The 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg: Healing the Divide? 

By Savannah Labbe ‘19

This post comes from the exhibit catalog for “Right to Serve, Right to Lead:  Lives and Legacies of the USCT,” an exhibition in Special Collections and College Archives at Musselman Library, Gettysburg College. During the spring of 2017, we asked the CWI Fellows to select a item on exhibit and discuss its history and context. The resulting exhibit catalog is available at Special Collections, where the exhibit will run through December 18, 2017.

Larkin Woodruff, 50th USCT. 75th Anniversary of Gettysburg medals. Veterans attending 75th Anniversary commemorations wore medals like these full of symbolism. The bundle of wooden rods surrounding an axe is a classical symbol called a “fasces.” In Roman times, it stood for martial strength through unity and brotherhood and brotherhood. Sadly, Larkin Woodruff died just weeks before the 75th Anniversary Commemoration in Gettysburg, PA. Courtesy of Special Collections and College Archives, Gettysburg College.

Between June 29 and July 6, 1938, approximately 1,870 Union and Confederate veterans gathered at that fateful battlefield where many of them had fought 75 years earlier. The veterans stayed in camps and took part in various ceremonies and parades, including a parade of veterans from all wars since 1863, as well as a military flyover. The highlight of the ceremonial events, however, was the dedication of the Eternal Light Peace Memorial on Oak Hill outside of town. President Franklin Roosevelt made the dedication speech on July 3, 1938, around the same time Pickett made his charge 75 years before. More than 200,000 people attended, watching the friendly reunion of men who had once been enemies. Together, two men—92-year-old Union veteran George N. Lockwood of Los Angeles, CA, and 91-year-old Confederate veteran A.G. Harris of McDonough, GA—undraped the flag covering the memorial.

Much in the same way that the reunion brought Lockwood and Harris together in friendship to unveil the memorial, the event also brought all the veterans and spectators together, regardless of which side they had fought for or what part of the country they were from. Confederate veterans met Union veterans at the Bloody Angle, shaking hands in good will and offering silent tribute to the soldiers who had fought and lost their lives at this fateful place on the battlefield many years earlier. The medals that were given to the veterans and their attendants were another symbol of this harmony. The ribbon on the medal was blue and gray, while the medals themselves featured an eagle clutching the Confederate and Union flags in its talons. In addition, the veterans’ medals displayed the fasces symbol, a martial symbol of brotherhood. The symbol depicts an axe with extra handles wrapped around the original haft, representing the power gained when many join together to wield a weapon. The medals themselves were emblematic of the intended spirit of the reunion: bringing the country together in harmony and solidarity.

This pageantry distracted from the divisions that still plagued the country in the era of Jim Crow. While the 75th anniversary did much to encourage harmony between North and South, it came at the expense of the black perspective of the war’s cause and cost. Take, for example, this medal owned by Larkin Woodruff, an African American veteran. He died on June 10, 1938, just a few weeks before the reunion. Woodruff was one of several dozen former USCTs invited to the event. Twenty-five years earlier, at the 50th anniversary, many white veterans had worked to discourage, or at very least not extend an invitation, to black veterans. The policy of acceptance in 1938 had nothing to do with racial equality, though—Larkin and his USCT comrades were invited to take part in a national narrative of the war’s legacy which had become tightly choreographed.

With the U.S. staring down another world war, martial, and fraternal unity became the driving theme of reunions. All hands were needed—North, South, black, white—but certain facts of the war threatened that unity. The “Lost Cause” sentiment still pitted ex-Confederates and their kin against their Yankee “occupiers.” The cruelties of slavery made coexistence, much less cooperation, between southerners and slaves-turned-soldiers almost impossible. Nonetheless, for many, it seemed a safer bet to try and heal regional, if not racial, divides. It was better to commemorate the war as a brotherly “quarrel forgotten,” as President Woodrow Wilson described it, than it was to remember the complex racial dimensions of the war and its legacy.


Sources:

“75th Anniversary – Blue and Gray Reunion Activities.” Gettysburg Star and Sentinel. July 2, 1938.

Blight, David W. Race and Reunion : The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Hawbaker, Gary T. 75th Anniversary Battle of Gettysburg. 1st ed. Hershey, PA: The Author, 2009.

Janiskee, Bob. “Rare Motion Pictures Show Civil War Veterans at the 75th Gettysburg Battle Anniversary Reunion” National Parks Traveler. February 8, 2011.

“Pres. Roosevelt Dedicates Light.” East Berlin New Comet. July 8, 1938.

Wilson, Woodrow. “Address at Gettysburg, July 3, 1913.” The American Presidency Project. Accessed April 13, 2017. www.presidency.ucsb.edu.

Yockelson, Mitchell. “The Great Reunion: The Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of Gettysburg.” Prologue 24, no. 2 (Summer 1992): 188-192.

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