Courier Review by Katy Berman
Thomas R. Flagel’s slim volume, War, Memory, and the 1913 Gettysburg Reunion, contains a timeless tale. It is the story of what government gets right and what happens when its good intentions fall flat. It is a reminder of the eternal verities of politicking and the inestimable value of good journalism. Most importantly, it is a moving compilation of stories about the veterans themselves.
Fortunately, for us, reporters present duly noted the distinguished personages and eloquent speeches; however, they also observed and listened to the battle’s aging participants, leaving a vital record of what they felt, remembered, said, and did.
The goal of the Gettysburg Anniversary Commission was to celebrate the nation’s “gratitude to the noble, heroic men who gave their lives here for a new baptism of liberty.”
The “greatest battle of the ages” had created “a united, prosperous. powerful nation, the common heritage of all.” Reconciliation of North and South was a major theme of the event, and was memorialized in a famous photograph of former enemies joining hands at the site of Pickett’s Charge.
But the photograph was merely a quickly staged encounter, and few veterans had reconciliation on their minds.
Only half the vets attended the kick-off event in the Great Tent; ten times more visited the National Cemetery at the same time. Old soldiers sought “the intimate and the tangible.”
They searched among the 55,00 honored guests for former comrades, and visited sites that had personal meaning. Reporter Lindsay Denison marked how small groups of vets would wander through “farmhouse gardens, made-over fields, new-grown woods, the exact spots where they escaped death.” A Pittsburgh journalist recalled hearing, “This is where I lost my arm,” and “My best friend fell here.”
Not that the veterans weren’t grateful to their government for its care and attention. Although close to half of them skipped the speechifying, Flagel describes their “liberating feeling that they did not serve the army anymore. The army served them.” The abundance of food was a special delight. Lunch, on July 1, for example, featured fresh-baked bread, roast beef and potatoes, mashed turnips, and rice pudding. Beverages included iced tea, milk, and coffee. “Gosh ain’t this great feed?” remarked a Vermont vet, contrasting it with the “hard tack and sow belly, and not half enough of that,” he had subsisted upon fifty years earlier.
The soaring July temperatures recollected the literal heat of battle, but there was no danger of going thirsty. In the preceding year, Pennsylvania health commissioners had overseen the inspection and treatment of all Gettysburg water sources; cool, clean water was piped into drinking fountains throughout the encampment. Advances in hygiene and food handling kept disease at bay, but five field hospitals and eleven first-aid stations were available if the need arose. Looking to perform good deeds, 385 newly minted Boy Scouts were on hand to serve the veterans. Captain John Delaney enthused, “Those splendid young men were everywhere!” They reminded Delaney of his own boyish troops fifty years before.
The reconciliation between North and South, as epitomized by the 1913 Reunion, has been debated by historians from David Blight (Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory) to Caroline Janney (Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation.)For his part, Flagel agrees that sectionalism still existed in 1913, and that the veterans “fundamental need for human contact” has been misinterpreted. Nevertheless, private and unexpected moments of reconciliation did occur. In one instance, a surviving member of the 28th Virginia lost his bearings and wandered into a tent designated for the 1st Minnesota. During a friendly conversation that followed, the Virginian learned his regiment’s captured battle flag was in St. Paul. He told his hosts, “Since some of you Yanks had to get that flag, I’m glad it was you all. You are pretty good people.”
Flagel organized his book simply and practically, telling the story of the Reunion from its inception to its aftermath. His remarkable study seems to cover every aspect of the great event, from President Wilson’s (too) brief appearance, to the roles and responses of wives and daughters, as well as Gettysburg’s female population. There was only a handful of African-American veterans at the Reunion, and, sadly, their stories were not published. Flagel also notes the marginalization felt by veterans that were not at Gettysburg, sailors, for example, or soldiers from the Western Theatre. His work arouses an interest in lesser-known reunions and the post-bellum lives of all veterans.
Gettysburg Reunion is a gently illuminating, fair-minded exploration of the event and its attendees. All who read it will feel enriched.
Title: War, Memory, and the 1913 Gettysburg Reunion
Author: Thomas R. Flagel
Publisher: The Kent State University Press