In Search of Peace and Understanding: Commemorating the Battle of Gettysburg

In what’s become an iconic photo representative of the 1913 Reunion, a Union and a Confederate veteran join hands across the stone wall at the High Water mark. Photo Courtesy: Adams County Historical Society.
In what’s become an iconic photo representative of the 1913 Reunion, a Union and a Confederate veteran join hands across the stone wall at the High Water mark. Photo Courtesy: Adams County Historical Society.

By Karen Hendricks

During the past two weeks in Gettysburg, the constant question was, “Did you hear thunder, or was that just another cannon going off?” Between June 28 and July 7, it was hard to tell the difference. Our “most famous small town in America” played host to hundreds of events commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War battle, including two battle reenactments, plus grand and glorious National Park Service ceremonies and events.. 

It was spine-tingling to think of Civil War soldiers marching, engaging in fighting, and dying on these hallowed grounds exactly 150 years ago, deciding the fate of our nation. Those same feelings were likely shared by residents and visitors alike, during previous milestone anniversaries. It was an honor to research previous commemorations of the Battle of Gettysburg recently, for Celebrate Gettysburg magazine. The following article, In Search of Peace and Understanding, is published in the July/August 2013 issue:


Gettysburg is a place forever stitched into the fabric of American history. The seams are deep and strong. The first stitches at Gettysburg, 150 years ago, were searing and painful. The Battle of Gettysburg was the bloodiest conflict of the Civil War, resulting in 51,000 casualties. Slowly through the years, the stitches turned into healing sutures. Veterans returned to Gettysburg’s battlefields, and the public was drawn to its hallowed grounds. Informal gatherings became organized commemorations on milestone anniversaries of the battle. And America’s historical tapestry became interwoven with the profound words of presidents and others who visited this small Pennsylvania town, seeking to make sense of the events of July 1-3, 1863.

As early as 1888, commemorations and anniversaries established Gettysburg’s legacy as an iconic American symbol of war and peace, dissension and understanding. It is history in the making, as we witness the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg this summer. What continues to draw visitors to Gettysburg, 150 years later? How have past anniversaries been observed? When considering these questions, two main themes evolve—visitors seem to be searching primarily for peace and understanding.

1888: The 25th Anniversary Reunion

The first anniversaries served as reunions, organized mainly for the benefit of Civil War veterans, according to John Heiser, historian for the Gettysburg National Military Park. In 1888, 25 years after the battle, many soldiers returned to witness the dedication of regimental monuments. According to a July 1 Philadelphia newspaper, 35,000 men camped on the battlefield.

Signs of peace and reconciliation were evident;Confederate Gen. James Longstreet was a featured speaker at Gettysburg’s reunion. According to newspaper accounts, he was given a “rousing reception.” His speech began, “I was not in time to witness any part of the engagement of the first day of Gettysburg, but am pleased to be here in time to witness these ceremonies and to express that sympathy that should go out from all hearts to those who know how to appreciate the conduct of soldiers who offer their lives on the altar of their country.” Healing was underway, but the Civil War’s voices and stories were disappearing. Longstreet died in 1904.

1913: The 50th Anniversary (“The Great Reunion”)

In 1908, J.H. Henry Huidekoper, a former lieutenant colonel in the 150th PA, approached the state’s governor with an idea. “He is credited with the genesis of the idea for a mutual reunion, and the idea sparked into a larger reunion than expected,” says Heiser. More than 54,000 veterans gathered in Gettysburg

“What’s interesting to me is how the commemorations have evolved,” says Benjamin Neely, executive director of the Adams County Historical Society. “By the 50th they are more organized, a commission has been formed, and veterans are invited regardless of uniform. Not invited to previous gatherings, but invited to the 50th are the U.S. Colored Troops.”

Behind the scenes, organizers had their hands full. A report by the 50th Anniversary PA Commission details crowded conditions in town. Vast amounts of supplies were gathered and personnel assembled, including an army of more than 2,000 cooks and bakers, and hundreds of volunteers from the Boy Scouts, Red Cross and additional organizations. Tragically, nine veterans, returning to the very battlefield where they survived fierce fighting, died during the reunion.

On July 4, 1913, the Pennsylvania State Memorial was dedicated and President Woodrow Wilson addressed the crowd: “We have found one another again as brothers and comrades; enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten—except we shall not forget the splendid valor.”

The idea of being “enemies no longer” is played out in numerous photos showing soldiers from both sides of the war warmly embracing and shaking hands against the backdrop of the battlefield where they once fought.

“You might think,” Heiser says, “‘Why would they want to go back where they had lost comrades?’ But it was the highlight of their lives in a way. These were men who were farmers and from regular walks of life. But as veterans, they were recognized by the federal government for their service.

“Never before and not since has a place hosted such a gathering of people who had been enemies,” explains Heiser. “The veterans were curious about their enemies—they all had a mutual understanding of the horrors of war and its effects. Any animosity seemed to dissipate, and they decided they needed a memorial to symbolize peace.” Work began on the Eternal Peace Light Memorial in 1935, just in time for the next milestone anniversary.

Veterans break bread together in this iconic 1913 photo taken by Reunion photographer W.H. Tipton. Photo Courtesy: Adams County Historical Society.
Veterans break bread together in this iconic 1913 photo taken by Reunion photographer W.H. Tipton. Photo Courtesy: Adams County Historical Society.

1938 : The 75th Anniversary (“The Last Reunion of the Blue & Gray”)

In 1938, difficulties presented challenges for organizing a reunion, according to Heiser. A major reorganization of the National Park Service in 1933 was one of the main reasons. “The focus of the battlefield as a park shifted to interpretation—helping people understand what occurred here. Veterans were not the focus of the National Park Service—that was the concern of a local effort led by Paul Roy.”

