The Great Reunion of 1938

The third great reunion took place in 1938. The 75th anniversary of the terrible U.S. Civil War. It was again in July, in the heat of the Summer. There was controversy. Some GAR chapters objected to any Confederate flag – meaning the Star and Bars – being flown. Some Confederates insisted they would never attend a reunion without their precious flag. The GAR and the United Confederate Veterans held their own state specific reunions. But, Paul L. Roy, of the Gettysburg Times, and executive secretary of another reunion committee, wanted to bring blue and gray together one last time.

Mr. Roy came South seeking a compromise for the Rebel flag. He met with the UCV. The UCV agreed to his suggestion, separate flags in separate areas at the reunion. As Mr. Roy was leaving the auditorium, where they had met, several women blocked his way and harangued him as a “damn Yankee” who was trying to kill their veterans. They would not let him pass. Two women scratched his face and others clutched at his coat. He squirmed away and hurried to his hotel room.

From their respective homes, Union and Confederates sniped at each other. James W. Willett, a 91 year old former GAR commander from Iowa said if the Confederate veterans bring their flag, then the GAR would not vote to support the great reunion. Rice Pierce, the UCV commander said they – the GAR – can “go to hell.” We dare not doubt that these old soldiers still had the spirit that sent them off to war 75 years previous.

David Corbin Ker, 90 years old and the last Rebel veteran in Richland Parish, Louisiana, got so angry that his wife had to hold him back from going to Gettysburg and flying the Dixie flag. But, the issue was settled with Roy’s compromise. Each faction would fly its own flag in its own section.

In 1938, Civil War veterans were dying at the rate of 900 each year. It was estimated only some 10,000 veterans still remained. Perhaps 2,000 could make the trip to Gettysburg. Written invitations were sent to 10,000 veterans. 2,000 were returned marked “deceased.” About 1,845 actually attended. Most were Yankees. First-aid stations and wellness stations were set up around the battlefield. Wooden walkways were built. Wheel chairs were rolled out. Sewer lines were dug. Barber shops were set up. Every tent had a cot, and mattress with pillows, sheets, and a wool blanket. The tents came with electric lights, wash basins, soap and towels.

The keynote speech was again delivered by a President, Franklin Roosevelt. He proclaimed all these men now stood under one flag together. Dr. Overton H. Mennet, the commander of the GAR and former Infantryman from Indiana, spoke. “I see here a beautiful national military park where once men lay in agony.” He wore a double breasted blue Union jacket, with gold cord, and a broad brimmed hat and bow tie. The band then played “Dixie.”

The old veterans all had their stories about how and why they came. John Milton Claypool, 92 years old and a retired preacher, was the commander of a UCV post in Missouri. He joked that if the Lord could put up with Yankees all these years, he could do the same for a few days. Alvin F. Tolman, a 91 year old Union veteran, who still drove, motored up from Florida. He arrived early at the encampment. He said he wanted to “get his pick of the Gettysburg women.”

From California, 121 veterans took the train. From Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Missouri, came 450 Confederate veterans. Ninety-two year old A.G. Harris, former major General in the Confederate army, came with his son, Homer, a World War I veteran. James Handcock, came to Gettysburg from the Confederate home in New Orleans. He wanted to sight see. So, he went to Philadelphia, and fell asleep at a ball game. Police found him. Handcock told the police he was 104 years old.

Five of the old veterans passed away during the celebration. Six more collapsed while traveling home. There was talk of an 85th anniversary reunion. Said one Union 97 year old veteran, “I wouldn’t put anything past this crew. Some of the boys are strutting around like they’re 50.”

A small group of Alabama veterans refused to leave the battlefield park. They sent a telegram to the Quartermaster in Washington seeking permission to stay as long as they wanted or at least until the Angels came for them. The Quartermaster did not respond and they eventually went home.

See a youtube video of the 75th reunion at Gettysburg here.

Richard A. Serrano, Last of the Blue and Gray  (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books 2013) (reprint), pp. 21-25

The Great Reunion of 1913

The next great reunion took place in the North. Two years after the first great reunion of blue and gray in 1911, they met again in Gettysburg two years later for the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. A President also attended this reunion. Pres. Wilson came and spoke. He challenged the veterans Union and Confederate, to be symbols of peace, not relics of war.

But, the highlight was the re-enactment of Picket’s charge. Video of that reunion is available here on you tube. The Southerners, 70 years and older, gave the famous Rebel yell and ambled up Cemetery Ridge, while their former Union adversaries waited. As the aged veterans approached the wall, the Union veterans burst forth and hugged the Confederates.

At the Bloody Angle, one Confederate recounted how he had been shot in a particular spot. “The place is right here. I was shot right where I stand now. I would have died if it hadn’t been for a Union soldier who saved my life. I’ve often wished I could see him but I never saw him after that day.”

A Union veteran turned quickly around. “That’s funny,” he said, “I was at the Bloody Angle too, and there was a Rebel there who was pretty badly hurt. I gave him a drink of water, and then I took upon my back and carried him out of the line of fire to the field hospital.”

