Several days ago a reader of this blog added a comment to one of my posts and among other points, asked if any Black veterans attended the Great Reunion. I responded with “I’m not sure; I’ve heard both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ so I need to find out; stand by.”
After doing some research, here’s the very surprising answer: nobody knows for certain! Scholars and historians are divided on the answer to this question.
The most definitive source I found, one that not only presents this surprising disconnect over an historic fact from only a century ago but also explores why there are differing beliefs, is a scholarly, academic paper from Gettysburg College that was published in 2011. The paper is entitled “All May Visit the Big Camp”: Race and the Lessons of the Civil War at the 1913 Gettysburg Reunion. You can find an online copy of the paper at: http://cupola.gettysburg.edu/gcjcwe/vol2/iss1/5/. (This link takes you to the abstract and there is a “Download” button on the top right that will download the full paper.)
Here’s the bottom line, according to the paper: some scholars and historians believe (or claim) that Blacks were invited to and did attend the Great Reunion, but there appears to be a lack of primary sourcing for these claims. Following the research trail one finds mostly anecdotes such as one claiming that Southern, not Northern, Blacks “found their way into the camp” and then “were promptly sheltered by the ‘big-hearted Tennessee delegation.’” The source for this claim was a contemporary book written in 1913 by Walter Herbert Blake entitled Hand Grips: The Story of the Great Gettysburg Reunion July, 1913. But Mr. Blake was a Union veteran from New Jersey and essentially wrote a travel narrative rather than a scholarly work. This isn’t to say that he lied or even that he was mistaken, but rather that we need to take one aging veteran’s written memories with the same grain of salt that we must take…well, non-scholarly material such as this blog! (The preceding isn’t meant to diminish my own work, of course, but rather to point out that my blog, like most other blogs, does not require the same rigor for publication that a journal paper, for example, does.)
Anyway, back to the question at hand: much of the thesis of the paper seems to be based on the culture and belief system of a century ago with regards to race relations and even financial matters. The paper points out that even though the Great Reunion was for all veterans of the Civil War regardless of whether or not they fought at Gettysburg, some states such as Indiana invited and paid for only their Gettysburg veterans, presumably as a cost containment measure…and which meant that Black veterans who fought in segregated units in those days (ref: the movie Glory) but who didn’t fight at Gettysburg were automatically eliminated from consideration to attend.
So Bottom Line, Take 2: we’ll probably never know the answer to this question for certain, which as I mentioned is something I find somewhat surprising since we’re talking about an event from only a century ago that was widely reported and photographed…we’re not talking about, say, the nationalities comprising a particular component of the Roman Legion 2,000 years ago. Still, those photographs all show white faces so while the absence of Blacks from photos and records of the Great Reunion doesn’t unequivocally prove that no Blacks were invited or in attendance, we may very well conclude that’s exactly the situation.
And we can always look at the question this way: even if Black veterans did actually attend, then they were in the vast minority – perhaps counted in single digits.