Monday, February 9, 2009

Confederate Vets Bringing Reconciliation

Thanks to the Old Virginia Blog for bringing this article and photo to my attention...

Reunions of blue and gray were emotional

For years, you could find for sale in almost any truck stop in the South a bumper sticker or statuette showing a small, angry Confederate soldier waving a battle flag and yelling, "Forget, hell!" It seems, however, that 20th-century producers of tchotchke were more willing to capitalize on old sectional grievances than were the men who actually fought in the War Between the States.

When veterans of the 5th Virginia Infantry Regiment — most of them from Staunton — were invited in 1883 by their old foes, the 28th New York Volunteers, to participate in the first reunion of Federal and Confederate veterans and to officially return the 28th's captured flag, the Southerners quickly agreed. Eighty former Confederate soldiers and 73 civilian escorts arrived by rail in Niagara Falls on May 21 in a cold, driving rain. They were quartered at the International Hotel as guests of the 28th New York.

The next day, despite the inclement weather, some 2,000 people gathered to watch the historic reunion. At 11 a.m. May 22, the old soldiers — some of them in full uniform — and their civilian guests lined up in front of the hotel for a march down Falls Street and past the Soldiers' Monument to a pavilion in Prospect Park. Upon their arrival, a band played "The Red, White and Blue" and "Dixie," both of which were greeted with the "rebel yells" and Yankee cheers.

The pavilion, which accommodated 1,000 people, was quickly filled. A thousand more stood outside in the rain. Capt. Ben Flagler, president of the 28th New York Regiment Association, greeted the former Confederates. A moving, lengthy reply was given by the 5th Virginia's Col. E.E. Stickley.

"His expressions of hearty submission to the results of the war and of loyalty to the old flag were unreserved and had the fullest assent from his comrades of the Fifth Virginia present," noted a reporter for The New York Times. "After this it was not at all difficult for any Union soldier to listen to his eulogy of Lee and Jackson, coupled as it was with eulogies of men fallen on the Union side."

After a quartet sang "America," the old regimental flag of the 28th New York was brought out. Captured by the 5th Virginia at the battle of Cedar Mountain in 1862, the flag had been re-captured by Union forces with the fall of Richmond in 1865. Col. Edwin Brown of the 28th had been instrumental in bringing the flag home and in organizing its official return by its captors.

One of Staunton's leading citizens and the senior officer of the 5th Virginia — Col. James W. Newton — stepped forward to present the flag to Brown. Interestingly, neither of these two old warriors had emerged from the war unscathed. Brown had lost an arm at Cedar Mountain and Newton had lost a leg at Winchester in 1864. Newton, who was in full Confederate uniform, presented the flag with these words:

"In the name of the 5th Virginia Infantry, I now present this flag to its honored and worthy owners, and as an eyewitness at the time of its capture, in justice to you, I delight to say that losing it under the circumstances you did, reflects no discredit on you.

"Take it, my valiant friends, and treasure it as the emblem of a reunited country, signifying the return of the affections and good will of brave men who met in strife on the field of battle." The Staunton Vindicator described the scene as "most impressive and stirring," while The Argus of New Philadelphia, Ohio, called it "an impressive and tear-provoking scene."

At the conclusion of the ceremony, Mrs. Jesse Peterson and a chorus sang "The Star-Spangled Banner." It was a performance, noted The New York Times, that "electrified the audience and brought them to their feet." For the rest of the day and into the night, Niagara Falls echoed with cheers, "rebel yells" and the re-living of old battles. Representatives of some 50 Union regiments were in attendance and provided the survivors of the 5th Virginia with plenty of memories of campaigns in and out of the Shenandoah Valley.

"The Virginians," wrote The New York Times, "will leave here tomorrow for home highly pleased with their reception and with the heartiness of the hospitality extended." Before they left, however, the Southerners made a point of doing two things. First, they traveled as a group to the Soldiers' Monument where they decorated it with wreaths. Second, they invited the 28th New York to come to Staunton for its reunion the following year, and to partake of some Southern hospitality. The war, noted one newspaper, was "at last" over.

Reunions of blue and gray were emotional
By Charles Culbertson/ contributor • • January 31, 2009
(photo from 1913 Gettysburg reunion)


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks for the link David. I enjoy your blog.

cenantua said...


I'm very familiar with this reunion, and it was probably just as emotional as the 1881 reunion that took place between some Confederate vets of Luray and Page County, and the Union vets of Carlisle, Pa. (there were actually two reunions in 1881, one in Luray in July, and the other in Carlisle in September). Nonetheless, you have to look at what was said in the speeches from the two sets of veterans. Harmony was an important element, but the Union folks often held firm in their voice that while they respected their former foe, the "cause" was by no means found acceptable, even in years after the war (I haven't seen anywhere that they said otherwise). Of course, you also have to consider the feelings of Union veterans such as Mr. Hewett of the 1st West Virginia Infantry who I have cited on two occasions in my blog. If you haven't seen what he said, do a search of the blog and see. It is also rather revealing, just as is the way that Union veterans reacted when Confederate battleflags were almost returned in the 1880s.

On another note, it is interesting to consider these veteran reunions from a different angle. There were some really great reunions, but just what percentage of veterans participated and what did not? I can take this a little further in the way that one looks at Confederate veteran camps. Just how many former veterans in the respective counties joined the camps... and what percentage did not. I am seeing that the numbers that did not participate is telling us something greater.

cenantua said...