Gettysburg at 50: The Great Reunion of 1913

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

From June 29 to July 6, 1913, the Union and Confederate flags flew side by side when more than 50,000 Civil War veterans convened in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of one of the most pivotal battles in American history. Here’s a closer look at the Great Reunion of 1913.

The Idea

In April 1908, General H. S. Huidekoper, a Philadelphia native who lost his right arm at Gettysburg in 1863, suggested a fitting semicentennial observance of the three-day battle to Pennsylvania Governor Edwin S. Stuart.

Stuart, who presented the idea to the state’s General Assembly in January 1909 and established the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg Commission later that year, envisioned a reunion of Union and Confederate soldiers that would be talked about for years to come. “Other States, both north and south, whose sons fought at Gettysburg, will surely co-operate in making the occasion one that will stand foremost in the martial history of the world,” he said.

Several reunions had been held at Gettysburg before, including one to commemorate the 15th anniversary, but this one would trump them all.

The Planning

John K. Tener, a former major league baseball player who succeeded Stuart as Pennsylvania Governor in 1911, oversaw most of the planning for the reunion. Invitations were extended to all Civil War veterans and the Commission called upon the National Government and individual states to appropriate funds for travel to and from Gettysburg, predominantly by rail.

With assistance from the War Department, the Commission helped prepare Gettysburg, a town of 4,500, for the 100,000 visitors (about half of them non-veterans) expected to attend the reunion. The official celebration would be held from July 1 (Veteran’s Day) to July 4.

The Great Camp

The camp for the veterans at Gettysburg officially opened on June 29, and the first meal of the reunion was served that evening. About 25,000 veterans, including Major Gen. Daniel E. Sickles, the only surviving corps commander on either side, arrived on the first day.

The camp comprised 280 acres and more than 5,000 tents, which were organized by state and equipped with two hand basins and a water bucket. Artesian wells were installed in the months leading up to the reunion to supply water to the veterans’ village. According to the Commission’s report, there were 53,407 veterans in camp. In addition, 124 officers and 1,342 enlisted men were assigned by the War Department to help make sure things ran smoothly, while 155 newspapermen and 2,170 cooks brought the total in camp to 57,198.

Only veterans with the proper credentials, such as honorable discharge or pension papers, were fed and sheltered in the camp. Most of the 50,000 non-veterans who traveled to Gettysburg to share in the celebration were housed at Gettysburg College.

Exercises in the Great Tent

Public exercises were held July 1-4 in a giant tent, equipped with 13,000 chairs, inside the camp. Colonel J.M. Schoonmaker, the chairman of the Pennsylvania Commission, opened the ceremonies on July 1 at 2 p.m. Dedications of state monuments followed. The second day of the reunion, Military Day, featured a reading of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the introduction of members of Union Gen. George G. Meade’s family. July 3, Governor’s Day, featured 65 regimental reunions, speeches by more than a dozen Governors, a flag ceremony at the site of Pickett’s charge, and a fireworks display. An address by President Woodrow Wilson highlighted the festivities on the Fourth of July.

Sweltering Conditions

Temperatures climbed into the triple digits on the first few days of the reunion. According to a report by the U.S. Army’s Chief Surgeon, 744 cases were admitted to the camp’s hospitals, and 319 of those were for heat exhaustion. (Sunstroke and tonsillitis each accounted for one case.) There were nine fatalities during the reunion, but considering the mean age of the veterans present was 72 and that most had traveled hundreds of miles to attend, it’s a wonder that number wasn’t greater. The post-reunion report by the Pennsylvania Commission declared the number of fatalities as “nothing short of marvelous.”

Food and Supplies

Cooks served 688,000 meals from June 29 to July 6. The great camp was stocked with 156,410 pounds of meat, 14,722 pounds of fowl, 7,008 cans of fish, 24,930 dozen eggs, 12,383 pounds of butter, and 403 gallons of pickles, among many other provisions. The dessert menu included 2,015 gallons of ice cream and 7,000 pies. Unused meat and vegetables were sold at auction after the camp closed. Fifty-four thousand mess kits were provided to the veterans as souvenirs. Each mess kit contained a fork, knife, small and large spoon, tin cup, and two plates. Veterans were asked to bring their own towels and toiletries.

Reunions Within the Reunion

When they weren’t taking in the scheduled public exercises at the reunion, veterans spent their time in Gettysburg reminiscing with friends and getting to know former foes. It was common for a veteran to seek out a man who may have shot him or exchange badges with a soldier from the other side. Two men reportedly purchased a hatchet at a local hardware store, walked it to the site where their regiments fought, and buried it. Here are three of the more interesting mini-reunions mentioned in the Pennsylvania Commission’s report and various newspaper accounts:

Flower Girls
When Gen. John Buford’s blue-uniformed soldiers rode through the streets of Gettysburg on June 30, 1863, a throng of girls in white dresses greeted them. The girls sang patriotic songs and threw flowers while standing on grocery boxes to get a better look at the troops. “It was a mighty cheering preparation for the fight of the next day,” one member of the Sixth New York Cavalry recalled.

