A Second Gettysburg Address, 50 Years After the Civil War

In 1913, veterans from the Confederate and Union armies communed on the battlefield.

The encampment was prepared for deaths. Fifty coffins were ordered; 200 could be made available if the need came. The Army was expecting 10 deaths a day. After all, the crowd assembled upon the Gettysburg battlefield the first week of July 1913 was very old and wearing full battle uniforms in scorching heat. The youngest veteran there was 61. The oldest, remarkably, was 112, reported The New York Times.

It is either tragic or fitting that between July 1 and July 3, 1913, eight veterans died on the battlefield that, against all odds, they survived 50 years earlier. It was the same field, but instead of bayonets and bloodshed, it was reenactments and trading of old yarns. "I'm jest about as hot as I was the last time we all charged, but I ain't so scairt," one Southerner relayed to a reporter. "And them Yankees ain't a-going to get my tobaccy this time the way they did then, either."

Two veterans, presumably one Union and one confederate, are seated on steps and shaking hands. (Library of Congress)Veterans of the Union and Confederate armies march at the encampment in July 1913 during the Great Reunion, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. (Library of Congress)

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, President Wilson spoke. His words could not compete with Lincoln's. But in a lot of ways, Wilson's address reads like the epilogue to Lincoln's assertion that "It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced."

"But do we deem the nation complete and finished?" President Wilson challenged the crowd. "... But has [America] yet squared itself with its own great standards set up at its birth, when it made that first noble naive appeal to the moral judgment of mankind to take notice that a government had now at last been established which was to serve men, not masters?" Wilson said, echoing Lincoln's reminder that the nation was "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

Here are some selections from Wilson's speech.

Have affairs paused? Does the nation stand still? Is what the 50 years have wrought since those days of battle finished, rounded out, and completed? Here is a great people, great with every force that has ever beaten in the lifeblood of mankind. And it is secure. There is no one within its borders, there is no power among the nations of the earth, to make it afraid. But has it yet squared itself with its own great standards set up at its birth, when it made that first noble, naпve appeal to the moral judgment of mankind to take notice that a government had now at last been established which was to serve men, not masters? It is secure in everything except the satisfaction that its life is right, adjusted to the uttermost to the standards of righteousness and humanity. The days of sacrifice and cleansing are not closed. We have harder things to do than were done in the heroic days of war, because harder to see clearly, requiring more vision, more calm balance of judgment, a more candid searching of the very springs of right.


I have been chosen the leader of the Nation. I cannot justify the choice by any qualities of my own, but so it has come about, and here I stand. Whom do I command? The ghostly hosts who fought upon these battlefields long ago and are gone? These gallant gentlemen stricken in years whose fighting days, are over, their glory won? What are the orders for them, and who rallies them? I have in my mind another host, whom these set free of civil strife in order that they might work out in days of peace and settled order the life of a great nation. That host is the people themselves, the great and the small, without class or difference of kind or race or origin; and undivided in interest, if we have but the vision to guide and direct them and order their lives aright in what we do. Our constitutions are their articles of enlistment. The orders of the day are the laws upon our statute books. What we strive for is their freedom, their right to lift themselves from day to day and behold the things they have hoped for, and so make way for still better days for those whom they love who are to come after them. The recruits are the little children crowding in. The quartermaster's stores are in the mines and forests and fields, in the shops and factories. Every day something must be done to push the campaign forward; and it must be done by plan and with an eye to some great destiny.

President Wilson at the Gettysburg reunion.  (Library of Congress)