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.

How Lewis Keseberg Was Branded the Killer Cannibal of the Donner Party

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When the last of four relief teams arrived at a lakeside camp in the Sierra Nevada mountains on April 17, 1847 to recover what was left of the Donner Party, the log cabins built by the marooned pioneers were silent. Stranded there since the previous November—when the party realized the snow was too high and their cattle too weak for all 80 or so of them to travel safely over the summit blocking the last leg of their journey to California's Central Valley—they'd had little food on which to survive. First they slaughtered their cattle, then their dogs—and then, when rescue didn't come, they began to eat the dead. According to one account, the last relief team found human remains—battered skulls and bones stripped of flesh—scattered over the area, among other sights "too dreadful to put on record."

The scene was similar at George Donner’s tent, a few miles from the cabins at Truckee Lake. The doomed group’s namesake had been seen by an earlier rescue party on the cusp of death and in the care of his wife Tamzene. Now the tent was empty, and a pot filled with human meat stood at the front of it. George's split-open head, emptied of its brain, was found nearby. The only sign of life was a set of fresh footprints marking the snow.

After a physically and emotionally grueling day, the relief team was exhausted. They decided to make camp for the night, with plans to investigate the tracks further once they'd had a chance to rest. Setting out on the 19th, they followed the prints to Lewis Keseberg, a blue-eyed, 32-year-old German immigrant and the sole survivor at Truckee Lake.

The sight of men bearing provisions should have been a welcome one for Keseberg. But they had found him in a compromising position: Tamzene Donner, who had been in decent health when the last relief team saw her, had disappeared—and Keseberg was preparing himself a meal of fresh human lungs and liver. What’s more, he was carrying $225 worth of gold stolen from the Donners' coin hoard in his waistcoat. To the rescue party, it looked as though Keseberg had violated one of humanity's greatest taboos, one that went beyond mere cannibalism: Murdering a person—Tamzene—to feast on her body.

A SUSPICIOUS CHARACTER

When Keseberg had joined the Donner Party less than a year earlier, pioneers spurred on by the idea of Manifest Destiny were pouring into the West by the thousands. California promised mild weather year-round and fertile farmland—and the Donner and Reed families of Illinois wanted a piece of the bounty. Keseberg, his pregnant wife Elisabeth Philippine, and his 3-year-old daughter Ada were among the people who decided to join their covered wagon train in the spring of 1846 as it rolled through the heart of America toward the Golden Coast.

The stories that would later be told about Keseberg started with his behavior on the trail. He reportedly acted cruelly toward his own family—ignoring his daughter and abusing his wife—and often didn't treat other members of the party any better. On October 5, James Reed murdered a teamster during a quarrel involving oxen, and Keseberg vocally supported Reed's execution. The other men refused to hang Reed in front of his wife and children, and instead agreed to leave him in the desert without food or weapons.

That same week, Keseberg ejected an elderly Belgian man named Hardcoop from his wagon to relieve his tired cattle. The man’s legs had given out just days before, and he was unable to keep up with the party on foot. The last anyone saw him, Hardcoop was catching his breath in the brush, his feet black and bloodied.

Damning behavior aside, Keseberg’s personality wasn’t winning him any popularity contests. In his account of the ordeal [PDF], an emigrant named Jacob Wright Harlan characterized Keseberg as an eccentric, antisocial man who mostly kept to himself. He also struck Harlan as someone "predisposed to derangement of mind"—and this was before the tragedy.

“Keseberg was his own worst enemy,” Michael Wallis, author of The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny, tells Mental Floss. “His overall demeanor set the stage for the eventual vilification of him.”

TRAGEDY AT TRUCKEE LAKE

The Sierra Nevada, a roughly 70-mile-wide mountain range snaking through California and parts of Nevada, presented one of the biggest obstacles of the Donner Party's trip. The mountains become impassable in the winter when the snow piles up; to get ahead of the weather, the group should have departed from Missouri in mid to late April. But the first members of the Donner expedition didn't leave Independence, Missouri, until May 12. To make matters worse, the winter of 1846-1847 was especially brutal in the area: About 20 storms pummeled the mountains that season, adding up to 25 feet of snow.

