Remembering Last Reunion Of Civil War Veterans

Commentator John McDonough recalls the last great reunion of Civil War veterans from the North and South. It took place July 3-5, 1938, on the 75th anniversary of Gettysburg — at Gettysburg, Pa. At the time, the whole country was almost painfully aware that the last living links to a decisive event were about to slip away.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

July 4th marks the anniversary of a decisive moment in Civil War history. In 1863, Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army retreated from Gettysburg. For three days, Union and Confederate troops had clashed in Pennsylvania. The struggle was probably as significant to the outcome of the Civil War as D-Day was to the Second World War.

Commentator John McDonough sees a relationship between anniversary commemorations for both battles.

Mr. JOHN MCDONOUGH (Commentator): Certain rituals of remembrance mark our stepping stones into the present. These rituals take on a special importance and urgency when there are still witnesses to link us to our past. But living memory is fragile and obeys the laws of supply and demand - cheap in bounty, but treasured in scarcity.

You may remember less than month ago, the attention of the country turned to a rocky precipice on the northern coast of France facing the English Channel -Pointe du Hoc it was called. A number of men gathered there to remember, once more, what they had done 65 years before on D-Day. President Obama was there, too.

President BARACK OBAMA: We cannot help but draw strength from those moments in history when the best among us were somehow able to swallow their fears and secure a beachhead on an unforgiving shore.

Mr. MCDONOUGH: If you were stirred or moved by any of that, then maybe you can imagine what it might've been like at another remembrance 71 years ago this week. It was 1938 and the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.

(Soundbite of a news broadcast)

Unidentified Man #1: Seventy-five years ago this afternoon, cannon roared at Gettysburg. Today, exactly three-quarters of a century later, the boys in blue and the boys in gray are meeting on this historic battlefield for their last reunion. The program this afternoon is the official opening of the final reunion of the blue and the gray.

Mr. MCDONOUGH: Between 1861 and 1865, two and a half million men served in the Union Army. Figures are less precise for Confederate forces. About 620,000 were killed on both sides.

Fifty years later, in 1913, more than 50,000 veterans returned to Gettysburg. It would be the largest Civil War reunion ever. Veteran groups talked for several years about a 75th reunion. But by 1938, the roll call of veterans still alive had shrunk to about 10,000. A final reunion became possible when the federal government offered to provide free transportation.

(Soundbite of a news broadcast)

Unidentified Man #2: I wish that all of you elsewhere could be in Gettysburg to see the most colorful sight of your lives. Early Wednesday morning, the opening date of the observance of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the first of 26 special trains rolled into this historic community. Laughing and crying and waving their hats, these old veterans, each with an attendant, detrained and were welcomed officially to Gettysburg.

Mr. MCDONOUGH: A sense of 19th century formality descended on Gettysburg. Some veterans arrived in uniform. Many sported tufts of white sideburns, mustaches and goatees. Despite the sweltering July heat, films show nearly everyone dressed in coats, vests and neckties.

(Soundbite of a news broadcast)

Unidentified Man #2: These fine old gentlemen boarded a fleet of buses and were taken to their tented city, the largest of its kind and the most modern ever constructed in peacetime.

Mr. MCDONOUGH: More than 1,900 Union and Confederate veterans came. Awaiting them was a fleet of wheelchairs, 3,800 tents, 20 miles of electric wiring, 50,000 yards of mosquito netting and 27 cases of whiskey. Their average age now is 94, but only the whiskey was in short supply. It was a national event of remembrance unlike any the country had seen in a generation. Front page news in The New York Times and broadcast live by all four radio networks.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #3: Some 2,000 veterans, ages from 90 and upwards, have gathered in what will be the final get-together of the blue and the gray. And so tonight, radio is privileged for the first time to play a part in this pageant, to bring the voices of those veterans of the blue and the gray into your homes from Maine to California.

Mr. MCDONOUGH: Some of the voices had grown weak by then, but they still had stories to tell.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Man #3: General Gillette, will you tell us in your own words your experiences during the celebrated Pickett Charge at the Bloody Angle at the Battle of Gettysburg?