Fifty years later, the members of the Sixth New York Cavalry who returned to Gettysburg combed the town in search of surviving members of that welcoming party. They found six women, who were brought to camp for an impromptu reunion. “We wish to thank you and say ‘God bless you’ for the friendly greeting you extended to us in those days so long ago, when kind words from gentle and noble women were like an oasis in a desert,” one member of the Sixth said. The women then sang a stirring rendition of “Rally Round the Flag.”

Bragging Rights
An op-ed in The New York Times during the reunion mentioned that many veterans reminisced about their experiences at Gettysburg in 1863 as they would a baseball contest. A separate article described the scene of a Union and a Confederate soldier posing for a photo by shaking hands next to a cannon. The Union soldier turned to the Confederate and said, “I’m mighty glad to do this, you know; but still, you know, we did lick you.”

“You Are the Man”
Yet another New York Times article detailed an encounter between a Confederate soldier who was shot at the Bloody Angle, and would have died, were it not for a Union soldier who came to his rescue. A Union soldier who heard this story told the Confederate that he had saved a Confederate at the Bloody Angle that day, describing exactly what he had done. The Confederate examined the Union soldier more closely and declared, “But my God, that’s just what the Yankee did for me. There couldn’t have been two cases like that at the same time. You are the man.”

President Wilson’s Address

President Wilson initially declined the invitation to the reunion, having established a personal rule not to leave Washington for any speechmaking occasion while Congress was in session, but he ultimately reconsidered and decided to attend. Wilson addressed the camp at 11 a.m. on the Fourth of July and left after the playing of the National Anthem. The process of shutting down the camp began soon after. The hospital closed on July 5, fewer than 300 veterans remained on the night of July 6, and the last veteran left on July 8.

1938 Reunion

A 75th anniversary reunion was held in 1938, but as you might imagine, most Civil War veterans had passed away by then. About 25 veterans who had fought at Gettysburg and 2,000 other veterans attended.

This article originally appeared in 2011.

The Real Case of Spontaneous Combustion That Inspired a Death in Dickens's Bleak House

iStock.com/GeorgiosArt
iStock.com/GeorgiosArt

In The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth: And Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine, medical historian Thomas Morris presents a collection of bizarre but fascinating stories culled from the pages of old medical journals and other accounts. In this tale, he discusses the final moments of an aristocratic older women, Countess Cornelia di Bandi, whose demise would provide fodder for Charles Dickens over 100 years later.

 

Do human beings ever burst into flames? Two hundred years ago, many people believed that they could, especially if the victim was female, elderly, and a heavy drinker. Spontaneous human combustion became a fashionable topic in the early 19th century, after a number of sensational presumed cases were reported in the popular press. At a period when candles were ubiquitous and clothes often highly flammable, most were probably simple domestic fires in which the unfortunate victim’s subcutaneous fat acted as supplementary fuel. Nevertheless, the circumstances in which some were discovered—with the body almost totally incinerated, but nearby objects left untouched—led some to believe that these conflagrations must have another, more mysterious, cause. Numerous theories were put forward to explain the phenomenon: some supernatural, others scientific.

One of the true believers in spontaneous combustion was Charles Dickens, who even killed off Krook, the alcoholic rag dealer in Bleak House, by means of a fire that left nothing of the old man except an object looking like a “small charred and broken log of wood.” Dickens had read everything he could find on the subject and was convinced that its veracity had been proved. His description of the demise of Krook was based closely on that of an Italian aristocrat, Countess Cornelia di Bandi, who was consumed by a fireball in her bedroom. Her case was reported in 1731 by a clergyman called Giuseppe Bianchini, and subsequently translated by a famous Italian poet and Fellow of the Royal Society, Paolo Rolli:

"The Countess Cornelia Bandi, in the 62nd year of her age, was all day as well as she used to be; but at night was observed, when at supper, dull and heavy. She retired, was put to bed, where she passed three hours and more in familiar discourses with her maid, and in some prayers; at last falling asleep, the door was shut."

The following morning, the maid noticed that her employer had not appeared at the usual time and tried to rouse her by calling through the door. Not receiving any answer, she went outside and opened a window, through which she saw this scene of horror:

"Four feet distant from the bed there was a heap of ashes, two legs untouched from the foot to the knee with their stockings on; between them was the lady’s head; whose brains, half of the back part of the skull, and the whole chin, were burnt to ashes; amongst which were found three fingers blackened. All the rest was ashes, which had this particular quality, that they left in the hand, when taken up, a greasy and stinking moisture."

Mysteriously, the furniture and linen were virtually untouched by the conflagration.

"The bed received no damage; the blankets and sheets were only raised on one side, as when a person rises up from it, or goes in; the whole furniture, as well as the bed, was spread over with moist and ash-coloured soot, which had penetrated the chest of drawers, even to foul the linen."

The soot had even coated the surfaces of a neighboring kitchen. A piece of bread covered in the foul substance was given to several dogs, all of which refused to eat it. Given that it probably consisted of the carbonized body fat of their owner, their reluctance to indulge is understandable.

