There’s a grand old tradition of celebrating the Fourth of July through dissent. Of famously dissenting July Fourths, the 1976 Bicentennial comes to mind, when World’s Fair-style displays of pyrotechnics and nautical parades were joined by civil rights protests nationwide (including a celebrity-organized rally on the National Mall by the People’s Bicentennial Commission featuring Jane Fonda and Dr. Spock). The most notable has to be the first Fourth of July, in 1776, when the founding fathers finalized the Declaration of Independence, which was, itself, met with a certain amount of dissent. Plenty of Americans were still loyal to the British government. They used the Declaration as an opportunity to publish their own dissenting tracts, like that of Thomas Hutchinson, who served a short stint as colonial governor of Massachusetts. Hutchinson proclaimed the newly independent nation to be the insidious effort of a few rabble-rousing conspirators. He also called members of Congress hypocrites for daring to write in the Declaration that “all men are created equal” when they themselves owned slaves. In this he had a point.
In 1913 our nation, led by the government of Philadelphia, put together a Fourth of July extravaganza designed to hail the end of American disunity. The Great Reunion of 1913 commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and the subsequent years of relative peace and harmony (save a “splendid little war” with Spain that lasted only four months).
The Great Reunion of 1913 was an amazing historical event, the largest gathering ever of Civil War veterans, who came together for a week of solidarity and celebration. On July 4, President Woodrow Wilson arrived and made a speech. But it was July 3 that people remember most. As part of the week’s festivities, thousands of old veterans — most in their 70s, the oldest 112 — took their respective places on the former battlefield and commenced with a tottering reenactment of Pickett’s Charge. At 3 p.m., the surviving Confederate soldiers of General Pickett’s division stormed Cemetery Ridge, a clattering assortment of long beards and crutches and canes. Slowly approaching the stone fence at Bloody Angle, some of the codgers croaked out the rebel yell when they were “surprised” by a group of men from the former Union Philadelphia Brigade. 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.
The enthusiastic American press decided the Great Reunion was America’s strongest demonstration of national unity ever. “Nothing could possibly be more impressive or more inspiring to the younger generation than this gathering,” wrote The Washington Post. “But even more touching must be the emotions of these time-worn veterans, as they assemble on an occasion that in itself constitutes a greater victory than that of half a century ago, and one too, in which every section of a reunited country has common part.” The New York Times used the event to advertise American concord to the rest of the world, at that time edging closer to the most terrible war any would see: “The pilgrimage to Gettysburg…proclaims to the world the solidarity of the American people; it is a significant warning to any of the great powers who mistake our political upheavals and internal strifes for a lack of homogeneity among the States.” But the reunion was not all flowers, candy, and homogeneity. Time may heal all wounds but memory rips them right back open.
It took the government of Pennsylvania eight years and a lot of dough to host the Reunion. The idea was simple: set up a big tent city in Gettysburg and invite the old Civil War survivors to stay there for a week. They expected 20,000 and ended up with 50,000 — 50,000 senior citizens, Civil War veterans from both sides, camping out for a week in the battlefield that eventually decided the final outcome of the war. It’s astounding only nine people died. Each day had a scheduled program of speeches and meals and activities, but inevitably there was a lot of dangerous in-between time with nothing to do but reminisce. There was an incident in which an old blue coat and an old gray went at each with forks, and on July 2 seven men were stabbed in a hotel bar when someone made a disparaging remark about Lincoln. All this reminiscing forced the State Health Department to order town saloons to shut down no later than 11 p.m.
More than 200,000 tourists and journalists flooded Gettysburg to witness the spectacle, not to mention the Red Cross, the Army, and hundreds of Boy Scouts. The pressure to perform the rites of unity must have been intense. Some just decided it would be best to go home early but a number of the veterans managed to lose their return tickets. Finally, the Governor of Pennsylvania decided the State would pay for anyone who wanted to leave.
Woodrow Wilson originally intended to avoid the 1913 Reunion altogether. He was the first Southerner elected president since 1848, and he wasn’t exactly thrilled about being compared to Lincoln. On July 4, 1913 the newly elected president gave in and delivered a speech that tipped its hat to the heroics of war. But its real focus was the larger and somewhat more nebulous subject of what it takes to be an independent nation. “Are we content to lie still? Does our union mean sympathy, our peace contentment, our vigor right action, our maturity self-comprehension and a clear confidence in choosing what we shall do? War fitted us for action, and action never ceases.” War is useful for giving birth to nations, and for killing them. But living each day in a nation of more-or-less-average citizens ruled by other more-or-less-average citizens is hard, and never stops being hard. A nation at peace is always, in a sense, a nation at war. Struggling, only with different weapons.
A minor story of the Reunion told of two men, a Rebel and a Yankee, walking hand-in-hand one afternoon through the streets of Gettysburg. Together, the men went into a hardware store, purchased a hatchet, and walked a mile and a half to the battlefield. Reaching the Bloody Angle, they dug a hole in the ground and buried the hatchet, crying and embracing each other all the while. I have no doubt that, with the right amount of provocation and/or whiskey, they would have dug it up the very next day. As perhaps it should be, since it is the persistent burying and digging up of the hatchet that makes a nation. This Fourth of July, as we stab each other in saloons and attack each other with forks, we do so as part of a great tradition, all in the name of national unity. • 30 June 2010