"Comrades and friends, these splendid statues of marble and granite and bronze shall finally crumble to dust, and in the ages to come, will perhaps be forgotten, but the spirit that has called this great assembly of our people together, on this field, shall live for ever."
-Dr. Nathaniel D. Cox, July 2, 1913
The largest combined reunion of Civil War veterans ever held occurred at Gettysburg in 1913. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania hosted the event and extended invitations to every surviving honorably discharged Union and Confederate veteran in the nation. It was scheduled to be a unique encampment, a combined reunion of members of the Grand Army of the Republic and United Confederate Veterans. The response was overwhelming and despite efforts to limit the numbers attending, over 50,000 veterans came to Gettysburg and settled into the great camp situated on the battlefield. Former foes walked together over the old battlefield and re-lived the terrible days where so many of their comrades had lost their lives. Not only were there veterans of Gettysburg, but men who had fought under McClellan at Antietam, Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, Sherman in Georgia, Grant in Tennessee, Bragg in Kentucky, Hood at Atlanta, and Ord at Appomattox. This was the largest gathering of former soldiers who had changed the face of a nation, torn it apart, and now delighted in its reunification.
Old soldiers in blue and gray pose side by side for the camera near the Great Tent in 1913.
Despite Pennsylvania's good intentions for hosting the reunion, Governor Tener was soon faced with a growing financial and political dilemma. The projected cost of the reunion rose as plans changed, and with it grew opposition in the legislature as more state money was appropriated. Several legislators argued that hosting two large veteran organizations without compensation was fruitless and was eventually going to put a strain on the state budget. Tener finally approached the Federal government, which agreed to step in and appropriate funds to feed and provide tents for the veterans during the encampment. Additionally, US Army personnel would support the reunion with cooks and bakers, quartermaster staff and troops to aid in crowd control. Emergency Federal money would also pay the bills for the reunion until the states could appropriate some back payments. With this assurance of aid, the Pennsylvania legislature approved half a million dollars to cover the cost of the reunion.
Plans to establish a camp large enough to house the perspective number of guests and military support personnel were started two years before the event. The number of tents required to house everyone would quickly deplete the state's supply and again the Federal government stepped in to provide additional tents and equipment necessary to complete the camp. Personnel from the United States Army Quartermaster Corps and Engineer Corps arrived at Gettysburg National Military Park in 1912 to plan military and civilian support for the encampment. The engineers surveyed the field adjacent to the fields of "Pickett's Charge" where they laid out the arrangement for "The Great Camp", divided into areas for Union veterans and for Confederate veterans. Soldiers installed utility systems, erected hundreds of tents to house the veterans, built picnic tables, benches, and boardwalks throughout the camp. By the first of June the sprawling Great Camp occupied 280 acres, included 47 1/2 miles of avenues and company streets, was lit by 500 electric arc lights, and 32 bubbling ice water fountains were installed. Over 2,000 army cooks and bakers manned 173 field kitchens, ready to provide three hot meals per day for veterans and camp personnel alike.
The Great Camp of 1913
Two battalions of the Fifth United States Infantry guarded the camps and supply depots, and provided security along with a mounted detachment of the Fifteenth United States Cavalry. Pennsylvania also provided medical staff and a detachment of the Pennsylvania State Police and Pennsylvania National Guard to support the reunion activities. Several hundred members of the Boy Scouts of America served as escorts to the veterans during the encampment, acted as aides and messengers in the army hospitals, and acted as couriers for various officials. Medical care was provided by the American Red Cross and US Army Medical Corps.
A singular highlight of the reunion was the meeting of Pickett's Division Association and the Philadelphia Brigade Association near the High Water Mark on July 3, 1913. Despite the torrid heat, the veterans made speeches, traded ceremonial flags and shook hands over the stonewall that outlines the Angle where fifty years before, the two groups had met in mortal combat.
In 1913, the nation and the world were in political turmoil. On the edge of the first World War, European alliances over political and territorial disputes were affecting the world market, national pride and threatened a precarious peace between numerous foreign "democracies" and sovereign states. The Wilson administration was already under pressure for the United States to stay out of European disputes though opponents believed that America should take an active role in world affairs. The age of industrial barons was at its height and their influence in national politics broadened political and social divisions. In the center of it all was this Great Reunion at Gettysburg, an event whose significance did not go unnoticed by a public weary of sectional turmoil and political rhetoric. The Washington Post summed up the event: "Nothing could possibly be more impressive or more inspiring to the younger generation than this gathering. They feel the thrill of bygone days, without a knowledge of its bitterness, which, thank God, has passed us all. But even more touching must be the emotions of these time-worn veterans, as they assemble on an occasion that in itself constitutes a greater victory than that of half a century ago, and one too, in which every section of a reunited country has common part."
Confederate guests pause in the shade.
The monuments and memorials have not crumbled to dust as Dr. Cox predicted in 1913. They still stand in silent honor to the men, the regiments, and the armies that fought this great battle. It is the words and deeds of the veterans at that great reunion that have faded with time. All traces of the Great Camp are long gone; the site was returned to farm fields soon after the reunion, and residential and commercial growth during the 1950's has covered the area where the veterans of that great war camped, talked, and ate together. The site where the Great Tent stood is once again returned to the peaceful pursuit of raising corn and wheat. Many of the Gettysburg shops and restaurants visited by the veterans are long gone, replaced by new owners and updated interiors for the modern consumer. Yet if you stand on Seminary Ridge on a quiet summer's evening and listen closely, you may detect the low murmer of aged men shuffling through the dry grass, sharing memories to one another of when they were young, full of bravado, serving their country as soldiers.
(Photos are reproduced from Lt. Col. Lewis E. Beitler (editor), Fiftieth Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg: Report of the Pennsylvania Commission, Wm. Stanley Ray- State Printer, Harrisburg, 1914.)
| The Battle Begins | "A most terrible day..." | "I will strike him there." | The Last Full Measure |
| Army Organization | US Order of Battle | CS Order of Battle |
| Voices of Battle | Camp Letterman | The Great Reunion |
Gettysburg National Military Park Virtual Tour
National Park Service
Gettysburg National Military Park
97 Taneytown Road
Gettysburg, PA 17325
Author: John Heiser, GETT
Date: September 1998