"In the room above it was, moreover, taken notice that from the lower part of the windows trickled down a greasy, loathsome, yellowish liquor; and thereabout they smelt a stink, without knowing of what; and saw the soot fly around."

The floor was also covered in a “gluish moisture,” which could not be removed. Naturally, strenuous efforts were made to establish what had caused the blaze, and several of Italy’s best minds were put to the problem. Monsignor Bianchini (described as “Prebendary of Verona”) was convinced that the fire had not been started by the obvious culprits:

"Such an effect was not produced by the light of the oil lamp, or of any candles, because common fire, even in a pile, does not consume a body to such a degree; and would have besides spread it-self to the goods of the chamber, more combustible than a human body."

Bianchini also considered the possibility that the blaze might have been caused by a thunderbolt but noted that the characteristic signs of such an event, such as scorch marks on the walls and an acrid smell, were absent. What, then, did cause the inferno? The priest came to the conclusion that ignition had actually occurred inside the woman’s body:

"The fire was caused in the entrails of the body by inflamed effluvia of her blood, by juices and fermentations in the stomach, by the many combustible matters which are abundant in living bodies, for the uses of life; and finally by the fiery evaporations which exhale from the settlings of spirit of wine, brandies, and other hot liquors in the tunica villosa [inner lining] of the stomach, and other adipose or fat membranes."

Bianchini claims that such “fiery evaporations” become more flammable at night, when the body is at rest and the breathing becomes more regular. He also points out that “sparkles” are sometimes visible when certain types of cloth are rubbed against the hair (an effect caused by discharges of static electricity) and suggests that something similar might have ignited the “combustible matters” inside her abdomen.

"What wonder is there in the case of our old lady? Her dullness before going to bed was an effect of too much heat concentrated in her breast, which hindered the perspiration through the pores of her body; which is calculated to about 40 ounces per night. Her ashes, found at four feet distance from her bed, are a plain argument that she, by natural instinct, rose up to cool her heat, and perhaps was going to open a window."

Then, however, he lets slip what is probably the genuine cause of the fire:

"The old lady was used, when she felt herself indisposed, to bathe all her body with camphorated spirit of wine; and she did it perhaps that very night."

Camphorated spirits (a solution of camphor in alcohol) was often used to treat skin complaints, and as a tonic lotion. The fact that it is also highly flammable is, apparently, quite beside the point.

"This is not a circumstance of any moment; for the best opinion is that of the internal heat and fire; which, by having been kindled in the entrails, naturally tended upwards; finding the way easier, and the matter more unctuous and combustible, left the legs untouched. The thighs were too near the origin of the fire, and therefore were also burnt by it; which was certainly increased by the urine and excrements, a very combustible matter, as one may see by its phosphorus."

So it was the “internal heat and fire” that caused the countess’s demise. Only an incorrigible skeptic would point out that an old lady who was in the habit of bathing in inflammable liquids, before going to bed in a room lit by naked flames, was a walking fire hazard.

Book jacket for The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth
Dutton/Penguin Books

Excerpted from The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth: And Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine by Thomas Morris. Copyright © 2018 by Thomas Morris. Published by arrangement with DUTTON, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

A 'Lost' Disney Cartoon from 1928 Has Been Discovered in Japan

General Photographic Agency, Getty Images
General Photographic Agency, Getty Images

Before there was Mickey, the cartoon mouse who celebrated his 90th birthday on November 18, there was Oswald. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Disney's first official recurring cartoon character, starred in 26 shorts between 1927 through 1928. Until recently, seven of those shorts had been lost, but Smithsonian reports that one has been recovered from the collection of an animation historian in Japan.

Yasushi Watanabe, now 84, bought a film reel labeled “Mickey Manga Spide” (Mickey cartoon speedy) from a market in Osaka when he was a teenager. The film was a two-minute version of a 1928 Oswald cartoon called Neck n’ Neck made for 16mm home movie projectors.

Seventy years later, Watanabe realized the short was more than just a neat piece of Disney memorabilia. While reading the 2017 book Oswald the Lucky Rabbit: The Search for the Lost Disney Cartoons by Disney animator David A. Bossert, he learned that a handful of Oswald the Rabbit cartoons were lost, and he had a hunch that his reel might be one of them.

After getting in touch with the Walt Disney Archives, Watanabe confirmed that Neck n’ Neck was indeed one of the cartoons that had been missing for decades, and he donated it to Japan's Kobe Planet Film Archive. Bossert's book also led to the rediscovery of a 50-second clip of the same cartoon at the Toy Film Museum in Kyoto, but the original cartoon, which had been five minutes long, has yet to be unearthed in its entirety.

Oswald's time on the silver screen was short-lived. After Walt Disney and his partner Ub Iwerks lost the rights to the character, the pair came up with Plane Crazy, the short that introduced Mickey Mouse to the world. Oswald's obscurity means that some archivists may be holding on to the lost cartoons without even realizing what they are. In 2008, The National Library of Norway discovered that an illegibly labeled reel in their archive actually contained the lost Oswald short Empty Socks.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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