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Photos: Gettysburg veterans return to battlefield after 50 years

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July 1 – 3 marks the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the turning point of the American Civil War when Union forces defeated Confederate forces led by General Robert E. Lee.

The battle was the bloodiest of the conflict, with 50,000 dead, wounded or missing by the time it drew to a close.

50 years later survivors returned to the rolling Pennsylvania farmland for the biggest-ever gathering of civil war veterans.

These pictures tell their story.

This picture shows veterans arriving at the camp made for them by the US Army at the bicentennial anniversary of the conflict
Library of Congress

The idea for the 50-year gathering had been suggested in 1908 to Pennsylvania’s governor Edwin Sidney Stuart by General H. S. Huidekoper, who had lost his right arm in the battle.

Invitations were sent to surviving honorably discharged civil war veterans across the country. Federal and state authorities provided funds to help veterans — many of whom were in their 70s — get there by rail.

With the help of the War Department, the veterans’ village was built across 280 acres with 5,000 tents, each equipped with two hand basins and a water bucket. New wells were dug and latrines built. More than 50,000 veterans turned up, with a further 50,000 sightseers, and family members also attending.

Thousands of soldiers and state officials provided food and medical treatment and Boy Scouts helped the veterans get around.

This image shows the 280 acre camp site constructed for veterans on the Gettysburg battlefield in 1913
Library of Congress

Over the next three days there were speeches, regimental reunions and fireworks displays, and reenactments of key events in the battle.

There was a re-enactment of Pickett’s Charge on the third day, in which the Confederates lost more than 2,500 men. Confederate veterans tottered up the hill supported by canes, to be met by Union veterans.

“But instead of shooting each other, they all shook hands across the stone wall and exchanged ceremonial flags. Some fell into each other’s arms, weeping. Other just sat down in silence and looked sadly across the field,” wrote Stefany Ann Goldberg in The Atlantic.

Confederate veterans who took part in Picketts charge meet during the 1913 reunion, with Confederates in foreground; Union men lined against wall
Library of Congress

Between official events old comrades exchanged war stories and anecdotes.

Gettysburg veterans at the 1913 reunion reminisce.
Library of Congress

Men who had decades before faced each other from opposing sides locked in deadly struggle shook hands.

According to reports at the time dug out by Mentalfloss, veterans attempted to seek out Confederate veterans responsible for wounds they received, in order to befriend them. Others exchanged medals.

Union and Confederate veterans shaking hands at reunion to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg
Library of Congress

Friendships were formed between former adversaries. Two veterans reportedly bought a hatchet from a local hardware store and buried it on the battlefield to symbolise that old enmities had been forgotten.

Photograph shows portrait of unidentified Confederate veteran in United Confederate Veterans uniform with Maryland state buttons and Southern Cross of Honor and Union veteran in Grand Army of the Republic uniform with medals, shaking hands at 1913 Gettysburg reunion.
Library of Congress

Other took time to quietly reflect on the momentous events of the day.

A veteran writes down his thoughts at the 1913 Gettysburg reunion.
Library of Congress

On July 4, President Woodrow Wilson addressed the veterans, celebrating the spirit of comradeship and reconciliation displayed during the reunion.

“We have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten—except that we shall not forget the splendid valor,” he said.

Photo shows President Woodrow Wilson at the Gettysburg Reunion (the Great Reunion) of July 1913, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Library of Congress

Only 25 veterans were still alive by the time of the 75th anniversary of the conflict, in 1938.

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