'38 reunion of Gettysburg troops

WAY BACK WHEN

Back Story

Taking Note of History

June 25, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Once again in the heat and humidity of a Pennsylvania summer, not unlike the weather they fought in 75 years earlier, some 2,000 surviving Union and Confederate veterans gathered in 1938 during the first four days of July, for a final reunion at Gettysburg.

Here, on this hallowed ground, 172,000 soldiers had clashed from 7:30 a.m. July 1, 1863, when the first shots were fired, to its final dreadful conclusion at 4 p.m. July 3.

Stooped with age - most were in their 90s or centenarians - gray and bearded, they had gathered to remember their fallen comrades and the battle they had managed to survive.

The battle ranged over an area of 25 square miles, and when it was over, the Union had 23,049 casualties, while the Army of Northern Virginia had 28,000 casualties - roughly one-third of Gen. Robert E. Lee's army.

One of the bloodiest battles in U.S. history was fought with 634 cannons while 569 tons of ammunition was fired. Some 5,000 horses - many blown apart by cannon balls, legless and shot - littered the battlefield.

The veterans, arriving in Gettysburg aboard a fleet of 26 Pullman cars, came from every state in the union except Rhode Island in 1938. The 486 Confederates were housed in a tent city camp over which flew the stars and bars. The 1,845 Union soldiers attending were in a camp of their own from whose flagpole snapped a crisp American flag.

Among those attending was a recent Johns Hopkins University graduate and Civil War buff, Charles Albert Earp Jr., whose grandfather, William A. Chalk, had fought with the 8th Maryland Infantry, U.S. Volunteers. Five other family members had participated in the war.

Early on the morning of July 1, Earp waited in Baltimore's Hillen Station for the Western Maryland Railway passenger train that would carry him to Gettysburg.

"I boarded the first car behind the engine. Settling down on one of the vintage green fabric seats, I looked about the sparsely occupied coach. Several seats ahead of me was a Confederate veteran resplendent in a new uniform of gray," wrote Earp in his reunion account, The 75th Reunion at Gettysburg: My Interviews with the Veterans, published in 2003 by Toomey Press.

In Gettysburg, Earp joined the army of reporters - including radio correspondents and newsreel photographers - interviewing the old vets.

"Many were using canes or were in wheel chairs, but they were in high spirits and delighted to be the center of attention," Earp wrote. "At first I followed the reporters, listening to their interviews and held back from speaking to the veterans myself, a drawback I soon overcame. I had brought a note pad to keep a record of all I saw and heard and took notes on my conversations with the old soldiers, Union and Confederate alike."

He eventually filled his notebook with nearly 60 interviews.

"The length and quality of the individual reminiscences that follow vary. Some of the veterans were taciturn; some could not recall or confused details; others had brief or uneventful service. Others had exciting tales to tell and their memories, or perhaps their imaginations, seemed to serve them well. I did not question their accounts, but simply recorded what they told me. As I turn those pages today, I see and hear it all again," Earp wrote.

Fascinating details surfaced such as those recalled by O.R. Gillette, who had been a member of the 2nd Mississippi Infantry of Heth's Division. Gillette, who traveled with an African-American servant, recalled running like "hell" after the confusion of Pickett's Charge, and then finding his servant crouched behind a rock with food prepared for dinner.

Reflecting on his days at the reunion, Earp wrote, "I was filled with wonderful memories of a great experience that could never happen again. There have been many ceremonies at Gettysburg National Military Park since that day and many more to come, but they will not be the same because the old veterans will not be there. They have all left us to take their places in the vanished armies they once served."

Earp, a Baltimore author and genealogist, finally joined them last week, when he died at 88.

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