These Poignant Photographs Cast A Powerful New Light On Gettysburg’s Forgotten Past

Image: The Library of Congress

On a ridge of land outside the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, two groups of soldiers lock eyes across the terrain. For years, they have been on opposing sides of a bloody war – and now they face each other once and for all. But what happens next is something that you won’t find in any history book.

Image: Matthew Brady/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Beginning on July 1, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg pitted America’s Union army against the Confederate forces of the South. And over the course of three days, around 150,000 soldiers fought to gain the upper hand in a bloody civil war. Eventually, some 8,000 men lay dead on the battlefield, while thousands more barely escaped with their lives.

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Image: Alma A. Pelot

Today, the Battle of Gettysburg is remembered as the biggest conflict of the country’s civil war – as well as the most deadly to ever take place on U.S. soil. However, it was also responsible for turning the tide of the war. And when the Union forces finally claimed victory over the Confederate army, it was an echo of things to come.

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On the last day of battle, more than 12,000 Confederate soldiers advanced on the Union stronghold at Cemetery Ridge. Later named Pickett’s Charge, it was a move that would ultimately go down in history as a decisive southern defeat. And now, a collection of incredible photographs has revealed new insights into this heart-wrenching moment – although everything is not quite as it seems.

Image: Anthony Berger

Before the Civil War, America’s northern and southern states disagreed on a number of issues. And while Abraham Lincoln and his progressive supporters in the North wished to pursue economic progress, those in the South worried about how these changes would affect their every day lives.

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Image: Henry P. Moore

There were plenty of different factors that kick-started the civil war. The question of slavery, however, was at the heart of much of the conflict. And while the northern Republicans wished to abolish the practice, many in the south saw the owning of slaves as a God-given right. Thus, when Lincoln became president, 11 states opted to secede rather than give up that entitlement.

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Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Although Lincoln declared the secession illegal, America soon found itself split into two opposing factions. And while the breakaway regions formed the Confederate States of America, the president and his allies became the Union. And in April of 1861, a bloody war broke out between the north and the south.

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Image: Michael Miley

By the time the Battle of Gettysburg took place, the notorious general Robert E. Lee commanded the Confederate forces. Just months before, he had led the southerners into a battle against Union soldiers more than twice their number – and emerged victorious. And now, he sought to up the conflict to the next level.

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Image: Mathew Brady/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images

On the back of Lee’s recent success, he launched the Gettysburg Campaign – an attempt to take his troops north into Pennsylvania. There, he hoped to turn the tide of the war in favor of the Confederate forces. But as the southern armies marched, those loyal to Lincoln prepared to defend their towns.

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Image: MPI/Getty Images

On the way to conquer the North, Lee and his men set up camp outside the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. Meanwhile, the Union forces prepared for battle. And on July 1, 1863, the conflict began, with George Meade, a prominent northern general, leading his troops against the southerners in a bloody struggle for survival. Ultimately, it would become the deadliest clash in the entire war. Indeed, it left some 50,000 soldiers wounded or dead in just three days.

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At first, it seemed as if the Confederate army might prevail against the Union defenders in the Battle of Gettysburg. And on the second day, the southerners continued to attack their enemy’s strongholds – although the northerners stood their ground. Eventually, the third day dawned, and some 12,500 men prepared to assault the Union forces gathered at Cemetery Ridge.

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Image: MPI/Getty Images

In an ambitious assault, later named Pickett’s Charge, three of Lee’s generals led an attempt to break through Union lines. The men, however, faced stiff opposition and more then half of the southern force became casualties in the ill-fated maneuver. Ultimately, it was an enormous defeat from which the Confederates would never recover.

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Less than two years later, Lee realized that the struggle was lost and surrendered. The Civil War drew to a close soon after, however, the country would never be the same. And while as many as a million people are thought to have lost their lives during the conflict, countless more survived as veterans injured and traumatized by its bloody battles.

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Image: Mathew Brady

Slowly, however, America’s wounds began to heal. And eventually, the government abolished the contentious practice of slavery and the states united once more. Those who had fought in the war, meanwhile, moved on with their lives and even began to attend reunions where both Union and Confederate veterans stood side by side.

