Blue-Gray Reunions

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Blue-Gray Reunions

The Civil War caused a deep and wide chasm of animosity between the people of the North and the South. Years of Reconstruction widened that gap even farther as the two regions recovered from war and vied for power over the future of the former slaves. As a result, not surprisingly, it took the United States many years to recover from the war, and the united nation only began to rise from the ashes in the mid-to late-1870s. As noted by one Civil War veteran, however, reconciliation took time: "He would indeed be impatient who looked for more speedy progress" ("Camping on Chickamauga," September 16, 1892). But by the 1880s and on into the 1890s, when the federal government turned its back on racial issues and the gains made in the Reconstruction years, mollifying the South through segregation, Northerners and Southerners were growing friendlier toward one another. Evidence of this reconciliation can be seen best in the Blue-Gray reunions that brought veterans of the North and South together to remember and commemorate their war (Blight 2001).

Despite the popularity of Decoration Day in both regions, few if any joint veterans' reunions took place in the early and middle Reconstruction years. By the mid-1870s, however, there were some joint observances, but these were few and far between. One of the earliest was in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1874, when veterans of both sides, the New York Times reported, formed "an association known as 'The Order of Blues and Grays,' its avowed purpose being the encouragement of kindly and frank relations between the survivors of both armies" ("Editorial Article No. 5," September 12, 1874). With the official end of Reconstruction in 1877, the proverbial chains of animosity were removed, allowing the two sides to begin reconciling. The 1876 national centennial celebration helped foster this common feeling of oneness (Piehler 1995, pp. 75–76).

By the late-1870s and certainly in the 1880s, joint reunions had become fairly common. Many were on the small scale of local reunions, but there were an impressive number of national joint reunions held as well. One took place at Atlanta in 1880; a headline in the Washington Post read, "Opening Day of the Reunion of the Boys in Blue and Gray" ("The Atlanta Celebration," October 19, 1880). Another was at Wilson's Creek, Missouri, in 1883: "Throughout the reunion the most cordial feeling has existed between the old Union and Confederate soldiers," the Washington Post reported, "and the most courteous and generous sentiments have been expressed. Not a single unpleasant word has been uttered to mar the general harmony and enthusiasm. The men have camped together as though there had never been a difference between them" ("Blended Blue and Gray," August 12, 1883). An event at Gettysburg—virtually the only marked battlefield park in the 1880s—received a lot of attention because it was "the occasion of a reunion both of Northern and Southern veterans" ("The Blue and the Gray," August 12, 1883).

By the 1890s, these reunions were fairly commonplace. With the establishment of the national military parks, numerous gatherings were held in connection with the famous sites. A joint reunion took place in 1889 to promote the idea of a national park at Chickamauga, and a similar joint veterans' reunion of Shiloh soldiers was held at that battlefield on April 6 and 7, 1894. One participant, George W. McBride, remembered the Shiloh reunion and the park were "the offering of those who fought, of a fraternal brotherhood to the future" (McBride [1896] 2003, p. 227). The dedication of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park in 1895 brought as many as 75,000 attendees, many of them veterans from North and South. Vice President Adlai Stevenson I (1835–1914) spoke to the 1895 Chickamauga crowd about the veterans: "They meet, not in deadly conflict, but as brothers, under one flag—fellow citizens of a common country" ("Cementing the Union," September 20, 1895).

In later years, the battlefields also served as gathering places for the dwindling number of Civil War veterans. Anniversaries were special times of joint commemoration, such as the fiftieth anniversaries of Gettysburg and Chickamauga in 1913. Both those battlefields observed special ceremonies attended by both sides, with President Woodrow Wilson speaking to the Gettysburg veterans, saying: "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 we shall not forget the splendid valor, the manly devotion of the men then arrayed against one another, now grasping hands and smiling into each other's eyes" (Pennsylvania at Gettysburg 1914, vol. 3, p. 174). A similar joint reunion took place in Vicksburg in 1917. Even as late as the 1930s, veterans were still returning to their fields of conflict to commemorate their deeds. At the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1938, some of the few remaining veterans of both sides reenacted Pickett's Charge and shook hands across the famous stone wall.

With the passing of the veteran generation, so also passed the joint reunions, but for a brief few decades the veterans had come together and remembered their old times. Certainly, the veterans themselves gained a lot of satisfaction from these reunions, but the service they provided to their united nation in fostering reconciliation and promoting reunion between the sections was also extremely important. Although not all the old soldiers were reconciled, it is fitting that significant reconciliation started with the veterans, for it was their generation that was at the helm when the nation split apart.


"The Atlanta Celebration." Washington Post, October 19, 1880.

"Blended Blue and Gray."Washington Post, August 12, 1883.

Blight, David. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in Memory and Reunion. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

"The Blue and the Gray." New York Times, July 2, 1888.

"Camping on Chickamauga." Washington Post, September 16, 1892.

"Cementing the Union." Washington Post, September 20, 1895.

"Editorial Article No. 5." New York Times, September 12, 1874.

McBride, George W. "Shiloh, after Thirty-Two Years." Under Both Flags: A Panorama of the Great Civil War as Represented in Story, Anecdote, Adventure, and the Romance of Reality [1896]. New York: Lyons Press, 2003.

Neff, John R. Honoring the Civil War Dead: Commemoration and the Problem of Reconciliation. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005.

Pennsylvania at Gettysburg: Ceremonies at the Dedication of the Monuments Erected by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to Major-General George G. Meade, Major General Winfield S. Hancock, Major General John F. Reynolds, and to Mark the Positions of the Pennsylvania Commands Engaged in the Battle. 3 vols. Harrisburg, PA: W. S. Ray, 1914.

Piehler, G. Kurt. Remembering War the American Way. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.

Smith, Timothy B. The Golden Age of Battlefield Preservation: The Decade of the 1890s and the Establishment of America's First Five Military Parks. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2008.

Timothy B. Smith