Woodrow Wilson and Civil War Memory

Gettysburg has witnessed several important events in American history that extend beyond the scope of the Civil War battle in 1863. Monument dedications, reunions, and speeches commemorating the battle exhibit an evolution of Civil War memory that captures an evolution or change in perspectives of the war, often found in addresses given by presidents.

Handshake 1913

The Blue and the Gray meet during the Great Reunion of 1913.

To observe the fiftieth anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania hosted a “Great Reunion” of Union and Confederate veterans at the park. From June 30 to July 4, 1913 approximately 54,000 Union and Confederate veterans from across the United States, camped on the Gettysburg battlefield. Considering the average life expectancy for men in 1900 was 46, these veterans were far older than the typical American- the average age between seventy-two and seventy-three years old. Despite their lofty ages, summer heat did not dampen the enthusiasm and excitement that swept the affair.  The Blue and Gray walked the fields and shook hands over walls they fought over fifty years before. They mingled with celebrities including the only surviving Corps commander of either army, Daniel Sickles. The veterans were also treated to state of the art lodging that boasted modern amenities. The Great Camp featured electric lighting at night, chilled water fountains, and spotlessly clean latrines. Three meals a day were provided for all veterans. Additionally, the largest circus tent in the United States was raised on the field of Pickett’s Charge, serving as the “Great Tent.” The event cost $450,000, and $1,750,000 was allotted for transporting the veterans to Gettysburg by train. (Calculating for inflation, during 2017 the lofty cost of the reunion would reach over 11 million dollars, with more than 43 million allotted for transportation.)

The momentous event in 1913 Gettysburg provides us a snapshot of Civil War memory during the “Progressive Era”. This period spanned from the 1890’s to the 1920’s, and was marked by social and political changes in the United States. Post-war resentment and hostility between the North and the South reached a turning point during this era due, in part, to the Spanish-American War in 1898. During this very brief war, former Union and Confederate soldiers and generals served side by side, fighting for a common cause. This somewhat odd reunification in the military during the War initiated a new narrative of Civil War remembrance. Unity and reconciliation between former Union and Confederate enemies became the theme, overshadowing the loss, anger, and tension of the Reconstruction era.

Changing Civil War memories also aligns with the vast social, economic, and technological changes during the Progressive era. This era witnessed the release of the “Model T,” an affordable car that revolutionized American transportation. President Teddy Roosevelt displayed the strength of America’s Navy to other nations by ordering the strongest warships cruise through international waters in the “Great White Fleet.” Roosevelt’s character became the inspiration for the “Teddy Bear.” The Panama Canal changed international trade, and the Wright Brothers found ways to navigate the sky. Suffragist Movements escalated and reached closer to securing the women’s vote. Industrialization had boomed, bringing along with it increased urbanization. Some of these shifts in American lifestyle brought about negative consequences including poor working conditions and seemingly invincible “Big Businesses.” Muckraker journalists uncovered and brought many of these unsightly practices to mainstream audiences through written publications. Throughout the Progressive era, the US sought to address the challenges that arose with such quick change through an increase of government regulation of industry (the Khan Academy). President Woodrow Wilson initiated and promised much of this change as the third “Progressive President” elected in 1912.

Woodrow Wilson

President Woodrow Wilson (Wilson Library)

Wilson was not a man to dwell on the past of the United States but preferred, at the height of the Progressive Era, to focus on building the nation’s future. Thus, Wilson initially declined the formal invitation to speak at the Great Reunion in Gettysburg that summer, evidently not seeing the gathering as particularly significant. Wilson was the first Southern-born president elected since the Civil War and his presence alone was symbolic of reunion. Under intense political pressure, the President acquiesced the week before the anniversary encampment began and special arrangements were made to accommodate his arrival and appearance before the veterans.

Wilson’s speech to the veterans on July 4, 1913, captures memory of the Civil War through a Progressive lens. He glossed over the causes or purpose of the war with no reference to the question of slavery or rebellion and rampant mistrust, but focused solely on the unity of former enemies then gathered in Gettysburg, a speech shaped primarily by his Progressive ideals that included his traditional perspective on race in American society. The President remarked that a need to explain the purpose of the Battle of Gettysburg was unnecessary; that Americans should focus on  the fifty years between the battle and the reunion. A period, in his view, of “peace and union and vigor,” “healing,” and “brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten” (Wilson, Address to the Veterans, July 4, 1913). Wilson complimented the nation on its changes and movement forward, expressing that a nation once divided and engaged in brutal fighting was then reunited. The President was even so bold as to claim the war had passed from American memory though the future of the country’s security were insured by its citizens:

Wilson speaks at Gettysburg 7-4-13

President Wilson speaks to veterans and guests in the Great Tent at Gettysburg, July 4, 1913. Members of the press are seated in front of the stage to report on the president’s address. (NARA)

“Have affairs paused? Does the Nation stand still? Is what the fifty years have wrought since those days of battle finished, rounded out and completed? Here is a great people, great with every force that has ever beaten in the lifeblood of mankind. And it is secure. There is no one within its borders, there is no power among the nations of the earth to make it afraid.”