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Image: National Photo Company Collection (Library of Congress)

In 1906, for example, Union veterans who had defended Cemetery Ridge from Pickett’s Charge gathered to return the sword of a Confederate general to the southern states. Then, two years later, one former soldier proposed the idea of a 50-year Gettysburg reunion, to take place in 1913. And soon, planning began for one of the most ambitious events of its kind ever to take place in America.

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Image: Kean Collection/Getty Images

In 1912, a site for the reunion was selected – a patch of land near where the fateful Pickett’s Charge had taken place. And soon, the authorities got to work sprucing up the area for the upcoming reunion. Then, in April 1913, some 40,000 invitations made their way to both Union and Confederate veterans of the Battle of Gettysburg.

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Image: Bain News Service photograph collection (Library of Congress)

In the run up to the event, various pieces of memorabilia were produced to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the notorious battle. Meanwhile, a new telephone line was installed and preparations were made to allow trains to and from the site of the reunion. At the same time, tolls were removed, making roads in the region free to travel.

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Image: Harris & Ewing photograph collection (Library of Congress)

As word of the reunion spread, hotels in the vicinity of the battlefield quickly began to fill. Meanwhile, facilities to accommodate thousands of veterans in tents around a Great Camp sprang up. And as the event drew closer, some attendees even advertised locally for eligible women to accompany them west after the festivities.

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Image: Bain News Service photograph collection (Library of Congress)

A veteran’s village soon stood on the site of the infamous battle, boasting some 5,000 temporary shelters. And while each came with basins and a bucket for washing, shared latrine facilities also existed nearby. Meanwhile, a Great Tent was constructed – a cavernous facility capable of housing some 13,000 chairs.

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Image: Bain News Service photograph collection (Library of Congress)

As well as veterans of Gettysburg, the camp was also designed to accommodate hundreds of Boy Scouts and other personnel who would be on site to assist the attendees. In fact, around than 57,000 people eventually stayed in tents around the site. And just like any other large community, the settlement boasted a post office, medical tent and other essential facilities.

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Image: Bain News Service photograph collection (Library of Congress)

On June 29, 1913, the doors of the Great Camp opened. And even though the official celebrations wouldn’t begin until July 1, a number of people began to gather at the site of the reunion. By the time that the event drew to a close six days later, some 50,000 veterans had visited the battlefield. And that number more than doubles with the inclusion of tourists and family members.

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Image: National Photo Company Collection (Library of Congress)

Apparently, veterans traveled the length and breadth of the country to share this monumental occasion with their former brothers-in-arms. And although many had been little more than boys when the war began, they were now men aged at least 70. But had the passage of time been enough to bury old rivalries between the Union and Confederate sides?

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Image: National Photo Company Collection (Library of Congress)

“We had come from Kentucky to Gettysburg feeling apprehensive of trouble,” veteran Andrew Cowan recalled in a 1914 speech recorded in the Gettysburg Compiler. “It was known that large numbers of Confederates were coming from every Southern State. And we feared that there might be unpleasant differences, at least, between the blue and gray.”

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However, for the most part at least, those fears of “unpleasant differences” were unfounded. And despite the fact that the majority of attendees were Union veterans – with less than 9,000 former Confederates present – the two sides appeared to cast aside their differences and reunite as old friends.

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Image: Bain News Service photograph collection (Library of Congress)

Over the course of four days, veterans who had once fought on opposite sides of the war came together. Indeed, they listened to speeches, watched fireworks displays and even took part in reenactments. And although the shadow of future conflicts hung over the celebrations, the atmosphere was generally one of reconciliation and hope.

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“Only manifestations of friendship and affection were seen on the camp, in the roads and in the streets of the town,” Cowan later recalled. “A man in gray could hardly walk the length of a block without being stopped several times to be taken by the hand or embraced by men in blue.”

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On the third day of the reunion, the veterans staged a reenactment of Pickett’s Charge. With canes to support them, a number of former Confederate soldiers retraced their steps up Cemetery Ridge, where they were met by surviving members of the Union forces. But while 50 years previously the men would have descended into violent battle, this time they faced each other in peace.

