by Drew Hoffman, ’15
Five years after the last shot was fired at Gettysburg, it would be the project of Captain David McConaughy of Adams County, PA to bring officers who had fought in the battle back to Gettysburg. David McConaughy was attempting something big for August 23, 1869. His plan was for a reunion of generals from both sides to come back to Gettysburg. He also sought to compile information about the positions of all the units that fought in the battle in order to create a detailed account for posterity.
A letter from Alexander Shales, explaining he will come to the Reunion. Letter courtesy of Special Collections/Musselman Library, Gettysburg College
However, what McConaughy proposed was really unprecedented in 1869. Some in the press believed it could be a major flop. Even McConaughy’s good friend, Samuel Crawford wrote from Alabama that, “I fear you will not have any representation from the South. There are many officers and soldiers of Hood’s Division around me and from them [I] have learned some very interesting facts. They do not seem inclined to go to Gettysburg for the purpose indicated.”
In fact, the reunion was largely only attended by soldiers of the Army of the Potomac, rather than both sides of the battle: only two southerners would eventually show up. Certainly, generals who had played massive roles in the battle such as Robert E. Lee and George Sykes did not attend. Positive replies came in mostly from mid-level Union officers. Why was this? Was it because too little time had elapsed since the guns fell silent? Was it also because southern generals spitefully were shunning the memory of a battle in which they lost?
A reply from John Gibbon is telling. Gibbon, a veteran who served under Confederate General Ewell during the battle wrote from Utah in 1869: “I sincerely regret my inability to be present at such a interesting meeting as your propose, and I fear that the meeting is so close at hand and my station so remote that I can be but of little assistance to you in corresponding [. . .]”
The distance involved in such a trip must have seemed almost insurmountable to Gibbon. Extensive travel in 1869 was difficult even with the growing system if railways being built throughout the country. For many others, the costs associated with travel were a vexing problem. Many veterans including William L. Tilton conditioned their attendance on receiving compensation for these expenses, stating: “[I] will come if I can have a pass over the several railways from Boston to Gettysburg.” If it was expensive for a former Union general to go from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania, it must have been a pretty penny for Crawford’s men in Alabama to attend. With such factors to be taken into consideration, it is easier to understand why the majority of officers who attended McConaughy’s reunion were from adjacent states, such as Ohio and New York.
The immense distances involved in trying to gather men together was something that stretched the limits of the speed of the travel of communication and people. While the idea of returning to the battlefield appealed to countless veterans, these limitations would prove to be a significant blow to the regional balance on McConaughy’s attendance roster that August in 1869. It would take another 44 years before McConaughy’s dream could be realized at the battle’s bicentennial in 1913.
David McConaughy Collection. Gettysburg: Musselman Library, Gettysburg College. Blight, David W. Beyond the Battlefield: Race, memory, and the American Civil War. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002. 120-125.
“The Gettysburg Reunion.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 24, 1869.
Weeks, Jim. Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003. 105.