The United States, the President acknowledged, was not entirely finished with its post-Civil War struggles. Like Lincoln, Wilson noted there was more to be accomplished: “I have in my mind another host, whom these set free of civil strife in order that they might work out in days of peace and settled order the life of a great nation. That host is the people themselves, the great and the small without class or difference of kind of race or origin; and undivided in interest, if we have but the vision to guide and direct them and order their lives aright in what we do.”

Yet, during the early 1900s, the issue of equality for all Americans regardless of skin color and religion was far from resolved and while President Wilson’s words were intended to promote freedom and advancement, he quietly condoned the social rule of “separate but equal” and disregarded the struggle for civil equality by African Americans under the laws of Jim Crow.

Slavery, the primary sectional cause of the war, was scarcely mentioned at the Fiftieth Anniversary. Historian David Blight analyzed post-Civil War memory in his book, Race and Reunion, using the Fiftieth Anniversary event in Gettysburg to develop his argument regarding the complex intersection between reconciliation of Northern and Southern veterans, and racial tensions in American society: “At this remarkable moment when Americans looked backward with deepening nostalgia and ahead with modern excitement and fear, Jim Crow, only half-hidden, stalked the dirt paths of the veterans’ tent city at Gettysburg.” (Blight, p. 386). Lynching, segregation, and discrimination were accepted facts of life throughout the United States. There were sixty-four lynchings during the year 1912, fifty-one in 1913. Immigration regulations were strict, eugenic practices were sterilizing minority communities, and the Ku Klux Klan was embraced as a protector of law by many Americans most notably after the release of “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915. Blight also notes that black men were only invited to work the camp at the Fiftieth Anniversary, though his claim is somewhat misleading. Black veterans were not explicitly excluded from the Gettysburg reunion, but their attendance was not accounted for by the Pennsylvania Commission. A black New Jersey veteran who did attend noted there were quarters for the handful of black Union veterans at the camp, but not for the Confederacy and the handful of former slaves who appeared, who had served alongside their masters through the hardships of soldier life.

The theme of the Great Reunion was reunification of the North and the South, the admirable fraternization between former enemies. President Wilson’s speech focused on that ideal, though it certainly was not as powerful as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which continues to echo throughout American history as the ideological explanation for the purpose of the Battle of Gettysburg and the Civil War, that the soldiers who died there did so to uphold American ideals for freedom and equality (Blight).  The Great Reunion captured Civil War memory in transition but did this symbolic reunification provide closure to the war for Americans? For the veterans who attended, yes; yet for American society, the ideals of what a citizen’s full rights should be were still a question left unanswered. Lincoln’s words, repeated in 1913 as they are today, should remind us daily of “the great task remaining before us” that memory can be a grand thing to behold, but the struggle for progress, which President Wilson spoke of,  did not necessarily mean true equality for all Americans but was merely an ideal buried by the laws of “separate but equal” that would dominate race relations for fifty more years.

-Tesia Kempski
Gettysburg National Military Park

Tesia is a summer intern in the Division of Interpretation at Gettysburg, about to begin her junior year at Wake Forest University this fall. During the summer she enjoyed her duties with park rangers at the information desk, assisted rangers with children’s programs and battle walks, and she provided guided tours in the Gettysburg National Cemetery.

David Blight: Race and Reunion, The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001) 356.

John Heiser, Gettysburg NMP: “Sacred Trust Talks 2014” https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=john+heiser

Khan Academy, “The Progressive Era” at https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-us-history/period-7/apush-age-of-empire/a/the-progressive-era

“Lynchings during 1913” at https://www.jstor.org/stable/1133178?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Woodrow Wilson: Address to Veterans of the Blue and Gray at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 4, 1913, in Lewis Beitler, ed.: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Fiftieth Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, report of the Pennsylvania Commission, December 31, 1913 (Harrisburg, PA: William Stanley Ray, State Printer, 1915), pp. 174-176.

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3 Responses to Woodrow Wilson and Civil War Memory

  1. Michael Strong says:

    I always enjoy the posts. Wilson was one of the most racist presidents to ever occupy the White House. It would be interesting for the interns to explore his contribution to the resegregation of our Civil Service and how he fed the myth of the Lost Cause.

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Dennis Lawrence says:

    Very well, done. Very relevant to today,

  3. Kurt Eberly says:

    We should not judge people of the past based on what we believe they should have said or done or not said or done. We evaluate them based on the entirety of their lives, just as all of us living today will want to be evaluated. People are products of the their periods. Woodrow Wilson was certainly reflective of the attitudes, good and bad, of the people of his time. We would have liked him to have done something on the issue of civil rights, but he did not. He did do many other things, though, that should earn him our respect.

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