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Image: Liljenquist Family collection (Library of Congress)

“Instead of shooting each other, they all shook hands across the stone wall and exchanged ceremonial flags,” journalist Stefany Anne Goldberg wrote in a 2010 article for The Atlantic. “Some fell into each other’s arms, weeping. Others just sat down in silence and looked sadly across the field.”

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Image: Harris & Ewing photograph collection (Library of Congress)

Elsewhere, veterans from both sides of the conflict gathered to share war stories and reminisce. Some, in fact, even intentionally sought out men who had wounded them during the war, hoping to make amends after so many years. Meanwhile, former Union soldiers were seen swapping medals with their Confederate counterparts.

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Image: Bain News Service photograph collection (Library of Congress)

According to one particularly literal rumor, two men even went out and purchased a hatchet which they proceeded to symbolically bury beneath the old battlefield. Then, on July 4, the celebrations began to draw to a close. And at 11 a.m., then-President Woodrow Wilson arrived in the Great Tent to address the assembled veterans.

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Image: Harris & Ewing photograph collection (Library of Congress)

“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,” Wilson proclaimed. Then, at midday, attendees observed a five-minute silence in tribute to all of the soldiers who did not survive.

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Image: Harris & Ewing photograph collection (Library of Congress)

By the time the celebrations ended, Gettysburg had successfully played host to the biggest Civil War reunion that had ever been held – or ever would be again. And while the camp was swiftly dismantled, the spirit of friendship borne out of the event remained for many years.

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Image: Harris & Ewing photograph collection (Library of Congress)

“The wonderful reunion ended with all hearts filled with gratitude. It meant, as we old men know, that here, at last, was a great public manifestation of peace and goodwill between the men of the North and the men of the South, marking the end of bitterness and the beginning of an epoch in the history of our reunited country,” Cowan recalled.

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Image: Bain News Service photograph collection (Library of Congress)

It would seem, however, that the reunion wasn’t completely free of confrontation. In fact, on July 3, the Gettysburg Times reported that trouble had broken out at the Hotel Gettysburg during the event. Apparently, a southern man named W.B. Henry had argued with his fellow guests after speaking out against Lincoln.

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Image: Harris & Ewing photograph collection (Library of Congress)

Indeed, according to reports, a nearby Union veteran had expressed his distaste at these comments by throwing his beverage at the southern man. The disagreement soon turned violent, however, and Henry allegedly attacked a group of guests with a knife. Fortunately, though, none of them sustained any permanent injuries and authoritiess later released the assailant on bail.

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Image: Bain News Service photograph collection (Library of Congress)

In the aftermath of the reunion, the nation’s press was quick to herald the event as a success. “Nothing could possibly be more impressive or more inspiring to the younger generation than this gathering,” claimed 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.”

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Image: Bain News Service photograph collection (Library of Congress)

Elsewhere, The New York Times took advantage of the occasion to speak more generally about unity and hope – even as the First World War edged ever closer. “The pilgrimage to Gettysburg proclaims to the world the solidarity of the American people,” the paper claimed. “It is a warning to any great powers who mistake our political upheavals for lack of homogeneity among the States.”

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Image: John Warwick Brooke

Just one year later, however, a far bloodier conflict than the Civil War broke out across the world. Indeed, many of the veterans who had gathered at Gettysburg would lose sons and grandsons to the horrors of the First World War. This brief moment of calm before the storm, however, was not forgotten. And even today, the remains of a commemorative portico are still visible at the reunion site.

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Image: Harris & Ewing photograph collection (Library of Congress)

A quarter of a century later, another event was held to mark the 75th anniversary of Gettysburg. But out of some 8,000 surviving Civil War veterans, less than 2,000 were able to attend the occasion. And that included just 25 men who had been a part of the battle itself. During the celebrations, a permanent memorial was revealed on the site where, 25 years earlier, both Union and Confederate men cast aside their differences.

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Image: Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis via Getty Images

Today, the Eternal Light Peace Memorial boasts a flame that’s visible for miles around. It is the photographic record of the 1913 reunion, however, that really shines a light on the past. And in these images of former enemies forging friendships, we can find hope for our own uncertain future.

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