By December, winter had crept up on the travelers and immobilized them under its weight. Unable to continue any further with their belongings, most of the emigrants, including the Kesebergs, made camp for the season at Truckee Lake, while the strongest among them formed what would come to be known as the Forlorn Hope Party, strapped on snowshoes, and set out in search of help. Though they were just 150 miles from their destination of Sutter’s Fort in California, a wrong turn set the Forlorn Hope fatally behind schedule.

Donner Lake (formerly Truckee Lake) as viewed from Donner Pass.
Donner Lake (formerly Truckee Lake) as viewed from Donner Pass.
© Frank Schulenburg, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Weeks passed, but the peak over which the Forlorn Hope Party had disappeared remained white and still, and the remaining members at the lake camp began succumbing to the cold and hunger. Those who died early on provided a shot at survival to the people around them: With starvation gnawing at their insides, a source of fresh meat—even if it belonged, as it did in many cases, to their closest kin—was often impossible to ignore. Roughly half the party, including most of the Forlorn Hope, engaged in cannibalism that winter. Those who did were haunted by their actions for the rest of their lives.

Lewis Keseberg never denied cannibalizing Tamzene Donner. When the final rescue party interrogated him on her whereabouts, he admitted to eating her flesh to survive, but he rebuffed any accusations that he had murdered Tamzene rather than waiting to butcher her only after she died of natural causes. As for the gold lining his trousers, and the bundle of stolen silks, jewels, and firearms found in his cabin, Keseberg eventually confessed to taking George Donner’s goods—but only upon request from Tamzene herself. As he told it, Tamzene left the tents after her husband died and slipped and fell into a creek on her way to his cabin. When she arrived she knew she didn’t have much time left, and asked Keseberg to gather up the money George Donner had hidden and return it to her children at Sutter’s Fort. She died later that night.

The rescue team didn’t fully buy his story, but they begrudgingly decided to lead him back to the central California valley where the rest of the party had ended up, so that a jury of his peers could decide his fate. After a slog across the Sierra Nevada, Keseberg reunited with his wife—who had been rescued by the first relief party (their daughter Ada and a child born on the trail both died of starvation)—and for the first time in months, sat down to enjoy a hearty meal that didn’t consist of dog, cattle, or human meat.

"BETTER THAN CALIFORNIA BEEF"

After Keseberg's return to civilization, news of the “Donner Party Tragedy” rippled across the nation by way of newspapers and word of mouth. The cannibalism aspect gripped the American consciousness, and Keseberg was cast as the savage who ate humans not just for sustenance, but for pleasure. Journalists dubbed him the “human cannibal” and began reporting the murder of Tamzene Donner—which had never been verified—as fact. Gossipers added their own embellishments to the account. According to one telling, which allegedly came from the surviving Donner Party children, Keseberg had taken a young boy to bed with him one night and killed him by morning, later hanging his carcass on the wall like a slab of game.

The most persistent rumor may have come from Keseberg himself. The story goes that after settling in California, he would frequent the local bars and brag about his escapades in cannibalism to anyone who would listen. In this version, Keseberg claimed human meat was more delicious than California beef, and described Tamzene Donner’s liver as the sweetest bite he had ever tasted.

It's easy to see how rumors like these could snowball. But according to Wallis, even if Keseberg did say these things, they don’t necessarily prove his guilt. “To people who know about the human mind and know what starvation and hyperthermia can do to you, it’s not too much out of the ordinary for him to say something like that,” he explains. Post-traumatic stress disorder is known to provoke psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions, although it's unclear whether this was the case with Keseberg.

Whatever the source of the grisly stories, they led to legal trouble. Keseberg was ultimately accused of murdering six of his fellow Donner Party members, including Tamzene, but was acquitted on each count due to lack of evidence. He later returned to court, this time as the prosecutor, to sue members of the relief party who had found him at Truckee Lake for fueling the vicious rumors attached to his name. Again the jury sided in his favor, but his reward was modest: just $1 for the damages, and he was still expected to cover the court fees.

