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Library of Congress

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.

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Food
The History Behind Why We Eat 10 Dishes at Thanksgiving
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Halloween is for candy comas, and on Independence Day we grill, but no holiday is as completely defined by its cuisine as Thanksgiving. No matter what part of the country you're in, it's a safe bet that at least a few of the below dishes will be making an appearance on your table this week. But what makes these specific entrees and side dishes so emblematic of Thanksgiving? Read on to discover the sometimes-surprising history behind your favorite fall comfort foods.

1. TURKEY

A roasted turkey on a platter.
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Turkey has become so synonymous with Thanksgiving that most of us probably imagine the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans chowing down on a roast bird in 1621. Although we don't know the exact menu of that first Plymouth Colony feast, a first-person account of the year's harvest from governor William Bradford does reference "a great store of wild turkeys," and another first-person account, from colonist Edward Winslow, confirms that the settlers "killed as much fowl as…served the company almost a week." However, culinary historian Kathleen Wall believes that, although turkeys were available, it's likely that duck, goose, or even passenger pigeons were the more prominent poultry options at the first Thanksgiving. Given their proximity to the Atlantic, local seafood like oysters and lobsters were likely on the menu as well.

As the holiday grew in popularity, however, turkey became the main course for reasons more practical than symbolic. English settlers were accustomed to eating fowl on holidays, but for early Americans, chickens were more valued for their eggs than their meat, and rooster was tough and unappetizing. Meanwhile, turkeys were easy to keep, big enough to feed a whole family, and cheaper than ducks or geese. Even before Thanksgiving was recognized as a national holiday, Alexander Hamilton himself remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." The country followed his advice: according to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey in some form on Thanksgiving Day—an estimated 44 million birds!

2. STUFFING

Pan of breaded stuffing.
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Stuffing would have been a familiar concept to those early settlers as well, although their version was likely quite different from what we're used to. We know that the first Plymouth colonists didn't have access to white flour or butter, so traditional bread stuffing wouldn't have been possible yet. Instead, according to Wall, they may have used chestnuts, herbs, and chunks of onion to flavor the birds, all of which were already part of the local fare. Centuries later, we're still stuffing turkeys as a way to keep the bird moist through the roasting process and add extra flavor.

3. CRANBERRIES

Dish of cranberry sauce.
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Like turkeys, cranberries were widely available in the area, but cranberry sauce almost certainly did not make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. Why not? The sugar reserves the colonists would have had were almost completely depleted after their long sea journey, and thus they didn't have the means to sweeten the terrifically tart berries.

So how did cranberries become such an autumnal staple? For starters, they're a truly American food, as one of only a few fruits—along with Concord grapes, blueberries, and pawpaws—that originated in North America. They grow in such abundance in the northeast that colonists quickly began incorporating cranberries into various dishes, such as pemmican, which mixed mashed cranberries with lard and dried venison. By the Civil War, they were such a holiday staple that General Ulysses S. Grant famously demanded his soldiers be provided cranberries for their Thanksgiving Day meal.

4. MASHED POTATOES

Bowl of mashed potatoes.
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Potatoes weren't yet available in 17th-century Plymouth, so how did mashed potatoes become another Thanksgiving superstar? The answer lies in the history of the holiday itself. In America’s earliest years, it was common for the sitting President to declare a "national day of thanks," but these were sporadic and irregular. In 1817, New York became the first state to officially adopt the holiday, and others soon followed suit, but Thanksgiving wasn't a national day of celebration until Abraham Lincoln declared it so in 1863.

Why did Lincoln—hands full with an ongoing war—take up the cause? Largely due to a 36-year campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale, a prolific novelist, poet, and editor, who saw in Thanksgiving a moral benefit for families and communities. In addition to her frequent appeals to officials and presidents, Hale wrote compellingly about the holiday in her 1827 novel Northwood, as well as in the womens' magazine she edited, Godey's Lady's Book. Her writing included recipes and descriptions of idealized Thanksgiving meals, which often featured—you guessed it—mashed potatoes.

