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Pennsylvania Civil War 150

Pennsylvania Civil War 150

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Gettysburg Veterans

Making Peace on the Gettysburg Battlefield, Fifty Years Later

For six frenetic days in 1913, from Sunday, June 29, through Saturday, July 4, two armies - fifty-four thousand strong combined - invaded Gettysburg for a second time. They fought the first time a half century earlier, July 1–3, 1863, and were looking forward, admittedly many anxiously, to facing each other again. It wasn't a fight they anticipated at the second meeting, though; it was to be a time of remembrance, reflection, and resolution.

The idea for such a grand event originated with Henry Shippen Huidekoper (1839–1918), a native of Meadville, Crawford County, and a Union general who was wounded at Gettysburg. (His actions during the battle earned him the Medal of Honor.) Inspired by Huidekoper's concept, Pennsylvania Governor Edwin S. Stuart (1853–1911) - who was ten years old when the North and the South clashed on Adams County's fertile farmland - reminded the state legislature on January 5, 1909, that the Commonwealth had sent sixty-nine infantry regiments, ten cavalry regiments, and seven artillery batteries to fight in the war. With the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg approaching, the Commonwealth and its citizens needed to identify a way to honor living veterans. At the opening of the twentieth century, veterans of the American Civil War were well into their sixties and seventies; the average lifespan of Americans at the time was approximately forty-seven years.

This would be among the last opportunities to honor many former soldiers who fought valiantly during the four-year war.

Reunion Commissions

Gettysburg had hosted earlier battlefield reunions, but they were relatively modest events. For this milestone reunion people envisioned an enormous event with many attendees and spectators thronging Gettysburg and the surrounding countryside that hadn't been seen since the battle itself. Gettysburg had grown from about twenty-four hundred residents in 1863 to forty-five hundred in 1913, but it was still too small to accommodate the veterans and visitors expected to attend the commemoration. For such an elaborate reunion preparations needed to begin early.

The General Assembly of Pennsylvania created a nine-member Fiftieth Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg Commission on May 13, 1909, and assigned it the task of planning the commemoration. The commission met for the first time in Philadelphia in late November and the following month issued its first notice announcing a plan to organize a grand reunion at Gettysburg.

Other state legislatures responded enthusiastically and representatives were appointed to serve as liaisons between their states and Pennsylvania's commission. Anticipating nationwide interest in the event, Congress appointed a committee of three U.S. senators and three U.S. representatives to assist the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg Commission in June 1910. Much of the federal assistance came in the form of U.S. Army personnel who were directed to plan and run the camp and mobilize army equipment.

Planning and Construction

In January and February of 1912 the Battle of Gettysburg Commission met with members of the federal commission and the staff of the War Department to begin laying out the specifics. Essentially the two commissions were building a temporary tent city on the battlefield that became known as the Great Camp.

The camp covered 280 acres and much of the battlefield south of Gettysburg. Initial plans were that the camp would contain five thousand tents each housing eight individuals. The main tent, called the Great Tent, was sizable enough to accommodate between ten thousand and fifteen thousand people. Meals would be served at kitchens erected at the end of each company street. Because of space constraints only hand baggage would be allowed in the camp. The grounds would open on Sunday, June 29, and remain open until July 6 to avoid dangerously overcrowding roads and trains.

Gettysburg had two single-track rail lines operated by the Reading Railroad and the Western Maryland Railway companies. The army's Quartermaster Office estimated their maximum capacity would be no more than thirteen thousand passengers daily. Management of both companies cooperated to make improvements and maximize efficiency to transport people in and out of Gettysburg for the event.

Water for the sprawling camp was to be supplied by artesian wells drilled in February 1913. It was pumped to storage containers and distributed throughout the grounds by gravity. The water was cooled as it passed through coils packed in ice to deliver cold water at drinking fountains. Ninety latrines each serving 3,476 people and ninety-five kitchen cesspools were dug. Workers erected and equipped the Great Camp in two months.

