In 1938, old men aided by young volunteers, shuffled off of trains arriving from all points of the compass. For the most part these gents were in their early 90’s, and looked forward to comradeship and scheduled festivities.
Organizers had planned three full days of tours, music, and ceremony, complete with a flyover and fireworks. The Battle of Gettysburg’s 75th commemoration had begun.
There had been an earlier anniversary event, in 1913, but this time visitors knew this gathering would be the last. Those in attendance understood, as did the elderly guests of honor, that those who hadn’t fallen on that Pennsylvania battlefield in 1863, would soon join the brethren who had.
After this commemoration, the narrative would pass from eye witness accounts into America’s collective memory.
No longer wielding rifles, many maneuvered the grounds pushed about in wheel chairs, walkers, and canes. Old men brandished ear trumpets to catch the orations of the many visiting dignitaries. The men listened as President Franklin Roosevelt delivered remarks dedicating the Eternal Light Memorial, located near the “Bloody Angle.” Battlefield tours transported veterans, and well-wishers from Cemetery Hill, to Seminary Ridge, Little Round Top, the Devils Den, and finally the exposed fields of Picketts Charge.
There, at the stone fence, gray old men in blue, and others in gray and butternut, shook hands at the “high water mark” of the Confederacy. The original climax of a fateful third day offensive, signaling the eventual doom of the the Confederacy.
Ironically, left uninvited were the scores of African Americans who had harbored such hope for new lives after emancipation. Unfortunately, Reconstruction had ended with little to show for progress or Civil Rights. Instead Freedmen found a new enslavement, recognizable in every aspect, but iron chains.
Forty Acres and a Mule had never materialized, as promised by victorious Union commanders. Now relegated to tenant farming, Freedmen struggled in the same conditions as before, but now as sharecroppers. Stuck in a never-ending cycle of poverty, black farmers found insufficient harvests debited into the next season, and then the next, in an endless cycle of debt peonage.
The Supreme Court’s 1896 ruling in Plessy V Ferguson legalized segregation by insisting any negative correlation attached to feelings of inferiority lived only in the minds of Blacks. Separate water fountains, parks, transportation, and schools worked just fine for the elderly veterans from the North and South.
The moral force of the Civil War had died as thoroughly as the nearly 7-million who perished upon the scattered battlefields.Those veterans who reunited in 1938 Pennsylvania found white identity and brotherhood far outranked any new birth of freedom envisioned by President Lincoln 75 years earlier.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle. Ms Chumbley recently completed her second stage play, “Wolf By The Ears.”