Opposing Civil War Veterans Met in Peace 50 Years After the Battle of Gettysburg

Confederate veteran in United Confederate Veterans uniform and Union veteran in Grand Army of the Republic uniform with medals, clasping hands. (Library of Congress)

It's not uncommon for veterans to find closure and a sense of peace by visiting the places where they once fought for their lives. World War II veterans have been returning to Europe for decades. Vietnam veterans not only return to Vietnam to visit their battlegrounds, but they also go to help rebuild the country.

With this in mind, it shouldn't be a surprise that Americans who once fought one another on the bloody battlefields of the Civil War could come together and shake hands decades later. Some 53,000 veterans of the Battle of Gettysburg did just that in 1913, 50 years after the battle ended with a Union victory, sounding a death knell for the Confederacy.

Friendly and often jubilant, the reunion reinforced the words of President Abraham Lincoln, who remarked in the Gettysburg Address, "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here."

The four-day event saw the largest tent city erected on American soil since the end of the war itself. Five thousand tents were erected as living spaces, along with numerous mess tents and gathering sites, including a 13,000-person "Great Tent," where the reunion's events were held. The Gettysburg reunion was so massive, it had its own doctors, medical tents, post office and even a morgue.

When they arrived, they came in such large numbers that it overwhelmed the already massive services plan designed for them. Despite the stress put on the resources allotted for the reunion, the veterans themselves took care of each other.

Civil War veterans meet at the 1913 Gettysburg Reunion tent city. (Library of Congress)

"They forgave each other; they served each other; they laughed and sang together, and in that moment, beginning within each of their hearts, they shone as bright examples to a nation still divided by the bitter division of Civil War," noted one onlooker, a scout master with the Boy Scouts of America.

The days were filled with speeches (including a keynote from President Woodrow Wilson), reviews, parades and reunions of individual military units and fireworks displays. The end of the first day was even met with a good-natured "raid" on the Confederate side of the camp by the Union veterans.

One photo even captured a reunion between Union and Confederate veterans who fought at "The Angle," a low, stone fence that was the central focus of Pickett's Charge. The Union veterans were from Gen. Alexander Webb's Philadelphia Brigade.

The Confederates were what remained of Maj. Gen. George Pickett's 6,000 men who charged the Union position behind the fence that day. Half of the men who charged the fence died there. The 1913 photo shows both sides shaking hands over the fence 50 years later.

Across the stone wall, which marks the boundaries of the famous "Bloody Angle" where Pickett lost over 3,000 men from a force of 6,000 these old soldiers of the North and South clasped hands in fraternal affection. (Library of Congress)

The 1863 Battle of Gettysburg was arguably the turning point in the American Civil War. The days and weeks before the battle were the high water mark of the Confederate states while the Union Army suffered an overall leadership crisis. When Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia invaded the North, he had the initiative, an army whose morale was high and a firm belief that he could destroy the Army of the Potomac.

After the first day of fighting, things looked bleak for the Union. Federal armies were routed and escaped through the streets of Gettysburg, literally running for the hills. On the second day, however, the Union lines held as fighting raged across the battlefield. The third day saw a turn of events for the rebel forces, culminating in Pickett's Charge, a disastrous assault that broke the charging Confederate Army and forced its retreat back into Virginia.

After the Battle of Gettysburg, the Confederates were never again able to mount an invasion of the North. Paired with the Union capture of Vicksburg, Mississippi, in the west, the loss was a harbinger of doom for the rebel armies and the Confederacy itself. Within two years, Lee would surrender and the southern states would suffer their final defeat.

An 1864 illustration of the Battle of Gettysburg. (National Archives)

When the Civil War ended, veterans of both sides of the war were not treated the same. Union veterans who were disabled as a result of service were granted pensions as early as 1862. By the turn of the 20th century, caring for Civil War vets was the country's largest federal expenditure. Elderly veterans were cared for by a system of veterans homes throughout the country.

Confederate veterans were not considered veterans under the law. They were restored to full citizenship after the war and were allowed to vote, which was considered enough care at the time. Although many received state pensions in the southern states, they did not have access to federal care. Eventually, the federal government began providing grave markers for Confederate veterans. It wasn't until 1958 that Public Law 85 extended pensions to Confederate veterans and their families.

If 53,000 veterans returning to the battlefield after 50 years seems like a lot, it's important to remember that number is only a fraction of the people who fought there. As many as 179,000 Americans fought on both sides of the battle. It's estimated that another 50,000 were killed or wounded in the fighting.

The last confirmed Confederate Civil War veteran, Pleasant Crump, died in 1951 at age 104. Albert Woolson was the last surviving Civil War veteran and the last Union veteran. He died at age 106 in 1956.

There was only one event that interrupted the peace of the Civil War reunion. A Philadelphia local and son of a Confederate officer apparently called President Lincoln a "vile name" during breakfast at a local hotel. The outburst resulted in a Union veteran tossing his drink on the man and a large fight that led to eight men being stabbed.

Despite the one outburst of violence, the 1913 reunion was largely peaceful. It began with a reading of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and ended with a five-minute silent tribute, where all in attendance stood at attention. A bugle and artillery salute signaled the end of the reunion. Many veterans filled their pockets with dirt from the hallowed ground as they returned home.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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