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(H)our History Lesson: Reconciliation at Gettysburg

White men standing with two large flags: the U.S. flag and the battle flag of the Confederacy
“Under blue and gray – Gettysburg,” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-13841, https://lccn.loc.gov/2014693813.

This lesson was written by Talia Brenner and edited by Katie McCarthy.

Grade Level Adapted For:

This lesson is intended for middle school learners but can easily be adapted for use by learners of all ages.

Lesson Objectives:

Learners will be able to....

  1. Describe why “reconciliation” was a powerful theme post-Civil War.
  2. Understand that this theme created a false narrative of the war and excluded African Americans who participated.
  3. Research how reconciliation is shown through Civil War Monuments.

Inquiry Question:

Show learners the following picture of the Gregg Cavalry Shaft at Gettysburg National Military Park. Ask participants: Have you ever seen a war memorial before? Does this monument look like the others you’ve seen? How is it similar or different?

A tall stone monument
National Park Service

(East Face Inscription):

This Shaft
marks the field of the engagement
between the
Union Cavalry
commanded by Brig. Gen. D. McM. Gregg
and the
Confederate Cavalry
Commanded by Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart
July 3d, 1863.

(North Face Inscription):

Union Forces.
2d Brigade 3d Cavalry Division
Brig. Gen. G. A. Custer.
1st Mich. Cavalry, Col. C. H. Town.
5th Mich. Cavalry, Col. R. A. Alger.
6th Mich Cavalry, Col. Geo. Gray.
7th Michigan Cavalry, Col. W. D. Mann.

Union Artillery
Randol's Light Battery E, 1st U.S. Artillery
Pennington's Light Battery M, 2nd U.S. Artillery
2d Sec. Light Battery H, 3d Penna.

(South Face Inscription):

Union Forces
1st Brigade, 2d Cavalry Division
Col. J. B. McIntosh.
3d Penna. Cavalry, Lt. Col. E.S. Jones.
1st New Jersey Cavalry, Maj. M.R. Beaumont.
1st Maryland Cavalry, Lt. Col. J.M. Deems

3d Brigade, 2d Cavalry Division.
Col. J. Irvin Gregg.
16th Penna. Cavalry, Lt. Col. J.K. Robinson.
4th Penna. Cavalry, Lt. Col. W.E. Doster.
1st Maine Cavalry, Lt. Col. C. H. Smith.
10th New York Cavalry, Maj. M.H. Avery.
1st Mass Cavalry, Lt. Col. G. S. Curtis
Purnell Troop A, Md, Cavalry
Co., A 1st Ohio.

(West Face Inscription):

Confederate Forces
Cavalry
Hampton's Brigade, Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton.
Fitz Lee's Brigade, Brig. Gen. Fitz Hugh Lee.
Jenkins Brigade, Col. M. J. Furguson.
W.H.F. Lee's Brigade, Col. J.R. Chambiss.

Artillery
McGregor's Virginia Battery.
Breathed's Maryland Battery
Griffin's 2d Maryland Battery.


After participants discuss, point out that in most wars, the monuments built afterwards do not honor both sides of the conflict. Normally, memorials only commemorate the “winners.” However, many monuments to the American Civil War honor both sides of the conflict, and this monument might look “normal” to them because they have seen ones like it before. What does this tell us about how people remember the Civil War?

Young teenage boys playing outside of tents
Boy Scouts who helped out at the 1913 Gettysburg reunion. A few years later, young men of this generation would be drafted to fight in World War I. “Boy Scouts – Gettysburg,” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-13868, https://lccn.loc.gov/2014693840.

Background:

The Battle of Gettysburg was fought in Pennsylvania from July 1-3, 1863. It is widely known as a turning point in the American Civil War, but its significance is not limited to the 1860s. The way that Americans have remembered the Battle of Gettysburg is also important in U.S. history and current events. Since the end of the Civil War, Gettysburg has been the site of memorials, monuments, ceremonies, reenactments and more. Many of these commemorations address the Civil War through the theme of reconciliation between the U.S. and the Confederacy. Reconciliation was particularly popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries but it has remained a common way to commemorate the bloody conflict.