It quickly became apparent the number of Civil War veterans expected to attend continued to rise past the initial estimate of forty thousand. The General Assembly of Pennsylvania passed an emergency bill on June 23, 1913, allocating an additional $46,000 to care for the veterans in excess of forty thousand. The Commonwealth ultimately contributed $450,000 to the reunion. Thirty-three states also provided money and in-kind contributions to help their veterans attend the reunion. In all, thirty-three states contributed money, goods, and services to the reunion totaling more than $1 million, equaling $24.2 million in today's currency.

The Arrival

As veterans began arriving in Gettysburg, a controversy erupted over whether Confederate flags would be allowed. Offended Confederate veterans began talking about boycotting the reunion. Pennsylvania's commission acted swiftly to quell the uneasiness: all flags would be allowed but the Flag of the United States would be given prominence. The clarification satisfied most of the Southern veterans and many decided to leave their Confederate flags home out of respect for the nation's flag. "This is a united country, and has only one flag," said Confederate General E. J. Hunter. "The fact that the one flag is the flag carried by our war enemies fifty years ago means nothing any more. We left our sacred standards at home."

Former Confederate soldiers William Page and William F. Brawner who saw action on Culp's Hill at Gettysburg in 1863 were the first veterans to arrive. They reached Gettysburg about 11 a.m. on Friday, June 26, wearing their faded uniforms. "Both men were besieged immediately upon their arrival by a large party of 'boys in blue' and given the warmest sort of welcome," the Gettysburg Times reported. "All during the day as they wended their way about town, the foes of fifty years ago stopped them to extend a cordial handshake and wish them the best of times during their stay here. The greeting could not have been more sincere and the men are happy as youngsters over their good time."

Officials estimated six thousand veterans were to arrive on the first day the camp opened. Instead, twenty-one thousand veterans descended on the temporary city.

Leopold Wolf, a seventy-eight-year-old veteran from Harrisburg, had few friends and no family, but he had his memories of the war and was determined to attend the reunion. He also had his pride. He wouldn't ask for a ride to the reunion and didn't have the $1.50 fare he needed to pay for transportation to Gettysburg. "I thought it over and decided that I would have to walk," Wolf remembered. "I bought a map of the state with the few pennies I had and started in early Saturday morning. It did not go so bad the first day, although the sun was terribly hot. The people all along the way were just as kindly as they could be to me, and that helped me a lot. I had good places to sleep, too," Wolf said.

He began his forty-seven-mile solitary journey strong and energetic, but he was an old man and after sleeping in a barn the first night he began to feel the miles in his aged body. "I never went through worse agony in my life. About noon I could hardly hobble twenty feet without stopping for a rest, and when I finally struck the town I thought I would never get through it to the camp. When I did get in I just sank down on the first unoccupied cot I could find and went to sleep."

Temperatures in Gettysburg were in the eighties by daybreak and humidity remained high throughout the day. Before the camp officially opened camp doctors treated several cases of heat exhaustion. With more than fifty thousand senior citizens expected to stay on the battlefield, health officials worried there might be nearly as many casualties during the reunion as there had been during the 1863 battle. First aid services for the veterans were set up so that one of the two camp ambulances would be dispatched within minutes to pick up ill veterans. The New York Times noted that the camp was well prepared "even with facilities to perform an appendicitis operation half an hour after diagnosis." Nine veterans did die during the 1913 event.

Although the veterans were senior citizens, they didn't act like it. One veteran was walking through Gettysburg and asked for directions back to the camp. He was told not to attempt it because of the heat. The veteran just shrugged and asked, "Why not? I walked all the way around Big Round Top and the Confederate line since breakfast and I guess I can go to camp without getting any more tired. I watched for the shady places and I am feeling fine."