LAST CHANCE FOR REDEMPTION

Life never got easier for Keseberg, but he was granted one last bit of closure around age 65. A journalist named C.F. McGlashan was writing a book called History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierra when he reached out to the surviving members to interview them. Finally, Keseberg had the platform to tell his version of the events that transpired that winter, and address the rumors that had dogged him for years. His first-hand account was a stark departure from the infamous stories of his barroom braggadocio:

“The flesh of starved beings contains little nutriment. It is like feeding straw to horses. I cannot describe the unutterable repugnance with which I tasted the first mouthful of flesh. There is an instinct in our nature that revolts at the thought of touching, much less eating, a corpse. It makes my blood curdle to think of it!”

Keseberg’s greatest chance for redemption came when McGlashan arranged for him to meet Eliza Donner Houghton, Tamzene Donner’s youngest surviving daughter. Eliza had been only 4 years old at the time of the Donner Party tragedy, and when Keseberg saw the grown woman standing before him, he collapsed to his knees. He didn’t deny eating Tamzene’s remains, but he swore to Eliza that he hadn’t murdered her. Hearing the sincerity in the voice of this man she barely remembered from childhood, Eliza decided to take him at his word.

Despite earning validation from the courts and a descendent of the Donners, Keseberg’s reputation continued to shadow him wherever he went, whether in the towns where he lived or aboard the supply ship where he eventually worked. Toward the end of his life, he gathered enough money to open his own inn in Sacramento, but even this endeavor failed. “People thought, ‘Well, why would we stay there where this cannibal lives?’” Wallis says. The inn burned to the ground, and the cause of the fire was undetermined.

An internet search of Keseberg today still pulls up results related to his alleged crimes. The story’s stubborn presence through the decades becomes more notable in light of certain facts concerning the Forlorn Hope Party: During that trek, two Miwok men, named Salvadore and Luis, were murdered for their flesh by William Foster, but because they were Native Americans their story was ignored by newspapers. Tamzene Donner's death, and the gossip surrounding Keseberg's alleged involvement, however, received plenty of coverage.

Lewis Keseberg's wife Elisabeth Philippine died in 1877, and the widower lived out the remainder of his life poor and struggling to care for the couple’s children—both born after the Donner Party saga—who had intellectual disabilities. He died in 1895, nearly half a century after the events that defined him in the public eye. “He took his last breath in a hospital for the poor. The only thing in his pockets was lint,” Wallis says. “Keseberg is just one of the many great tragedies of this whole story.”

Additional Source: The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party

Madelyn Pugh Davis, the “Girl Writer” Behind I Love Lucy

It was February 11, 1954, and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were waiting nervously at the Emmy Awards. Their costar on I Love Lucy, Vivian Vance, had already won a Best Series Supporting Actress award for her portrayal of landlady Ethel Mertz. And now, Ball and Arnaz stood on stage at the Hollywood Palladium to accept the Emmy for Best Situation Comedy for I Love Lucy.

“It wouldn’t be right to call our writers up here, and give [the Emmy] to them, would it?” Ball asked the audience. “But I wish we could.” Arnaz also gave a nod to the importance of the show’s writers: “I just want to say this—and I really mean this—I hope that next year, the Academy does not forget the writers.”

Without I Love Lucy’s three main writers—Jess Oppenheimer, Bob Carroll Jr., and Madelyn Pugh Davis—television would be missing some of its most famously funny scenes. Davis, the only female writer on I Love Lucy, wrote for all the episodes of the six-season show. She often tested the slapstick herself, becoming key to the visual gags that made the series so memorable, from a chocolate factory assembly line cranked to an impossible speed to a giant loaf of bread overflowing from an oven.

Born on March 15, 1921, Davis (originally Madelyn Pugh) grew up in Indianapolis, where her father worked at a bank's real estate department. She wanted to be a writer from the time she was a child, and crafted her first play—performed in her living room—at the age of 10. Later, she co-edited her high school newspaper alongside fellow student Kurt Vonnegut [PDF].

