment of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. On November 19, 1863, President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the cemetery, offering a “final resting place” for the Federal dead.
At the same time, efforts to preserve the battlefield were underway. On April 30, 1864, Pennsylvania chartered the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association (GBMA), the Civil War’s first preservation organization. By the early 1890s, the association had acquired approximately 522 acres, placed more than 300 monuments and constructed miles of tour roads.
In 1895 the GBMA formally deeded its holdings to the War Department establishing Gettysburg National Military Park. The Secretary of War appointed three park commissioners, two Union veterans and one Confederate veteran to administer the park’s operations. The veterans managed the battlefield with two primary objectives: preservation of the historic fields and creation of a landscape memorial to their comrades. Union veterans were eager to memorialize Gettysburg, but southerners initially showed little interest in commemorating their defeat. By the 1880s, however, northerners and southerners looked to put the war behind them, and reconciliation permeated commemoration activities at Gettysburg throughout the 20th century.
Commemorative highlights of this era included the 1913 and 1938 reunions. In 1913, the 50th anniversary of the battle was proclaimed a “Peace Jubilee.” On July 1, approximately 42,000 veterans were encamped on the battlefield. On the afternoon of July 3, approximately 150 survivors of General George Pickett’s Division, unfurled their battle flags and marched across the fields to The Angle at Cemetery Ridge where they were greeted by handshakes from veterans of Pennsylvania’s Philadelphia Brigade. Befitting of the reconciliation spirit, on July 4, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed, “We have found one another as brothers and comrades, in arms, enemies no longer,” even as Jim Crow laws and lynching held sway in the South.
Twenty-five years later, in the darkest days of the Great Depression, the eyes of the nation again turned to the Pennsylvania battlefield. In July 1938, more than 1,800 veterans attended the week-long festivities for the Battle of Gettysburg’s 75th anniversary. The hallmark event of the commemoration was the dedication of the Eternal Peace Light Memorial on July 3. Etched into the monument are two women, symbolizing unity between the North and South with the inscription “Peace Eternal In A Nation United” at the base of the monument. Before thousands, President Franklin Roosevelt declared, “Immortal deeds and immortal words have created here at Gettysburg a shrine of American patriotism.” At the close of Roosevelt’s speech, a Union and Confederate veteran unveiled the monument and ignited the flame, which still burns today.
Commemoration: 1938 to the present
In August 1933, the War Department transferred the administration of Gettysburg and its other holdings to the National Park Service. This transition paralleled the passing of the war’s veterans and initiated a new era in Civil War commemoration.
The centennial celebrations of 1961-1965, a time of intense discord with antiwar and civil rights agitation in America, emphasized national unity and a more romantic version of the war, as reflected in the centennial’s theme of “A Nation United.” Highlights of the 100th anniversary included a “Strength Through Unity” parade and a “Reunion at the High Water Mark.”
The nation’s bicentennial celebrations in 1976 showcased Gettysburg’s role in defining American history. In July, festivities were marketed to commemorate both the “200th Anniversary of Our Glorious Nation and the 113th Anniversary of the Battle That Saved Our Nation.” During the summer, patriotic plays and vignettes were performed on the battlefield, including “The People of ‘76.” On July 3, the Peace Light was rekindled to symbolically bridge the commemorative activities of previous generations with those in 1976.
Commemoration at Gettysburg displayed a sense of continuity between the veteran’s era and modern festivities. Though early commemorations focused on honoring the Union soldiers, the 1913 and 1938 reunions and the centennial celebrations transformed the Gettysburg battlefield into a landscape honoring both sides.
Over the past century commemoration activities at Gettysburg have carefully molded the battlefield into a memorial to American history, culture and a “shrine of American patriotism.” Commemoration was more than a simple act of erecting a monument or placing a wreath on a gravestone. Commemorative activities around the country, especially at Gettysburg, helped create an inspiring memory of the Civil War that most Americans were proud of. Yet the war’s racial legacy remained a neglected issue of the celebrations.
The commemorative activities slated for the Civil War’s sesquicentennial (2011-2015) represent a new opportunity to honor the valor and bravery of men and women and remember our shared history. It also presents an occasion to recall the struggle for equality that has marked American history and continues to challenge the nation.