They came by train like specters of a bygone era. The year was 1938, the average age of the boys in blue and gray was ninety-three, and the 75th anniversary of the battle marked the last great reunion of Union and Confederate veterans on the hallowed fields of Gettysburg. Just over 10,000 veterans of the War Between the States were still alive, representing the last direct links to the four pivotal years that shaped our nation. As this number grew fewer each year, these soldiers and the stories they possessed, faded from living memory into the annals of an ever-changing world. But from June 29th to July 6th, the memories of 1,845 old soldiers came together at Gettysburg.
The wounds from America’s most terrible conflict were by no means healed by 1938. Sectional and racial divides still ran deep. Several veterans declined their invitations, animosity from a lifetime ago still fresh in their minds. Commissioners had difficulty convincing both the United Confederate Veterans and the Grand Army of the Republic to attend. However, the story of those who refused to come is not the story that survived the test of time.
Instead, the stories remembered from the 75th anniversary were elderly soldiers in dusty uniforms shaking hands over the stone wall. The story of two veterans, one from the North and the other from the South, helping President Franklin Roosevelt dedicate a monument to peace. Stories like that of ninety-three year old Confederate veteran William H. Freeman, of Wetumka, Oklahoma, who explained to a reporter, “We’re here to bury the hatchet and forget all about that little fus,” and his companion, a Union veteran who sentimentally replied, “We’ve done that long ago.” This was a reunion during which every veteran received both a Union and a Confederate flag. To those who attended, this reunion was about nostalgia, and brotherhood, and the glory of a shared martial past.
However, for as many veterans declined their invitations due to residual bitterness, many more declined due to poor health. Over 2,000 invitations were returned bearing the word “deceased.” Three more soldiers would reach the reunion, but not make it back home. Every veteran arrived with an attendant, and a small army of Boy Scouts and Pennsylvania National Guardsman were enlisted to help the veterans navigate the reunion. Wheelchairs, buses, and hospitals were prepared, and the commissioners did all they could to ensure the comfort of these aged warriors.
As these soldiers lived out their twilight years, they watched their world change. The United States had grown, faced and overcome new crises, and been catapulted onto a world’s stage. The veterans’ reunion was accompanied with sights such as tanks rolling down the streets of Gettysburg and air shows over the fields where the boys in blue and gray had met a lifetime ago. The world was on the cusp of a new and terrifying conflict, one that would shape another generation. Many of the Boy Scouts and the Guardsmen pushing the veterans’ wheelchairs in 1938 would fight their own war in 1941.
Even fewer Civil War veterans would live to see the end of America’s next conflict. They were sometimes seen as curiosities, living museum pieces, and men who belonged to an unknowable past. Their chapter had reached its final page, and a return to Gettysburg was an appropriate end to the story. The veterans themselves seemed to recognize this, for near the end of their final reunion, some petitioned the government to allow them to “remain here on this hallowed hill till Gabriel shall call us to that eternal party where there is no strife, bitter hate, nor bloodshed and we are one for all and all for one.”
Cohen, Stan. Hands Across the Wall: The 50th and 75th Reunions of the Gettysburg Battle. Charleston, WV: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 1982.
“Here and There with the Vets.” (Google News Archive). Star and Sentinel. July 9, 1938.
Yockelson, Michael. “The Great Reunion: The Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of Gettysburg.” Prologue 24 (Summer 1992): 188-92.