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Authors

Evan Preston

Abstract

Shaping historical memory means extracting lessons from the past. Those lessons frame the debate about the nature of the present. Just months after the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, the attention of most of the nation focused on the events scheduled to commemorate the semi-centennial of what was by then increasingly viewed as “the turning point” of the Civil War. The reunion at Gettysburg in 1913 constituted the contemporary public exegesis of the status of American memory of the Civil War. In this respect, the reunion in Gettysburg reflected the erasure of the legacy of emancipation and the unfulfilled promise of equality for African-Americans. Yet, almost all the public discourse at Gettysburg reflected no sense of disappointment; rather, the battle now represented a triumph of the American spirit. The presence of AfricanAmerican veterans would have complicated the message of white reconciliation at the reunion. Reckoning with the honorable service of black troops was not something mainstream American society felt comfortable with in 1913. Whether or not black veterans attended the fiftieth anniversary of Gettysburg is a small detail which illuminates a profoundly broader pair of subjects: the meaning of the Civil War and the nature of American race relations in 1913. In answering this question of black veterans at the Gettysburg reunion, the broader context of the organization and execution of the reunion, the lessons drawn from the ceremonies in Gettysburg, explicit discussions of race at the reunion and contemporary African-American perspectives must all be explored. [excerpt]

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