Cheating the Undertaker: Gettysburg Veterans Reunite 50 Years Later

By Demers, Daniel J. | Army, November 2017 | Go to article overview

Cheating the Undertaker: Gettysburg Veterans Reunite 50 Years Later


Demers, Daniel J., Army


Gettysburg, Pa., was the scene of the battle that changed the course of the American Civil War.

Fifty years later in July 1913, the same site hosted a reunion of veterans of the epic battle. The commemoration "united in sentiment and united in fact [the battle's participants]," reported Nebraska's Red Cloud Chief newspaper. Continuing, the Chief exclaimed that "the blue linked arms with the gray ... sat down at the same mess tables ... and talked over the war before campfires." There was no "rancor in any heart," nor "any feeling of bitterness."

Some 180,000 men fought in the July 1863 battle. There were approximately 51,000 wounded. Historians now estimate 7,900 men were killed. Besides being the decisive battle of the Civil War, "it has been called time and again one of the decisive battles of the world," wrote Edward Clark of Missouri's Holt County Sentinel. It was, in fact, the largest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere, a statistic that stands to this day.

Congress and the legislatures of 33 states had appropriated funds toward the 50-year reunion. Some 40,000 Gettysburg veterans were expected-53,407 showed up, 8,750 of whom were former Confederates. The men who arrived by rail (many of their tickets were covered by the federal and state dollars) had fought one another a half-century earlier when they were boys of 18, some as young as 14. They were now mostly men in their late 60s.

The Army had learned much since the days when President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis had committed their armies under Maj. Gen. George Meade and Gen. Robert E. Lee, respectively, to engage one another. Reunion logistics had been augmented by America's military experience in the Spanish-American War, during which "the lack of proper sanitary precautions and unpreparedness in other ways cost the government the lives of more men than were sacrificed to the bullets of the Spaniards," Clark's article in the Sentinel related. Two encampments together comprised of 5,000 "conical" tents were established. Each tent comfortably housed eight vets. The camp also included 90 latrines provided by Pennsylvania health authorities.

Grub Much Improved

There was a "striking contrast" in menus between the grub fed the soldiers in 1863 and 1913. Original battlefield menus were composed of hardtack biscuits, beans, bacon and coffee. Fifty years later, the Civil War vets gorged themselves on breakfasts of puffed rice, eggs, bacon, potatoes, bread and butter; lunches of fricassee chicken, peas, corn, ice cream and cake; and dinners of salmon, salad, macaroni and cheese, and cigars. All meals included "the best coffee and tea which the market affords," The Madison Journal of Louisiana reported.

The prepared meals delivered in 40,000 mess kits were provided by 400 Army ranges and a field bakery. Regular Army detachments comprising 800 cooks, 800 kitchen helpers and 130 bakers worked round-the-clock to deliver meals to the veterans.

Since the veterans were "old men," the quartermasters provided ample hospital corps detachments to render first aid and field hospitals with "surgeons in attendance, where the sick [could] receive instant attendance." One "unhappy" undertaker entered into a contract with the quartermaster to "care for all the dead veterans" at the reunion. "Using some system of computation" collected from an insurance actuarial table, "he calculated that at least 450 would die" during the reunion. "Accordingly, he shipped that number of coffins to camp, and had a whole corps of embalm ers on hand, but only 11 veterans died, and the undertaker lost money," reported Richmond, Va.'s Times Dispatch.

Vignettes and Comradery

While the government intended to provide ample entertainment for the reunion, it was obvious that the men really wanted to revisit the battle sites where they had been individually involved. Numerous touching memories were reported by the press. …

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