Reading:

Today, the U.S. landscape is dotted with monuments to the Civil War. Each Civil War monument, just like books, films, or songs, has a particular theme and point of view. Some monuments focus on how the Civil War resulted in the freeing of enslaved people. Others mourn the loss of a “Southern way of life.” Still others celebrate the reunification of a country that was once bitterly divided.

This last theme is often called “reconciliation.” This refers to the reconciliation between the United States and the states of the former Confederacy. The theme of reconciliation between the North and South became popular in the 1880s. It continued to be popular throughout the early 1900s. It appeared in monuments, magazines, plays, and national parks.1 According to reconciliation, soldiers on both sides of the war were noble. People who agreed with the theme argued that the North and South should forgive each other.

President William Howard Taft summed up the main ideas of reconciliation in a speech he gave in 1909. In a speech to Confederate veterans, he said, “All who were in the bloody four years contest are proud of the courage and fortitude shown by both sides…What any Americans did then we all cherish as a common heritage.”2

Gettysburg has been a popular site for Civil War reconciliation. The Gregg Cavalry Shaft was built in 1884 at the Gettysburg battlefield. Its main theme is reconciliation.3 Northerners built it, but the Gregg Cavalry Shaft honors soldiers from both sides.4 The monument is inscribed with the names of the U.S. and Confederate troops who participated in the fight. The monument also has an image of two crossed flags. One of the flags represents the United States. The other represents the Confederacy.

Reunions between white veterans of the U.S. and Confederate armies were also a part of the reconciliation movement. These events were often called “blue-gray reunions.” This referred to the colors of the different armies’ uniforms. During the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil War, battlefield reunions were common.

In 1913, U.S. and Confederate veterans reunited on the Gettysburg battlefield. The event gained national attention. A South Carolina newspaper wrote, “The Gray cavalrymen who fought in skirmishes that led up to the three days’ fight pledged themselves in the shadows of the Stars and Stripes to ‘forget’ and their brothers in Blue swore by the Stars and Bars [the Confederate battle flag] that the fight was over for all time.”5


Not all Americans agreed that celebrating reconciliation was a good way to commemorate the Battle of Gettysburg. Many African Americans argued that reconciliation wrongly made the two sides equal. The editor of the Washington Bee, a Black newspaper, noted that the Gettysburg reunion celebrated both “those who fought for the preservation of Union and the extinction of human slavery” and “those who fought to destroy the Union and perpetuate slavery.”6 He argued that this false equivalence excused the racism of the pro-slavery Confederacy.


The reconciliation movement focused on white Americans and overlooked Black Americans. This version of history ignored the significant role of African Americans in the war. For instance, African Americans had a crucial role in the Gettysburg campaign. While marching to Gettysburg, Confederate soldiers tried to kidnap and enslave free Black people.7 Black residents fought back in defense of their freedom.8 African Americans at Gettysburg provided medical care, conducted burials, and rebuilt infrastructure.9 Yet the 1913 Gettysburg reunion was an all-white event. The only African Americans in attendance were people working there.10

Other Americans did not think the war should be easily forgiven. Some participants at reconciliation-themed reunions were still angry at their former enemies. Others were simply not interested in reconciliation.11 Many veterans had traumatic memories of the violent war.

Some visitors to reconciliation-themed monuments and reunions found comfort in the idea of forgiving and forgetting the Civil War. But these good feelings were not shared by everyone, and they came at a cost. Reconciliation continues to be a popular way to commemorate the Civil War. Monuments like the Gregg Cavalry Shaft still standing. Today, people continue to discuss whether reconciliation is a good way to commemorate the Civil War.


Discussion Questions:

  1. In your own words, what is the Civil War reconciliation theme?

  1. What are examples of Civil War reconciliation at Gettysburg? What makes them reconciliation-themed?

  1. Why do you think Gettysburg has been such a popular site for reconciliation-themed commemorations?

  1. What is gained and lost when people use a reconciliation theme to commemorate the Civil War?

  1. Is there a way to celebrate the reconciliation of the U.S. without excluding African Americans and the role of slavery from the history of the Civil War?


