Saturday, January 19, 2019

Book News: War, Memory, and the 1913 Gettysburg Reunion

Among Kent State's current catalog of upcoming Civil War titles, the one I find perhaps most intriguing is Thomas Flagel's War, Memory, and the 1913 Gettysburg Reunion (May 2019). The author is undoubtedly correct that the 50th anniversary event is viewed by the general interest public as one primarily attended by battle veterans in the spirit of comradeship and reconciliation. That is at least the common shorthand interpretation espoused by the countless television documentaries that have used reunion footage and photographs from both the 1913 and 1938 events.

Even after the passage of five decades, quite a few veterans remained in good enough health to travel and had the means to attend. The accommodations were not luxurious by any standard. From the description: "This June 29–July 4 reunion drew over 55,000 official attendees plus thousands more who descended upon a town of 4,000 during the scorching summer of 1913, with the promise of little more than a cot and two blankets, military fare, and the presence of countless adversaries from a horrific war. Most were revisiting a time and place in their personal history that involved acute physical and emotional trauma."

Due caution should always be exercised before trying to ascribe any kind of consensus attitude to such a diverse collection of veterans north and south, but the book apparently does quite strongly argue that "veterans were not motivated to attend by a desire for reconciliation, nor did the Great Reunion produce a general sense of a reunified country." According to Flagel, "(t)he reconciliation premise, advanced by several major speeches at the anniversary, lived in rhetoric more than fact. Recent scholarship effectively dismantles this “Reconciliation of 1913” mythos, finding instead that sectionalism and lingering hostilities largely prevailed among veterans and civilians."

The book "examines how individual veterans viewed the reunion, what motivated them to attend, how they acted and reacted once they arrived, and whether these survivors found what they were personally seeking. While politicians and the press characterized the veterans as relics of a national crusade, Flagel focuses on four men who come to the reunion for different and very individual reasons." Sounds interesting.

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