In 1942, she graduated from Indiana University with a journalism degree, determined to become a foreign correspondent. "Somebody pointed out that there were very few women foreign correspondents, but there were very few women anything, so it didn’t bother me," Davis wrote in her 2005 memoir Laughing With Lucy. After failing to find a job she wanted in journalism, she began working as a copywriter at an Indianapolis radio station. She was one of only a few women to work behind the scenes in radio back then—an opportunity she attributed to the relative dearth of men, who were off fighting in World War II.

The next year, she and her family moved to Los Angeles, where she found work as a staff writer at NBC Radio. She met Bob Carroll Jr. at her next staff writer gig, at CBS Radio about six months later, where she was often referred to as the "girl writer." She and Carroll became writing partners, working on comedy scripts for radio shows including The Couple Next Door and It’s a Great Life. While writing for My Favorite Husband on CBS, they got the chance to work with Ball, the star of that show. Davis would later describe Ball as fearless, someone willing to "do anything" for the sake of comedy.

It was after about two and a half years of writing for My Favorite Husband that Davis got her big break. As she tells it in Laughing With Lucy, the then-network vice president of programming for CBS West Coast, Harry Ackerman, and Ball's agent decided to give the red-headed star a try on the then-new medium of television. Ball insisted on a show featuring her real-life husband, Arnaz, but "the network didn't feel the audience would believe Lucy was married to a Cuban band leader. Lucy told them stubbornly that she was married to a Cuban band leader, and the audience would like it fine," Davis wrote.

To prove it, Ball hired Davis and Carroll to write a stage act that she and Arnaz would perform during his show on the road. Audiences roared with laughter, and the network ordered a television pilot based on the act. Ball requested that Davis, Carroll, and Jess Oppenheimer (the producer and head writer on My Favorite Husband) write I Love Lucy’s first episode. “And so we said 'I guess we better learn to write for television,'" Davis said in an interview with the Writers Guild Foundation.

Besides brainstorming funny ideas, pitching storylines, and writing dialogue, Davis also typed the scripts and acted out some of the show’s visual stunts, making sure that a woman of roughly Ball’s height and size would be able to perform them safely.

“We’d wrap Madelyn in rugs and strap her into swivel chairs and hang her out of windows, and she came through nicely,” Carroll recalled. “So I said, ‘If it works for Madelyn, it will work for Lucy.’” (Not all the gags worked, however; after one perilous trip on a unicycle resulted in Davis running into a wall and hitting her head, she "decided it was too dangerous for Lucy.")

In the scripts, Davis typed the step-by-step instructions for these physical gags in all caps, leading Ball to call them “the black stuff.” Rather than improvise these stunts, Ball relied on Davis’s detailed, highly choreographed writing to know how to move her body and when to make certain facial expressions—all for maximum comedy.

To come up with enough ideas to write hundreds of funny episodes, Davis drew on her own life for inspiration, writing jokes about her experiences picking which movie to watch or what entree to order at a restaurant. “All writers do that. You use your own experience and pretty soon, when you're doing a weekly show, you just use everything you can,” Davis told the Writers Guild Foundation.

After I Love Lucy ended, Davis continued working with Carroll, writing for other Ball productions such as The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, The Lucy Show, Here’s Lucy, Life With Lucy, and the 1968 film Yours, Mine and Ours. During their 50-year working partnership, Davis and Carroll also wrote The Mothers-In-Law (which was executive produced by Desi Arnaz), produced the sitcom Alice, and co-wrote Laughing With Lucy. They were nominated for three Emmy Awards.

Davis, who married twice and had one son, died in Los Angeles in 2011 at 90 years old. Lucie Arnaz, Ball and Arnaz’s daughter, described her as a class act. “A very private person, very soft-spoken, genteel, feminine—all those lovely words you associate with great ladies. And yet she had the ability to write this wacky, insane comedy for my mother.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER