I grew up in Pittsburgh, and the names of the city’s tycoons and business leaders who defined and dominated the second half of the 19th century were all around us: Carnegie; Frick; Mellon; Phipps. Another name, though, was rarely heard among these other illustrious ones, and one could convincingly argue that James Martinus Schoonmaker didn’t quite make the “first team” when it came to the great Pittsburgh industrialists of that era.
However, one could also argue that Schoonmaker bore a unique, defining characteristic that Carnegie and the others lacked. Specifically, he was a Civil War hero and the recipient of the Medal of Honor for his actions during the war in 1864 at the Third Battle of Winchester.
First, the business leader/tycoon side of Colonel James Schoonmaker. Originally in the coal mining and coke business, he sold his interests to Frick in the early 1870s and then turned his attentions to railroads by co-founding the Pennsylvania & Lake Erie Railroad, eventually becoming Chairman of the Board of the P&LE. He also served on the Board of the Directors of the illustrious Mellon Bank, a long-time Pittsburgh institution and financial powerhouse. So despite being sort of “second team” in name recognition among Pittsburgh tycoons, James Schoonmaker definitely was a player in the big leagues, one might say.
Before all of his business accomplishments, however, Colonel Schoonmaker did demonstrate extreme courage and bravery leading his troops during a dismounted cavalry charge against the Confederates in Winchester, Virginia during an encounter known by some as the Third Battle of Winchester and by others as the Battle of Opequon…an act that earned him the Medal of Honor. Interestingly, Schoonmaker was awarded his Medal of Honor in 1899…35 years after the events themselves occurred. In a future blog entry, I’ll explore why Schoonmaker and so many others were awarded Medals of Honor for Civil War heroics but not until the 1890s.
So what does all of this have to do with the Great Reunion? Simple: James Schoonmaker was the Chairman of Pennsylvania’s official Fiftieth Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg Commission, presiding over the preparations for the event as well as the Great Reunion itself. It was James Schoonmaker who, as the first speaker at the opening ceremonies on July 1, 1913, proclaimed:
The honor falls to me, as chairman of the Pennsylvania State
Commission, of presiding at the opening exercises of a celebration
unparalleled in the history of the world; an occasion on which the
survivors of two mighty armies, locked in deadly conflict for three
consecutive days, fought a battle in which the mortality was greater
than in any other recorded in history, before or since that memorable
event, fighting for a principle as GOD gave them to see the
right, are now, fifty years after, assembled on this historic field
over which they struggled, in closest friendly relationship, citizens
of one country, with one flag, made a hundred fold stronger and
more enduring by their mighty deeds on this and a hundred other
(Source: the official Pennsylvania report on the Great Reunion, December 31, 1913; Page 95)
Colonel Schoonmaker lived for another fourteen years following the Great Reunion, passing away in 1927.