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
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