“My God!” cried the Rebel, “Let me look at you.” He stared into his face and grabbed him by the shoulders. “You are the man!” They hugged and traded names. The Rebel was A.C. Smith of Virginia and the Union soldier was Albert N. Hamilton of Pennsylvania.

Some 50,000 veterans gathered that Summer in the heat of Gettysburg. The youngest was 61 years old. The oldest said he was 112. The celebration lasted three days. Veterans camped on the battlefield. Army engineers tramped across the field to set up a camp spot on the site of Pickett’s charge. More than 500 lamps lit the field at night. There were 2,000 cooks, and 175 open-air kitchens. They set up 32 water fountains.

Boy scouts escorted the weak and infirm. Nine of the old veterans died during the celebration. News arrived of veterans who died elsewhere. During the festivities, Gov. Louis B. Hanna of North Dakota told the story of one Confederate veteran who passed away in a Northern state. Former Union soldiers, now in the Grand Army of the Republic, the fraternal organization formed by former Union soldiers, buried the Confederate at a GAR cemetery. At the grave side, the GAR commander said:

“We cannot understand why this man fought for the Stars and Bars while we fought for the Star and Stripes. But it is enough to know that each man fought for the right. And now, in the spirit of charity and fraternity, we lay him to rest, the Gray beside the Blue.”

The encampment came to a close. The peace and goodwill was shattered in the dining room of the Gettysburg Hotel, on the town square, when seven men were stabbed when a Union veteran heard unkind words about the martyred Lincoln. The fight started suddenly and ended quickly. Knives were pulled and bottles were thrown. The organizers agreed that if there was to be another great reunion, the saloons must be closed.

Richard A. Serrano, Last of the Blue and Gray  (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books 2013) (reprint), pp. 17-21

The Peace Jubilee of 1911

The idea started with a letter to the Washington Post. The writer, a Confederate veteran in South Carolina, said there should be a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. The country, said the veteran, should celebrate the “peace and reconciliation” the nation had enjoyed since the war ended. George Carr Round, a former Union officer living in Manassas, Virginia agreed. He believed the celebration should occur where the war began, in Manassas. He sent telegrams around the country inviting Union and Confederate veterans to Manassas.

Mr. Round, a native of Pennsylvania and raised in New York, practiced law in Manassas. He served on the school board. He built community schools and planted shade trees along the town streets. He had pushed for a national preservation marker where Gen. Stonewall Jackson made his famous stand at the First Battle of Manassas. He was Northern and a Union veteran, but he loved his new hometown.

He persuaded the Governor of Virginia to attend the celebration. Pres. Taft, a native of Ohio, also agreed to come speak. Mr. Round had ribbons sewn up and badges struck for the veterans who would attend. He planned for water, food, and accommodations for thousands of veterans to attend. Three days before the Jubilee in the Summer of 1911, a Grand Army of the Republic chapter in Brooklyn, New York, sent a protest to the President in Washington. They asked the President not to appear if the Confederate battle flag, the stars and bars, were to be flown. The flag known as the “stars and bars” is not the flag adopted and made infamous by the Ku Klux Klan. The “stars and bars” was the first official flag adopted by the Confederate States of America. It was by far the most common flag used by the Confederate military. The Brooklyn chapter of the GAR insisted the President make sure the stars and bars did not fly at what was becoming known as the Peace Jubilee. The Brooklyn GAR insisted the flag should be buried deep and now was the time to put it away forever.

The Manassas Democrat, the local newspaper, editorialized that the Brooklyn chapter missed the point of the Jubilee and of peace itself. The newspaper regretted such sectional feeling at a time when we should be celebrating peace. George Round responded by telegraphing the nation’s wire services assuring them that for every ten square feet of Southern colors, there would be 1000 square feet of Northern colors. He said both blue and gray would be recognized. “The Confederate battle flag (meaning the stars and bars) works beautifully into the prevailing design” (meaning the U.S. flag). Abraham Lincoln loved to hear “Dixie” and “I love to see the battle flag nesting so quietly in the folds of the Stars and Stripes,” he added. George Round was a prophet of peace.

350 former Confederates and 150 former Union soldiers came for the Jubilee. Other than some pickpockets, the celebration went without a hitch. At precisely noon, the ex-Confederates and ex-Union soldiers advanced toward each other across the battle plain. They re-enacted Pickett’s charge. But, this time, as they closed, the opposing forces smiled, shook hands and patted each other on the back. The told tales and agreed the war had been one great “misunderstanding.”

Later that day, they shared fried chicken dinner across large tables As night came, the old men shuffled to camp fires. One old Rebel sang out mournfully, “I’m an old Confederate veteran, and that’s good enough for me.”

Several African-American veterans attended. One told how after the battle, he and other enslaved men were pressed into burying the dead. “I saw lots of wounded men, crying for water. So I took a bucket and filled it and carried water to what I could. There were a lot of soldiers and colored men doing the same thing. There were about as many wounded of one side as the other, but it didn’t make any difference to any of us which side they were. They all got water just the same.” “No sir,” added James Redmond, “I don’t ever want to see any more war.”

Richard A. Serrano, Last of the Blue and Gray  (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books 2013) (reprint), pp. 11-15