Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Review - "War, Memory, and the 1913 Gettysburg Reunion" by Thomas Flagel

[War, Memory, and the 1913 Gettysburg Reunion by Thomas R. Flagel (Kent State University Press, 2019). Hardcover, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xiv,130/184. ISBN:978-1-60635-371-4.$29.95]

Between June 29 and July 4, 1913 well over 50,000 elderly Civil War veterans and thousands of support staff, tourists, and commercial vendors descended upon the small town of Gettysburg for the 50th anniversary reunion of the great battle. What attitudes and thoughts occupied the minds of veterans during the occasion and what the war came to mean and symbolize to American citizens as a whole are topics that have been debated by scholars ever since, especially in recent decades. Recounting the events of the reunion in detail and examining the ways the event shined light on how veterans and other attendees chose to remember the war after the passage of five decades is the subject of Thomas Flagel's War, Memory, and the 1913 Gettysburg Reunion.

It would be foolish to try to ascribe a single, overarching motivation to the tens of thousands of veterans who attended the anniversary. Many undoubtedly were imbued with the spirit of sectional reconciliation and shared nationalism, but Flagel's depiction of the reunion does suggest that individual-level reconciliation with what occurred five decades earlier was most pervasive (even for the many veteran attendees who did not fight at Gettysburg). The vast majority of veterans passed over the more formally planned group events (including many political speeches under a scorching sun) to wander around camp, town, and countryside on their own, visiting the sites of their increasingly distant memories and trying to reconnect with comrades. For most, at least according to Flagel, being at Gettysburg and revisiting places of traumatic memory primarily meant reckoning with their own past rather than the nation's as a collective whole.

With few firsthand perspectives of the event available from archival materials and other documents written in the words of the veterans themselves, Flagel turned to newspapers (which are especially prominent in his bibliography) and the reports of the estimated 150 journalists and photographers that attended the reunion. While this might have introduced a layer of distortion in some cases, the author feels that these reports together comprise the best available "oral history" of the 1913 reunion.

In the book, Flagel informatively contrasts the orderly hygiene of the newly constructed veteran's camp with the all too often filthy, disease-ridden nature of Civil War places of encampment. In 1913 there was plenty of fresh, clean, and cool water thanks to ingeniously designed plumbing and storage systems. Government officials set up labs that rigorously tested all food for contaminants and screened every staff member for signs of sickness. Medical care was swift and attentive. All veteran tents were regularly visited by staff to see if anyone needed help. The author cites the army's Spanish-American War experience as the primary stimulant behind these progressive improvements (many of which were undergoing field testing during the reunion itself) in soldier care, but the larger scale and still remembered Civil War experience undoubtedly informed the process to some degree as well.

Another strong theme presented in the narrative was a widespread expression among veterans of gratitude toward the government, who treated them with unexpected solicitude and even extravagance in meeting their needs during the reunion. The entire affair was also a demonstration of organizational competence on the part of the War Department that contrasted notably with their Civil War experiences. For many veterans, especially those who felt increasingly alienated from society in their advanced years, the feeling of appreciation that emerged throughout the proceedings was deeply felt.

Certainly many other individual stories emerge in the text, but Flagel most closely explores the reunion involvement and impressions of four distinctly different Civil War veterans (two from each warring section). Though hardly representative in a statistical sense, they instead represent the range of personal attitudes and motivations that attendees North and South brought to the event and the variety of experiences they had in the veterans camp and upon visiting the old battlefield.

The reunion was a rousing success in a number of ways, but the climax of the affair—the breaking ground ceremony of a great national peace monument that would be accompanied by speeches from the president and other dignitaries—did not come to pass as planned. Congress did not approve the funding of the memorial and President Wilson's reluctant, last-minute decision to attend the reunion resulted in an uninspired speech and only a 45 minute stay. It would be 1938 before the Eternal Light Peace Memorial would be dedicated on Oak Ridge.

In the end, Flagel doesn't exactly demolish competing interpretations of what the event meant to veterans and the nation as a whole, but his alternative contention that the prevailing spirit of the 1913 reunion was highly introspective in nature and its communal aspects more about spontaneously connecting with other veterans than promoting nationalism and reconciliation has considerable merit.

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