President Woodrow Wilson and the Great Reunion (Part I)

Today many of us think of Woodrow Wilson as one of our “outsized” Presidents for having been the Chief Executive during World War I; for having won the Nobel Peace Prize for sponsoring the League of Nations; and then for his unsuccessful attempt to push the Treaty of Versailles through Congress…plus also secretly spending his final months as President severely incapacitated, a secret that was withheld from the American public and even much of the Government until after Wilson’s death in 1924.

But the time of the Great Reunion – early July of 1913 – Woodrow Wilson had been President of the United States for all of four months. (In those days the Presidential inauguration was held on March 4th, not January 20th or 21st as it is today). In fact, Woodrow Wilson’s 4th of July speech at the Great Reunion was delivered on his fourth-month anniversary as President.

Prior to taking office as President, Wilson had been the Governor of New Jersey, and in Gettysburg, 1913: A Novel of the Great Reunion I make reference to Wilson and Pennsylvania’s Governor John K. Tener, who presided over the Great Reunion, as having recently been colleagues as neighboring Governors with their respective state capitals less than 150 miles apart from each other…and having frequently collaborated with one another on matters involving their respective states.

Interestingly, for having been recent colleagues (from different political parties however; Wilson was a Democrat and Tener a Republican), Woodrow Wilson certainly seemed to have shown a lack of regard for his former fellow Governor, the Pennsylvania Commission responsible for planning and leading the Great Reunion, and the old veterans who made the trip to Gettysburg. For most of March and April he dithered back and forth about whether or not he would attend the Great Reunion at Tener’s and the Commission’s invitation, adding a great deal of uncertainty to the planning of the event…including the necessary security for the President should he attend. Programs were finally printed indicating that Wilson would speak on July 4th in the Great Tent, even though it was unclear whether or not Wilson would actually be there. Wilson, in fact, at one point notified the Commission that “Sorry, I won’t be attending.” Here’s how Pennsylvania’s official report on the Great Reunion reported what had happened:

“Friday morning, July 4th, no Reunions in the Great Tent had
been scheduled, as it was originally this Commission’s desire to
there hold Peace Jubilee services, starting at 10:00 o’clock that
morning, with the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme
Court presiding, and the President of the United States to deliver
the oration, and, at high noon, dedicate the site for a
Great Peace Memorial. But it appearing during the closing
hours of the summer session of the late Congress (62nd), that
no action could he had at its hands to make such a Peace Memorial
possible, and both the President and the Chief Justice
having declined the invitations of this Commission to be present
as its Guests of Honor, and to participate in the Great
Reunion, all these services on July 4th had to be abandoned,
the fireworks of the evening before having been arranged as
the closing event of the Reunion.”

Finally, though, just as the encampment grounds opened and the Great Reunion was about to begin:

“But on Saturday afternoon, June 28th, the President having advised this
Commission that he found that he could so arrange his official duties that
it would be possible for him to be present with us for a limited
time on July 4th, and deliver an address, arrangements were
at once accordingly made for his proper reception and entertainment
during the very limited period he would be our guest.
Arriving on July 4th, sharp on the hour of 11 A. M., he was met
at the station by His Excellency, Governor Tener, and, escorted
by the State Police, taken direct to the Great Tent, as
was his desire, was there presented to the assembled veterans
of the Blue and of the Gray, delivered his address, and immediately
thereafter entering his private car on the special train,
departed well within the hour.”

Maybe it’s only my own “reading between the lines” impressions having spent so much time researching the Great Reunion for more than a decade now, but it seems that the wording directly above from the official report contains a fair amount of criticism for President Wilson…noting that he went back and forth about attending and then after finally deciding to make an appearance he showed up, gave his speech, and then “blew out of town” as quickly as he could. Even the wording of the previous portion, how the plans for July 4th at the Great Reunion had to be canceled when the President declined to appear but then quickly had to be revived when the President finally decided at the last minute to appear, appear somewhat critical of Wilson’s apparent lack of regard for the magnificent commemoration occurring at Gettysburg.

With President Wilson’s attendance finally secured, arrangements were made (as noted above) for his speech that was delivered on Independence Day, 1913, on the final official day of the Great Reunion. In our next blog entry we will take a look at Wilson’s speech.

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