Footnotes:

1 Caroline E. Janney, “Civil War Veterans and the Limits of Reconciliation,” Commonplace: the journal of early American life, http://commonplace.online/article/civil-war-veterans-and-the-limits-of-reconciliation/.
2 The New York Times, 1909 in David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Harvard University Press, 2001), 357.
3 Craig Swain, “Gregg Cavalry Shaft,” The Historical Marker Database, July 17, 2008, last edited May 22, 2020, https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=9268.
4 Craig Swain, “Gregg Cavalry Shaft.”
5 The Lancaster news, (Lancaster, SC), Jul. 1 1913, https://www.loc.gov/item/sn83007465/1913-07-01/ed-1/.
6 Washington Bee, June 24, 1913 in Caroline E. Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 267.
7 Henry Louis Gates, Jr. “Did Black Men Fight at Gettysburg?” The Root (July 7, 2014), https://www.theroot.com/did-black-men-fight-at-gettysburg-1790876264
8 Henry Louis Gates, Jr. “Did Black Men Fight at Gettysburg?”
9 Henry Louis Gates, Jr. “Did Black Men Fight at Gettysburg?”
10 Brian Matthew Jordan, “‘We Stand on the Same Battlefield’: The Gettysburg Centenary and the Shadow of Race,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 135 no. 4 (October 2011), 482.
11 See Caroline E. Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (University of North Carolina Press, 2013) and Thomas R. Flagel, War Memory, and the 1913 Gettysburg Reunion (The Kent State University Press, 2019).

Activity:

Identifying Monument Themes

Remind students that reconciliation is only one theme that Civil War commemorations use. Other themes that Civil War commemorations can have are listed below. Familiarize students with the following themes:

  1. Unionist: The Unionist theme views the Confederacy as a rebellion that needed to be put down. In this view, the war resulted in a victory and its most important result was that the states that had seceded were returned to the United States.

  1. Emancipationist: The Emancipationist theme views the Civil War as a war for freedom. According to this view, the war was a victory and its most important result was that four million enslaved people became free.

  1. Lost Cause: The Lost Cause theme is a mythology that celebrates the Confederacy as a righteous civilization. In this view, the Civil War was a tragedy where the Confederacy and its culture was "lost.” Many adherents to the Lost Cause defend slavery as a good, dismissing the physical and mental trauma of enslaved human beings, or falsely claim that the Civil War not about slavery.

Divide students into small groups. Have each group complete the following chart by researching each monument using credible internet sites and then identifying which theme the monument most closely follows. Encourage students to find multiple pictures of each monument so they can view it from different angles. Students should use the following guiding questions when trying to identify the theme of the monument:

  • How would you describe the design of the monument?

  • Does this monument have an inscription? If so, how would you summarize this inscription?

  • Does the monument use any symbols? If so, what do they represent?

  • Who does this monument celebrate or honor?

  • Does this monument depict the Civil War as a victory, a defeat, or something else?

  • According to this monument, what was the most important result of the Civil War?

After students have completed their charts, lead a class discussion about the differences between the monuments and what the theme of each one is.

For a quicker activity, each group could research only one monument in the chart and then complete the charts by sharing their answers with the class.

What theme does this monument most closely follow? (Unionist, Emancipationist, Lost Cause, Reconciliation)
Soldiers and Sailors Monument, New London, CT (1896)
South Carolina Women of the Confederacy Monument, South Carolina State House, Columbia, SC (1912)
Spirit of Freedom sculpture, African American Civil War Memorial, Washington, DC (1998)
memorial to Battle of Peachtree Creek, formerly at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital, Atlanta, GA (1944) [now removed]

Wrap-up:

  1. Are there Civil War memorials in your hometown? What do they look like? How do you think viewers are meant to interpret them?

  1. What would a Civil War memorial that you designed look like?

  1. Why are Civil War memorials important to people today?


Additional Resources:

National Park Service Civil War Website
Visit the official National Park Service Civil War Web Site. This website offers the current generation of Americans an opportunity to know, discuss, and commemorate this country's greatest national crisis, while at the same time exploring its enduring relevance in the present. Also included are links to Civil War Parks, NPS education programs, and much more.

The Civil War Preservation Trust
The Civil War Preservation Trust is the country's largest non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of endangered Civil War sites.

Part of a series of articles titled Conversations about Legacies of Slavery .

Last updated: June 29, 2021