Eyewitness 1913: Rebel yell echoes again across Gettysburg fields

When about 200 men re-enacted Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg in 1913, they provided a reality that could never again be matched.

The 100 veterans in gray were the survivors of Gen. George Pickett's failed attack on the Union line on July 3, 1863. In deference to their age, the white-haired ex-soldiers started their double-quick 2 p.m. advance from the Emmitsburg Road, rather than from the more distant Seminary Ridge.

"From their ranks went up the ear-splitting 'y-ei-i,' the 'rebel yell,' of the days of '61-'65 and they dashed at the blue-clad ranks massed behind the wall," The Pittsburgh Press reported on the day of the re-enactment.

The "trifle more" than 100 Union veterans from Pennsylvania regiments met the Southern attack. They responded, not with cannon and musket fire, but with wild cheers "as their onetime enemies -- now friends and comrades -- came at them," the story said. As the two sides met at the stone wall in front of the Union line, "there was a shaking of hands, pounding on the back and cheering that was the culmination of three days of jollification."

Pittsburgh's major newspapers all sent staff writers to cover the 50th anniversary of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. The event drew both many ex-Confederates as well as Union veterans, and the press reports emphasized the good fellowship among the former enemies.

George W. Greenwood, the city clerk in Durham, N.C., had been a member of his state's 51st Infantry Regiment. Wearing a Tar-Heel badge and pine leaves in his hat, Greenwood could "be found surrounded by groups of old Union veterans," Gazette-Times reporter George T. Fleming wrote in a July 2 story. "He is one of the best representatives of the new era of good feeling."

Virginia-born Woodrow Wilson had become president in March. He was the first Southerner to be elected to that office since the end of the Civil War, and his July 4 speech in a large tent erected on the battlefield drew wild enthusiasm from the ex-Confederates.

"When the President faced the audience in the vast canvas enclosure, the rebel yells were given with a vengeance, almost drowning out the noise produced by the handclapping and applause from the Union veterans," Press reporter James J. Farrell wrote on July 5.

Wilson was no friend to African-Americans. Among other measures, he ordered re-segregation of federal offices and expressed support for the Ku Klux Klan. Nevertheless, in his Gettysburg speech he emphasized both the economic power of the re-united United States and "its world-wide fame as the home of free men."

Judging from the stories and photographs that appeared in The Press and the Gazette-Times, blacks had no part in the golden anniversary commemoration of Gettysburg except in service roles.

Farrell, the Press reporter, reported that veterans appeared simultaneously amused and uncomfortable when several of the reunion's African-American cooks set up a mock slave auction. Farrell wrote that the cooks, having "some idle moments to dispose of ... entered into the play with the enthusiasm of kids."

"A crowd of veterans who gathered laughed, but it could be seen they were affected by the unusual and startling recollection of a state of affairs which had helped to materially precipitate the awful war they are survivors of," he wrote.

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Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184. See more Civil War-linked stories in this series by searching "Barcousky" and "Eyewitness" at post-gazette.com. First Published July 7, 2013 4:00 AM


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