Editor of the Gettysburg Times and Executive Secretary of the PA State Commission for the 75th Anniversary, Paul Roy was a driving force behind ensuring the veterans had one last hurrah. The commission’s report describes “the largest parade ever held in Gettysburg” during the afternoon of Saturday, July 2, 1938. By July 3, the town swelled to more than 450,000 people—“the largest crowd ever assembled in Gettysburg.” They are drawn to the dedication and presentation of the Eternal Light Peace Memorial.

Two carved figures, one holding a wreath, are depicted on the stone memorial atop Oak Hill. An eagle is carved in the foreground, symbolizing peace and goodwill. Inscribed are words from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: “With firmness in the rights as God gives us to see the right,” along with the line “An enduring light to guide us in Unity and Fellowship.” The base of the memorial proclaims, “Peace Eternal in a Nation United.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the memorial in a July 3 address, uniting former Union and Confederate soldiers by stating, “Lincoln spoke in solace for all who fought upon this field; and the years have laid their balm upon its wounds. Men who wore the Blue and men who wore the Gray are here together…They are brought here by the memories of old, divided loyalties, but they meet here in united loyalty to a united cause which the unfolding years have made it easier to see. All of them we honor, not asking under which Flag they fought then—thankful that they stand together under one Flag now.”
According to Neely, the popular sentiment was that “Everyone fought bravely for their side,” without discussing the war’s underlying motives. That sentiment was about to shift.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt arrives in Gettysburg to dedicate the Eternal Peace Light Memorial in 1938. Photo Courtesy: Adams County Historical Society.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt arrives in Gettysburg to dedicate the Eternal Peace Light Memorial in 1938. Photo Courtesy: Adams County Historical Society.

1963: Gettysburg’s Centennial (100th Anniversary)

By the 100th anniversary, Americans started to talk about the cause of the war, Neely explains. “You can’t ignore it; we were in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. People started thinking about their own connections to the war. If they had an ancestor who fought, they thought about their motivation to fight. Was that ancestor fighting for states’ rights or slavery or unification? We’re still arguing about this today. The truth is, the American Civil War ended the legal institution of slavery but cemented the idea of a union, or unification of the states.

“People didn’t want to condemn their ancestors,” Neely says. “But it’s heritage; not hate. Their ancestors played roles in an historical event. There is an effort to sanitize history and this war. We all talk about this ‘horrible war’ but if you’re an African American—if you were a slave—it’s not a horrible war.”

During this time of social turmoil, the National Park Service also came under fire for holding a reenactment, “playing war,” on the Manassas Battlefield, Heiser says. The National Park Service at Gettysburg decided to present living history skits that helped visitors understand how the battle had changed the country. After 100 years, perspective was gained. And again, there was a presidential presence—General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a resident of Gettysburg at the time, served as Honorary Chairman of the Gettysburg Centennial Commission.

The town capitalized on its visitors, “taking advantage of tourists,” says Heiser. “That was the prevailing thought because hotels upped their prices and people were selling bullets and other items.” One of the most popular items? Little blue kepi, reproductions of the hat Union soldiers wore.

“I’ve talked to many people who were very young—8, 9 or 10 years old—when they visited Gettysburg in 1963,” says Katie Lawhon, spokesperson for the Gettysburg National Military Park. “They still have memories or pictures of themselves wearing the little blue kepi. Later in their lives, when they have their own children, they become more interested in American history from that spark started back in 1963.”

Milestone anniversaries had shifted focus, from veterans’ reunions to commemorations designed to educate a new generation of Americans about their nation’s history.

1988: The 125th Anniversary

The highlight of the 125th anniversary was the rededication of the Peace Light featuring astronomer Carl Sagan, although Heiser admits an even larger crowd attended a battle reenactment held on private property.

“As a symbol, the Peace Light means a lot,” explains Heiser. “As long as that flame burns, this nation will never fall asunder… it was the intention of the veterans. But we lost focus of what the peace light meant and replaced the gas flame with a sodium vapor lamp [during the 1973 oil embargo]. In 1988, to see the flame come back because the veterans wanted it was a great achievement.”

According to a July 7, 1988 article in the Hanover Evening Sun, a crowd of 20,000 gathered as Gov. Robert P. Casey relit the flame, exactly 50 years after it was first lit. In his speech, Sagan applied the lessons learned at Gettysburg to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. “We have now reached not only a devastating, but an obscene level of ability to destroy each other.” The Evening Sun account continues, “He reminded the audience that the Union and Confederates gathered in 1913 and not only shook hands but fell in each other’s arms in reconciliation.”

2013: The Sesquicentennial (150th Anniversary)

This July 1-3, visitors will stand on the very battlefield where Civil War soldiers trod, fought and died 150 years ago, one more generation removed from this key turning point in our nation’s history. “The tragic events at Gettysburg led to the North and South reunited. And it directly leads to the end of slavery and the challenge that Abraham Lincoln expressed in the Gettysburg Address—‘for the people by the people.’ That challenge represents to us a sense of justice and equity for all—things we still struggle with today,” says Lawhon. “It’s both a very dark, sad story, but also a story that’s about rebirth and renewal, rededication to justice and liberty.”

Heiser, a National Park Service ranger with 33 years of service at Gettysburg, is a native of North Carolina yet has ancestors who fought on both sides of the Civil War. “The 150th will be the highlight of my career, absolutely. To be on the battlefield that I read about as a kid, 150 years later… I hope to convey this story to everyone who comes: There are no longer sides. We are all Americans.”

To see the article as published in Celebrate Gettysburg, with additional photos from past Gettysburg commemorations, click here.

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