One of the special guests was General Daniel E. Sickles (1819–1914), the last surviving Union Corps commander at the battle. The ninety-three-year-old officer arrived late Sunday afternoon. Escorted by a troop of U.S. Regulars, Sickles went to the Rogers House where he sat on the porch and looked out over where he had fallen after a cannonball shattered his leg. The attendants caring for the general estimated he shook hands with three thousand well-wishers.

"The wheat field looks the same today as it did fifty years ago," Sickles observed. "This occasion brings me to the height of my glory, and if the loss of my leg helped toward the cause of the nation, I am heartily glad. This is the best day of my life since that battle," Sickles continued. "There have been times when I felt like it, but today I am a boy again . . . and this occasion will make me live to be one hundred." (Sickles died the following year at the age of ninety-four.)

Helen Dortch Longstreet (1863–1962), second wife and widow of Confederate General James Longstreet (1821–1904), also attended the reunion. She was given two tents to use during the encampment. This was a special honor since the camp had been reserved exclusively for veterans and staff.

Because of the heavy volume of traffic on the rail lines, trains approached the region slowly in order to avoid accidents. This caused many of the trains to arrive much later than originally planned. From midnight on Sunday until noon on Monday fifty-three trains, each carrying between two hundred and five hundred veterans, reached their destination. Many trains were direct excursion specials and several were equipped with cots on which the veterans and the doctors who looked after them could sleep during the journey. Veterans eventually made their way to the tent city from the railroad stations only to find no place for them to sleep. Some found space in the tents of friends. Others slept outside during the sultry night. The next morning an emergency shipment of twenty-five thousand additional blankets was ordered. Additional cots were also ordered and added to the existing tents so that each housed ten men instead of eight as originally planned.

With such a large turnout the kitchens were not equipped to feed everyone. Available portions were distributed and more foodstuffs were immediately ordered. Few veterans complained about the lack of provisions. They had survived on far less before and, for some of them, the time of scarce rations had been a half-century earlier at Gettysburg. "Two meals a day is good enough," remarked one veteran, "that's more than we got fifty years ago."

One might think the old men arriving in Gettysburg after a long and tedious journey would be exhausted and contemplative after returning to a place where many of them had nearly died. Such was not the case declared the Gettysburg Times. "Many of the veterans came into the encampment like a lot of boys out for a picnic. Laughing and chatting as they found their tents, calling and slapping each other on the back they frolicked about until they became weary and then sat down to talk over incidents of the war."

The veterans attending the event ranged in age from 61 to 112 years old. Micyah Weiss, the oldest, used two canes to walk. His daughter had driven him to Gettysburg from New York, but because the camp was for veterans and staff only he went on alone from the camp gate and had no trouble circulating among his comrades. John Lincoln Clem, the youngest, still served as a colonel in the army. He ran away from home at the age of ten and joined the Union army as a drummer boy at Shiloh, Tennessee.

The Girls of '63

On the evening before the official events began a number of veterans gathered to honor a cadre of civilians. Union General John Buford entered Gettysburg in pursuit of the Confederate army on June 30, 1863. According to the New York Times, "Gettysburg had been in a panic all day over the appearance of the Confederates, and its joy at seeing Buford's cavalrymen in their blue uniforms knew no bounds. As the cavalrymen rode through the streets they passed through lanes of Gettysburg girls in white dresses, who sang patriotic songs all the way and strewed flowers before them."

The welcome was not forgotten. As soon as members of the Sixth New York Cavalry learned of the Gettysburg reunion they remembered those young girls and wondered whether any of them still resided in the area. They scoured the community looking for the girls, now grown women, and found six in the community and the surrounding countryside. The women were escorted to a grandstand on June 30 accompanied by a march performed by a band. Major Jerome B. Wheeler of the Sixth New York Cavalry addressed them: "If absence makes the heart grow fonder, how our hearts go out to you today as we look into your dear faces after an absence of fifty years. We left you most sorrowfully and regretfully, and we now come to you from all parts of the country to tender our regret that our first visit was so brief and our years of absence so inevitable. And we want to thank you and say, 'God Bless You' for the friendly greeting you extended to us in those days so long ago, when kind words from gentle and noble women were like an oasis in a desert."

