Yesterday was Veterans Day, and many of my friends on Facebook posted tributes to their family and friends, usually mentioning their grandfathers who fought in World War II.
Now, World War II was over 60 years ago, but I personally know WWII vets—my own grandfather and great-uncle. And my father knew family members who were WWI vets.
It is easy to think of historical events as happening in the long-ago past, in a vacuum where wars have a beginning and end rather than as lives that overlap from one event to another. But things run into each other—Theodore Roosevelt saw Lincoln’s funeral, and Roosevelt’s son Ted served in World War I and later was on the beach in Normandy in WWII, directing the troops as they came ashore.
But still, I was jolted when I saw the film footage of Civil War veterans. After all—the Civil War ended in 1865, before the invention of cars or telephone or airplanes. But there they were in motion, men who had been on the field at Gettysburg, chatting and talking, their long white beards blowing in the wind.
They were filmed in 1938, 20 years after WWI and just a few years before WWII. They had grown up with horses and trains, and they arrived at the Blue and Gray Reunion by car.
Seventy-five years after the Battle of Gettysburg, a Federal commission took on the massive task of identifying and inviting Civil War veterans (who were limited only to those who had been “regularly enlisted” and seen “actual service”) to the reunion. Over 10,000 invitations were sent out to Union and Confederate veterans, the media, and dignitaries.
In the end, there were 1,890 acceptances and 2,226 declines. Over 2,000 invitations were returned marked “deceased.”
For the reunion, veterans were housed in a tent city set up on the campus of Gettysburg College. It was a big operation, with three kitchens serving food in 55 mess tents and a field hospital for the elderly men.
Watching the footage, I wondered what it was like for these men to be among their comrades 75 years later. Had any of them met Walt Whitman in a war hospital in Washington, DC? Had they seen Lincoln’s funeral? Did they still think about the war when they lived in a time of airplanes and cars?
You can see this film footage at the second half of the “Discovering the Civil War” exhibit at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, from November 10, 2010, to April 11, 2011. Or, you can watch this video short for a preview of the footage of Civil War veterans (starting at 3.03).
(Numbers in this blog post come from Mitch Yokelson’s article “The Great Reunion: The Seventy-fifth Anniversary of Gettysburg” in the Summer 1992 issue of Prologue magazine.