You may have seen this now-iconic photo, taken in 1913 on the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg. The standard trope is that these aging veterans, shaking hands across the battlefield's "Bloody Angle," had let battles be bygones. America, the photo seemed to suggest, had gotten beyond the Civil War.
As the keynoter of a recent conference sponsored by Virginia Tech, Caroline Janney, author of Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation, presented a different interpretation on post-War reconciliation.
One telling observation she shared: This image notwithstanding, most of the photos from the event in the National Park Service archives show veterans in their own camps, not freely mingling with each other. Thus, this staged photo, according to Janney, did not represent the on-the-ground reality at the reunion, or in other settings.
Veterans from both sides kept their respective causes alive through memoirs, cemeteries, and separate organizations. The G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic) was a powerful bulwark of the Republican Party with posts, or chapters, throughout the north. While Confederate veterans could not formally organize in the years right after the war, they kept the spirit of the Lost Cause alive, forming the United Confederate Veterans in the late 1880s.
Popular culture sought to erase the differences, according to Janney, as much for economic reasons as anything else. For example, a magazine called Battles & Leaders "sanitized" the war in order to build a nationwide audience.
A few reunions took place before the 1913 event pictured above. One of the first took place between vets in 1881 in Luray, VA, and Carlisle, PA. (Janney maintained the Carlisle vets were particularly interested in the event in order to see the newly opened Luray Caverns.) Such meetings received media attention precisely because they were infrequent.
Emancipation and Racism
African Americans fought against slavery and for equality, the latter of which did not come to fruition.
Most Northern white veterans did not connect the war with a path to civil rights. Racism and inequality permeated society in all parts of the country. Still, Union veterans strongly maintained that they fought to end slavery.
Southern veterans also addressed the slavery issue. At an 1895 dedication near Chickamauga (the first "national monument" to honor both sides), Alabama Governor William Oates started out extolling the "fraternal meeting and participation." Soon he was pointing out that slavery had been legal at the time, that masters were bound to provide "healthful food and clothing," that slavery was necessary as a transition for blacks to freedom, etc.
Confederate women, Janney said, kept the flames of sectionalism alive in the South. In the North, the Women's Relief Corps existed but it did not seem to have the force of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Men, although the reunions were tenuous as noted above, did share the common bond of war experience. Moreover, in the world of politics and commerce, they had more frequent contact with each other and had to find ways to co-exist. Women, most of whom remained in their "sphere," did not have this necessity.
One of Janney's examples: successful lobbying for erection of a statue a Confederate Memorial at Arlington Cemetery in the early 1900s. Its figures include "faithful black slaves" (as described by the sculptor).
Not just history....
The conference was not just on reconciliation after the Civil War, but after civil wars (plural, lower case). It was co-convened by Virginia Tech's Center for Civil War Studies and Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention. The other keynoter: Joseph Sebarenzi, on post-genocide Rwanda.
And as Janney pointed out, the 19th-century U.S. issues are with us today. Use of the Confederate flag? Names of streets? Statues? We still debate reconciliation.