THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Sunday, July 2, 1995 TAG: 9506300571 SECTION: COMMENTARY PAGE: J3 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: GEORGE TUCKER LENGTH: Medium: 71 lines
More than 50,000 Union and Confederate veterans - from retired officers to former drummer boys - met at Gettysburg, Pa., on July 1-4, 1913 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the greatest battle ever fought on North American soil. Among them were 3,000 one-time Virginia Boys in Gray, many from the Norfolk area.
Nothing like the reunion had ever been held before in this country. As the half-century anniversary approached, the federal government and the state of Pennsylvania invited all honorably discharged veterans from both sides of the conflict to convene at Gettysburg for a grand reunion. A 280-acre encampment of 6,592 tents equipped with 90 latrines, some containing as many as 40 seats, was set up. Servicing the tent city were 173 field kitchens where 2,000 cooks dished up 168,000 meals a day during the celebration.
On July 1, 1913, The Virginia-Pilot concluded a well-wishing editorial to the living and the dead with this flourish: ``To such, whether their dust sleeps on the hillside at Gettysburg, or whether they are now nearing their graves which will be blest by unending tributes from all who hold courage and fidelity in esteem - The Virginian-Pilot bows with uncovered head.''
Meanwhile, the old fellows, most in their 70s, poured into Gettysburg from all over the country, renewed long-neglected friendships and swapped yarns over ample libations in the town's well-patronized saloons. One duo, bitter enemies in 1863, even visited a hardware store, bought a hatchet, hiked out to the battlefield and buried it with the hope that the country would never be divided again.
Since the temperature was torrid, thousands of the veterans had to be treated for heat exhaustion. Nine of them died. Still, the soaring thermometer did not put a crimp in the prevailing euphoria. As one old fellow expressed it: ``If there is any part of your life in which you were where you should have been and did what you should have done, it is the great Olympiad of `61 and `65.''' Then, reflecting on his own and many of his companion's post war letdowns, he asked wistfully, ``What have you felt or looked on since that is not pitifully small by comparison?''
The reunion climaxed at 3:15 p.m. on July 3, 1913, when a thin, gray line of Pickett's surviving men followed their colors toward the stone wall at Bloody Angle, just as they had done during their famous charge in 1863. Advancing toward them in the opposite direction was a line of aging volunteers of the Philadelphia Brigade, the Union heroes who put a period to the High Tide of the Confederacy. When the two divisions met, they reached across the wall and tearfully embraced one another.
From then on, the celebration was anticlimactic, even though President Woodrow Wilson addressed the veterans on July 4th. This was followed by a five-minute tribute to those who died in the battle, silent except for the distant booming of a cannon. After ``The Star Spangled Banner'' had been sung, the old boys - many on canes or crutches - limped home again.
The celebration was widely covered by the nation's newspapers. But its true significance was not lost on many thoughtful Americans who regarded it as a reaffirmation of what Abraham lincoln said on the same spot in his Gettysburg Address on Nov. 19, 1863. Lincoln's concluding remarks are still pertinent today. They read:
``It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us - that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion - that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain - that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.'' ILLUSTRATION: Photo
Confederate and Union veterans met at the Gettysburg reunion July