In July 1913, some 53,000 Civil War veterans gathered in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the famous battle. Almost every veteran was, by this time, an old man, with most in the 70s. The youngest was 61; he’d been an 11-year-old drummer boy in 1863. The oldest was 110; he’d fought when he was 60.
The anniversary event didn’t happen by itself; planning had gone on for years, at least in theory. The commemoration almost didn’t happen because of what was falling through the cracks as the date got closer. But competent people intervened, and the commemoration happened.
In The World Will Never See the Like: The Gettysburg Reunion of 1913, author John Hopkins tells the story in all of its chaos, splendor, and glory. Veterans, mostly Union because those states provided at least some transportation costs, came from all over the country to find old friends and sometimes old enemies, remember, and celebrate a unified country.
The idea was first raised in 1908 in the Pennsylvania legislature. Five years later, a host of state legislatures and the U.S. Congress had weighed in. Hopkins concisely details the planning, the organization of the event, and what happened during the four days of celebration (including 100+-degree weather and a storm). The program itself may have been the easiest part to create. Organizers had to consider food, housing, medical facilities (a number of the veterans would get ill during the celebration, and some would die), travel arrangements, and sanitary facilities. A huge tent city was erected at the site of the battle, with neighborhoods and streets. Boy Scouts were enlisted to be information and direction guides.
The participants knew they had made history in 1863 and were making history again in 1913. There would indeed never be a celebration like this on American soil.
Hopkins also discusses the politics. How would attendees and speakers alike describe what had caused the war and led to the battle. The “Lost Cause” idea was likely at its high-water mark in the South, and it had certainly influenced Northern thinking as well. In the end, everyone agreed that the causes were less important than what had resulted – a unified country once again. In particular, the veterans were less interested in discussing and debating the causes of the Civil War, and more interested in remembering, connecting, and finding out what had happened to the men they had fought with and against. (A small group of elderly women, who had been nurses, also attended.)
Hopkins, a communications and public relations professional, received his degree in political science from Williams College. He’s worked for more than three decades in higher education, nonprofit, and agency settings. For this book, he made extensive use of letters, memoirs, news reports (more than 150 journalists covered the event), and official proceedings.
The Gettysburg Reunion of 1913 tells a story that is informative, often enlightening, and surprisingly poignant. Certain parts may move you to tears. Most of those present would be gone within a decade, and they laughed, cried, and often drank (a lot) with the men they shared the most formative moment of their lives with. The event itself might have been a defining moment in the passing of the 19th century and the arrival of the 20th.
Top photograph: Veterans arriving in the tent city for the 50th reunion of the battle.