July 1, 1863: the epic Battle of Gettysburg begins.
July 1, 1913: 50 years after the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the opening ceremonies of the Great Reunion are held (though the encampment grounds actually opened two days earlier as veterans began to arrive).
July 1, 2013: six months from today, the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Gettysburg will also mark the 100th anniversary of the Great Reunion.
What was “the Great Reunion?” Where did the idea come from? What made that particular reunion of Civil War veterans so “great” to the point where superlatives such as “You may search the world’s history in vain for such a spectacle” were used by the newspapers of the day?
Over the next six months this blog will include information about the historical background, preparations, personalities, events, anecdotes – pretty much everything! – related to the Great Reunion at Gettysburg back in 1913.
What is shocking to me is that when one looks back at the newspapers, official Pennsylvania and New York Commission reports, and other artifacts of the day, that reunion at Gettysburg of more than 50,000 Civil War veterans was an event worthy of front page news coverage day after day; editorials in newspapers around the country and around the world praising the event as unprecedented in human history; a Presidential appearance by the recently inaugurated Woodrow Wilson…basically, this was a really, really big deal at the time! Yet over the years, even amidst ongoing and significant interest in the Civil War overall and the Battle of Gettysburg in particular, the Great Reunion has been all but forgotten!
In my case, I had never heard of the Great Reunion until I wandered into the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania one afternoon in mid-2001 late one afternoon, trying to decompress from a particularly trying workday in the world of consulting by indulging in my passion for American history. I did my best to race through the facility and beat the clock before they closed, and near the end of my rushed visitation I came upon a room with pictures, memorabilia, and video from the Great Reunion of 1913 and also another smaller and final gathering of Blue and Gray veterans 25 years later in 1938 at the dawn of World War II.
For more than a decade, I would occasionally delve into whatever books, online web pages, and other material I could find about that gathering in 1913. Part of my intense interest was for the purposes of conducting research for a historical novel set during the Great Reunion, but an even larger part was the sheer fascination about what had taken place in Gettysburg 50 years after the famous battle. And the more I learned, the more fascinated I became.
Here are a few of the highlights, with much, much more to come in future posts:
– More than 50,000 Civil War veterans attended the Great Reunion…the official report of the Pennsylvania Commission put the attendance at 53,407 veterans.
– 44,713 of the attendees were Union veterans, while 8,694 of them were Confederate veterans…a 5-to-1 “advantage” to the Northern side in terms of attendance, which is interesting because so many of the photographs from the event seem to convey a somewhat even split in attendance from both sides of the war.
– More than 22,000 of the attendees were from Pennsylvania…including, interestingly, 303 Confederate veterans who were registered as being from that northern state.
– As word of the Great Reunion spread, attendance estimates spiked upwards in the months preceding the event from the original estimates of around 40,000 total…leading to a facilities crisis and the heartbreaking turning away of a number of arriving Civil War veterans who couldn’t be accommodated the night of June 30th, 1913.
– Even though many people think of the Great Reunion as being a reunion of veterans of the Battle of Gettysburg, the event in fact was open to all Civil War veterans, whether or not one fought at Gettysburg.
– The youngest veteran attendee was 61…and the oldest was supposedly 111 years, 9 months old: a gentleman named Macagan Ware of Beaver Brook, New Jersey, and we’ll look into that claim in a future blog entry.
– An earlier Blue-Gray reunion had been held at Gettysburg in 1888 on the 25th anniversary of the battle, and at least two other smaller ones for the Union’s Philadelphia Brigade and survivors of Pickett’s Division (of “Pickett’s Charge” fame) occurred. Then the reunion later in 1938, on the 75th anniversary of the battle, was much smaller than that of 1913…as one might expect considering that nearly every attendee was more than 90 years old!
– There were many interesting personalities associated with the Great Reunion, but two who stand out (and both will be discussed in more detail in future blog entries) are General Henry S. Huidekoper, who first came up with the idea for this particular 50th anniversary reunion back in 1908, and John K. Tener, the Governor of Pennsylvania during the latter part of the years of planning and the event itself.
What makes these two men stand out? General Huidekoper, a Medal of Honor winner who lost his right arm during the Battle of Gettysburg due to severe wounds, is the great-great-grandfather of Meg Whitman of eBay fame who ran for Governor of California and is currently CEO of Hewlett-Packard. And Governor Tener was a former major league baseball player during the 1800s who later became President of the National League…while he was still Governor of Pennsylvania!
If you have never heard of the Great Reunion, or if you are only vaguely familiar with that occasion nearly a century ago, then hopefully this “T minus 6 months and counting” entry has caught your interest and you’ll be a frequent visitor as the days tick down to those two upcoming milestone anniversaries. And even if you are an aficionado of the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg and perhaps even the Great Reunion, then hopefully some of the off-the-beaten-path tidbits in this initial entry will give you a reason to come back to visit because the entries here will be as interesting and engaging as I can possibly make them!
Let the countdown begin!