A Civil War historian’s take on the Great Reunion

When I was an Air Force officer in the early and mid-1980s, one of my favorite magazines was American Heritage. Some of America’s greatest historians have contributed to the magazine over the years.

One of those illustrious contributors – and also the founding editor – was Bruce Catton, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954 for his classic book A Stillness at Appomattox. (Side note: with the 150th anniversary of the Appomattox campaign and the end of the Civil War coming up in April, 2015, I hope Mr. Catton’s landmark work receives the attention of a new generation not previously familiar with his writing). He also authored a series of books fifty years ago between 1961 and 1965 to mark the centennial commemoration of the Civil War, and had previously authored a number of other works throughout the 1950s. He continued writing about the Civil War, as well as occasionally other topics, into the 1970s before his death in August, 1978.

For the June/July issue of American Heritage that was published just before Mr. Catton died, he contributed an article entitled “The Day the Civil War Ended” with the subtitle “Gettysburg, Fifty Years After.” In his article Bruce Catton described the buildup to the Great Reunion as well as some of the anecdotes from the gathering. But much of the focus of his article was based upon the recollections of a gentleman named Philip Myers who had been an 18-year old photographer’s assistant during the Great Reunion and who, sometime in the 1970s, was interviewed about that occasion.

The most heartfelt portion of Mr. Catton’s short article, in my opinion, is the latter part in which he relates Mr. Myers’ recollections of the reenactment of Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1913, an event (the reenactment) I will visit in both this blog and in Gettysburg, 1913: A Novel of the Great Reunion. The final lines of Mr. Catton’s article, beginning with the final sentence of what he quoted from Mr. Myers’ recollections:

“Now they fell upon each other—not in mortal combat, but re-united in brotherly love and affection.”

The Civil War was over.
To Mr. Catton, at least for the purposes of what may have been the last piece of writing of his life, it wasn’t just the Great Reunion itself that signaled the “end” of the Civil War but more precisely, the reenactment by Confederate and Union veterans alike of that terrible clash from fifty years earlier “not [with] rifles and bayonets, but canes and crutches.”

You can read Mr. Catton’s article in its entirety on the American Heritage website at:


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3 Responses to A Civil War historian’s take on the Great Reunion

  1. Jeff Fiddler says:

    The Lynching Calendar: 1900-1939 – Autopsis.org

    Catton was not a bigot – I’ve known people who knew him quite well. But he managed to write many books on the War of the Rebellion hardly ever mentioning Black people, slaves, slaveholders, and so forth.
    So in 1912 64 men were lynched, in 1913 51 were lynched and of course the whole country was segregated to varying degrees.
    Was the “Civil War over?” Not by a long shot IMHO.

    I can also add that both in 1913 and 1937 there were many GAR and UCV posts that did NOT want to participate in the Reunion(s).. You have to go thru the GAR annual meeting votes to see that the GAR had to make it a personal decision to participate, not a post decision.

    I love your idea of spreading the stories, photos, film, etc about the Great Reunion(s). I have the pamphlets on the ’37 reunion.
    There were a few Black, USCT vets at the 75th Reunion. Were there ANY at the 1913 reunion?


  2. Hi Jeff – thanks very much for adding a comment to the blog and this posting in particular. I think Bruce Catton’s “The Civil War was over” line, the final one in that article (and perhaps the final one he ever wrote given his death not long afterwards), was simply a matter of dramatic effect to accentuate the theme of his article.

    Speaking as a writer, there’s an ingrained part of us where many times as we are crafting paragraphs and painting a picture we naturally gravitate towards a simple but dramatic (maybe even overly dramatic) 4- or 5-word sentence to cap the point we’re trying to make. This is true whether we are writing fiction or (as in Mr. Catton’s case) non-fiction. By coincidence, just earlier this afternoon I was browsing through a short non-fiction work that I wrote late last year about my own memories of watching Roberto Clemente when I was growing up in Pittsburgh and his tragic death just over 40 years ago. I wrote the equivalent to Mr. Catton’s “The Civil War was over” line at the very end of almost every single chapter and I remember as I was doing the writing, I was very consciously steering the flow and tone of the sentences to be able to deliver those “punchlines.”

    Further, I would imagine Mr. Catton was focusing solely on the combat aspect – armed Union soldiers versus armed Confederate soldiers – and this particular peaceful reenactment by the actual participants in such a famous and bloody massacre was the perfect segue to the final sentence he wanted to use. I don’t think he wanted to go anywhere near the topic of race for that particular article, but rather to simply be able to segue from the first-hand description of the Pickett’s Charge reenactment into his own memorable “punchline.”

    You bring up a good point about Black veterans attending (or not) the Great Reunion. Several years ago a novel called ENCAMPMENT: A NOVEL OF RACE AND RECONCILIATION was published with the premise that Black veterans did attend the 1913 Reunion, instead of the event having been all-white.

    However: I’m fairly certain that over the years I’ve seen pictures with captions indicating that Black veterans indeed were at Gettysburg in 1913. But I’ve also seen a number of pictures from 1938 purporting to be from 1913, and vice versa, so I was never quite sure. But I did make a mental note of “need to check this out” but to date I’ve never found a definitive answer. In the official Pennsylvania report published in December, 1913 I don’t believe that any of the pictures taken during the encampment show any Black veterans in attendance.

    So you bring up a good question, one I think I will take off of my “need to check this out” list and…well, do exactly that.

    Again, thanks for your thoughts; appreciate it. Alan

  3. Jeff – And I’m back 🙂 with some research.

    I found a few articles online that stated Black Union and Confederate veterans did attend the 1913 Great Reunion and even made claims about how they were received, but these articles did not cite primary sources so I would put them in the category of “unofficial.”

    Here’s the most valuable resource I’ve found so far: a 2011 academic paper from Gettysburg College that I want to read in more detail before commenting, but what jumped out at me from a late-night quick read is that SCHOLARS are divided between whether or not Black veterans were invited. Some believe the answer is “yes” but others emphatically state “no.”

    I’m finding this fascinating now that I’m reading; stand by, I may do a post next week just about the controversy and why there are different scholarly opinions about this question, and nobody seems to know for sure.

    Thanks for raising this particular question in the context of Mr. Catton’s article; you’ve given me a topic for a posting in the next couple of days.


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