General O.R. GILLETTE (Civil War Veteran): Well, I belonged to Davis Division, that Davis Brigade and we get about 10 feet at the slope, then we had to turn. Those that were living had to turn.

Unidentified Man #3: What do you mean by turn?

Gen. GILLETTE: Run, run like hell.

Unidentified Man #3: You don't mean to say, General Gillette, that soldiers run?

Gen. GILLETTE: Well, if one tell you he didn't, he's telling you a damn lie.

Mr. MCDONOUGH: Newsreel cameras were there, too, capturing images the country would never see again.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #4: Actual spots where famous skirmishes and attacks took place were revisited. Once again, these soldiers of another day stood by an unforgettable stone wall, used as a Union breastworks in repulsing Confederate advances. Only a few southerners crossed it.

Mr. MCDONOUGH: The stone wall still stood and became the focal point of one particularly remarkable moment.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Man #5: Seventy-five years ago, almost to the hour, the cause of the Confederacy reached its crest in the climax of the charge of that immortal Virginian, George Henry Pickett.

Mr. MCDONOUGH: About a dozen veterans of Gettysburg gathered on opposite sides of that wall, reached across the stones and shook hands.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Man #6: Hello.

Unidentified Man #7: Hello.

(Soundbite of crowd)

(Soundbite of cheering)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #8: That's the rebel yell.

Mr. MCDONOUGH: Some believe that to be the only authentic recording of the famed rebel yell by a Confederate soldier.

Unidentified Man #9: This is the third day of the final reunion of the blue and the gray.

Mr. MCDONOUGH: At 6:30 Sunday afternoon, 150,000 people turned out to hear President Roosevelt dedicate the new Peace Monument on Oak Hill.

President FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: On behalf of the people of the United States, I accept this monument in the spirit of brotherhood and peace.

Mr. MCDONOUGH: Moments later, two Gettysburg veterans jointly lowered the giant American flag, shrouding the 35-foot-tall tower.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Man #9: The two ropes are pulled, the flag hovers for a second on one, now comes the "Star-Spangled Banner."

(Soundbite of song, "Star-Spangled Banner")

Unidentified Man #9: Slowly the Union veteran and the Confederate veteran, helped by United States Army men, feebly walk to the side, light the light. You can hear the applause from the great sea of people, the unbelievable mass of people who are spread out over Oak Ridge, where fighting went on July 1st, 75 years ago at this Gettysburg battlefield.

Mr. MCDONOUGH: If you listen to the broadcasts and read the stories, you find yourself constantly coming on the phrases, last reunion, the final gathering. A terrible inevitability of impending loss pervaded Gettysburg in 1938, as thread by thread, the final living ties to a fabled American past were breaking before our eyes, and we were powerless to capture or contain the loss.

Three veterans would die at Gettysburg before the celebration ended. And every year that followed, the roll call grew smaller. By 1952, 91 years after the start of the war, the reunion of Confederate veterans numbered two: William Bush and William Townsend.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Man #10: How old are you now, General Bush?

Mr. WILLIAM BUSH: A hundred and six years.

Unidentified Man #10: How old are you now, General Townsend?

Mr. WILLIAM TOWNSEND: A hundred and six.

Unidentified Man #10: Same age. You think this will be the last time we'll be together?

Mr. TOWNSEND: Yes, I do.

Unidentified Man #10: What do you think now, Bush?

Mr. BUSH: I don't know. ...I ain't dying yet.

Mr. MCDONOUGH: When did the last Civil War veteran die? Well, that's a dispute, so we'll leave that for experts to argue. More important, why should we spend time today reminiscing on this reminiscence? Perhaps because the life cycle of living memory doesn't change. As of this report, there are five verified World War I veterans still living, two of them Americans.

We've paid far less attention to World War I than we might have, largely because of World War II, which brings us back to President Obama last month at Pointe du Hoc. Ten years from now, on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, there will be another gathering at Normandy with another president, but fewer veterans, just as there was at Gettysburg in 1938. The uniforms will be different, but the faces will be remarkably alike. The rule is, by looking back, sometimes you can see forward.

For NPR News, this is John McDonough.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: John McDonough is an independent radio producer in Chicago.

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