The soldiers called on the women to render one of the melodies they had sung fifty years earlier. According to the New York Times, "Whether the voices were or were not so good as they were fifty years ago, they sounded clear and sweet in the big tent, and no grand opera singer ever had such an appreciative audience. The old men listened as if they were hearing [Dame Nellie] Melba [Porter Mitchell, one of the greatest opera singers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries]. Many of them were wiping their eyes."

Personal Stories

As veterans continued arriving a Virginian searched for his tent in the Great Camp. He walked from tent to tent, opening the flap and asking veterans inside where he could find his regiment. "Johnny Reb" wandered into the area where survivors of the First Minnesota Regiment, which had suffered 82 percent casualties at Gettysburg, were encamped. (Johnny Reb is the national personification of Civil War soldiers of Southern states; Billy Yank is the nickname for Union soldiers.)

At the fifth tent he visited a Minnesotan inside asked, "And who were you with, Johnny?"

"Twenty-Eighth Virginia," the former Confederate replied.

"That would be Olmstead's men?"

"Right. And we met you First Minnesota fellows off yonder - there where the lightning was thickest."

"Well, I'll be damned."

Proving that past animosity was truly forgotten, the group welcomed the former enemy into the tent, where they sat out of the hot sun, reminiscing over liquor. One of the Minnesotans asked, "Say, do you know what became of the Twenty-Eighth Virginia's flag that day up yonder?"

"I don't," replied the old Confederate. "You see, I was with Armistead's brigade, the one that got into the Yankee lines when Pickett made his charge and made what they call the 'high-water mark' of the rebellion. I don't rightly remember just what happened to the flag after we jumped into those Yankee batteries but I think some of you Yankees got it."

"We did," responded a man in the tent. "I'm Captain T. H. Pressnal of Company F, First Minnesota. We captured your flag, and we've got it now in St. Paul. The other fellows in this tent will be in in a minute, and all of them belonged to the regiment that got your flag. We've got a spare blanket here and you'll never find your tent tonight. Come in and bunk with us." Since the night was getting darker, the Virginian accepted the offer. In the morning he told his hosts, "You know, I've been a-lyin' here thinkin'. As long as some of you Yanks had to get that flag, I'm mighty glad it were you all. You're right good people."

Out on the battlefield a gray-bearded Confederate veteran of Pickett's Charge, A. C. Smith of Virginia, was telling of his experience during the charge. He walked along Cemetery Ridge with fellow Confederates. "Well, here I was. And right here's where I leaped across. I got a yard beyond that wall, I reckon, when I got hit and down I went. I remember a chap in blue runnin' at me. He had a bayonet, and I thought I was a goner. But he give me a drink of water from his canteen. And then blamed if he didn't pick me up and carry me off to a Yank hospital. I never saw him again. I reckon he's gone to his reward by this time."

Another group of veterans was nearby listening to a Union veteran, R. N. Hamilton, recount his story. "The Rebs got to about here," Hamilton began. "Then we beat 'em back. And it was right here . . ." Hamilton pointed to the wall. ". . . that a Johnny fell into my arms. I lifted him up and gave him a swig from my canteen. Then I got him on my shoulders and carried him off." Smith heard Hamilton and drew closer for a better look at the grizzled individual. He shouted, "Well, Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, it's you, brother." The two men embraced and Hamilton said, "Fifty years ago. Don't that beat all!"