5. GRAVY

Plate of turkey and potatoes covered in gravy.
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Despite a dearth of potatoes, it's likely that some type of gravy accompanied the turkey or venison at the earliest Thanksgiving gatherings. The concept of cooking meat in sauce dates back hundreds of years, and the word "gravy" itself can be found in a cookbook from 1390. Because that first celebration extended over three days, historian Wall speculates: "I have no doubt whatsoever that birds that are roasted one day, the remains of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day." That broth would then be thickened with grains to created a gravy to liven day-old meat. And, if Wall's correct, that broth sounds suspiciously like the beginning of another great Thanksgiving tradition: leftovers!

6. CORN

Plate of corn.
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Corn is a natural symbol of harvest season—even if you're not serving it as a side dish, you might have a few colorful ears as a table centerpiece. We know that corn was a staple of the Native American diet and would have been nearly as plentiful in the 17th century as today. But according to the History Channel, their version would have been prepared quite differently: corn was either made into a cornmeal bread or mashed and boiled into a thick porridge-like consistency, and perhaps sweetened with molasses. Today, we eat corn in part to remember those Wampanoag hosts, who famously taught the newcomers how to cultivate crops in the unfamiliar American soil.

7. SWEET POTATOES

Bowl of mashed sweet potatoes.
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In the midst of so many New England traditions, the sweet potatoes on your table represent a dash of African-American culture. The tasty taters originally became popular in the south—while pumpkins grew well in the north, sweet potatoes (and the pies they could make) became a standard in southern homes and with enslaved plantation workers, who used them as a substitution for the yams they'd loved in their homeland. Sweet potato pie was also lovingly described in Hale's various Thanksgiving epistles, solidifying the regional favorite as a holiday go-to. More recently, some families further sweeten the dish by adding toasted marshmallows, a love-it-or-hate-it suggestion that dates to a 1917 recipe booklet published by the Cracker Jack company.

8. GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE

Plate of green bean casserole.
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Beans have been cultivated since ancient times, but green bean casserole is a decidedly modern contribution to the classic Thanksgiving canon. The recipe you love was whipped up in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a home economist working in the Campbell's Soup Company test kitchens in Camden, New Jersey. Reilly's job was to create limited-ingredient recipes that housewives could quickly replicate (using Campbell's products, of course). Her original recipe (still available at Campbells.com), contains just six ingredients: Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, green beans, milk, soy sauce, pepper, and French's French Fried Onions. Her recipe was featured in a 1955 Associated Press feature about Thanksgiving, and the association has proven surprisingly durable—Campbell’s now estimates that 30 percent of their Cream of Mushroom soup is bought specifically for use in a green bean casserole.

9. PUMPKIN PIE

Slice of pumpkin pie.
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Like cranberries, pumpkin pie does have ties to the original Thanksgiving, albeit in a much different format. The colonists certainly knew how to make pie pastry, but couldn't have replicated it without wheat flour, and might have been a bit perplexed by pumpkins, which were bigger than the gourds they knew in Europe. According to Eating in America: A History, however, Native Americans were already using the orange treats as a dessert meal: "Both squash and pumpkin were baked, usually by being placed whole in the ashes or embers of a dying fire and they were moistened afterwards with some form of animal fat, or maple syrup, or honey." It's likely that Hale was inspired by those stories when pumpkin pie appeared in her culinary descriptions.

10. WINE

Two glasses of wine.
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Chances are good that a few glasses of wine will be clinked around your table this November, but did the pilgrims share a tipsy toast with their new friends? Kathleen Wall thinks that water was probably the beverage of choice, considering that the small amount of wine the settlers had brought with them was likely long gone. Beer was a possibility, but since barley hadn't been cultivated yet, the pilgrims had to make do with a concoction that included pumpkins and parsnips. Considering the availability of apples in what would become Massachusetts, however, other historians think it's possible that hard apple cider was on hand for the revelers to enjoy. Whether or not the original feast was a boozy affair, cider rapidly became the drink of choice for English settlers in the area, along with applejack, apple brandy, and other fruit-based spirits. New England cider thus indirectly led to a less-beloved Thanksgiving tradition: your drunk uncle's annual political rant. Bottoms up!

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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