Other reunions didn't end so happily. One former Union soldier in his faded blue uniform found the person he was looking for in the Soldiers' National Cemetery beneath a small tombstone engraved with the name William Henry Scott. He held his cap in his hand as tears rolled down his cheeks. "After the first day's fighting, they carried me into a hospital, badly wounded," the soldier remembered. "Next to me was a young Southerner, from Georgia. We two chummed up in the hospital and he told me his name was William Henry Scott. He told me of his plantation and I told him of my home in New York. We came to love each other, promised when each got better that we'd come and visit one another. I was sent home; he stayed behind to get well. But he never came to see me." The man paused and shook his head. "Hoped to see him here. And here he is, here he is," he lamented.

By Wednesday, July 2, the temperature had climbed to 102 degrees in the shade. The sweltering weather changed in the afternoon as heavy rains fell, accompanied by strong winds, loud thunder, and violent lightning. The veterans took shelter in tents and shared stories as the rain settled the dust on the roads and cleaned the canvas tents. While the rains kept the veterans under canvas and off the battlefield, they did enjoy the cooler temperatures brought by the thunderstorm, which lasted about one hour. After the skies cleared they returned to the battlefield.

Pickett's Last Charge

The events of Thursday, July 3, featured eleven governors, Vice President Thomas R. Marshall and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives James Beauchamp "Champ" Clark. The highlight of the day, however, was a reenactment of Pickett's Charge by surviving veterans.

Two lines formed a quarter-mile apart. The Philadelphia Brigade stood on the north and Pickett's Division on the south side of the stone wall, over which they had fought so desperately fifty years earlier. "There were no flashing sabers, no guns roaring with shell, only eyes that dimmed fast, and kindly faces behind the stone wall that marks the angle. At the end, in place of wounds, or prison, or death, were handshakes, speeches, and mingling cheers," reported the Washington Post. Of the thousands who had made the daring charge in 1863, only 150 Confederate soldiers remained to reprise it. J. Hampton Moore, Philadelphia, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, presented on behalf of the Philadelphia Brigade Association a silk American flag to the Pickett's Division Association.

On Friday evening the veterans were treated to a magnificent fireworks display set off from the tip of Little Roundtop. The sound of the pyrotechnics was deafening and frightened many veterans. Several were catapulted back through time to the 1863 bloodbath and began shouting, "Down, boys! Lie down! Steady."

The final day of the reunion was Saturday, July 4. What better way to celebrate the peace and unity among former opponents than to join both sides in a celebration of a unified country? President Woodrow Wilson was the special speaker for the day. He was a good choice. Not only was he the current commander-in-chief of the U. S. military, but his father had owned slaves and briefly served in the Confederate army. The response to the president's speech was mixed. However, he praised the veterans for their service, saying that they had set an example for the nation. He said the veterans were looking to the current generation to "perfect what they had established. Their work is handed unto us, to be done in another way but not in another spirit." He then went on to say what the nation was facing in 1913 was greater than what it had faced fifty years earlier.

As veterans prepared to return home on July 5 several made one last visit to the battlefield to find mementos and souvenirs. Jefferson Sefton of Dubuque, Iowa, took home two suitcases of soil from the battlefield. "This is more precious to me than anything else. I fought on the spot where I gathered this soil, and I want to take some of it back home. I shall make a garden box of it," Sefton said. Whatever memories they made during the Civil War and at Gettysburg fifty years later, the former comrades and enemies exhibited sensitivity, compassion, understanding, kindness, and generosity of spirit, all of which were equaled fifty years earlier by their conviction, steadfastness, bravery, courage, and strength. They first met as ardent enemies and last saw one another as gentlemen, if not friends.


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Written by James Rada Jr.

James Rada Jr. is the author of seven novels, two nonfiction books, and two nonfiction collections, including his newest book entitled No North, No South . . . : The Grand Reunion at the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. He lives in Gettysburg, Adams County, where he works as a freelance writer. The author has received numerous awards from the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, Associated Press, Maryland State Teachers Association, and Community Newspapers Holdings Inc. for his newspaper writing. To learn more about his books visit www.jamesrada.com/.


This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine, Volume XXXIX, Number 4 - Fall 2013.

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