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Connellsville area had close ties to Gettysburg 1913 Anniversary

| Tuesday, July 2, 2013, 7:21 a.m.
Library of Congress
Union and Confederate soldiers joined together in Gettysburg in July 1913, an event that was reportedly the largest veterans reunion in American history.
James Schoonmaker, who planned and coordinated the 1913 Gettysburg reunion, was a Civil War veteran with local ties. He is shown in this photo courtesy of William Morris and Dr. David Geary. After the war, Schoonmaker worked with H.C. Frick Coal and Coke, maintaining residences in Connellsville and Pittsburgh.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Information for this article was gleaned from several sources, including input from Connellsville native Dr. David Geary, a retired Air Force officer, educator and historian who now lives in New Mexico. Assisting his research was Geary's cousin, William Morris of Connellsville, a U.S. Air Force veteran who is also an aviator and aerial photographer. The cousins graduated together in 1965 from Connellsville High School and stay in close contact. Information about Connellsville's participation in the 1913 Gettysburg reunion was gathered by Geary and Morris from microfilmed files of The Daily Courier.

As the town of Gettysburg expands this week into a Civil War extravaganza, it unfortunately lacks a vital element of earlier battle re-enactments: actual Civil War veterans. None was bigger than the 1913 Gettysburg reunion, during which thousands of people passed through Connellsville on trains bound for eastern Pennsylvania — and the battle's 50-year reunion.

Gettysburg's 15-year reunion in 1878 included only veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic. Reconstruction had barely ended in the war-torn South.

The defeated Confederate soldiers weren't invited — and likely wouldn't have come anyway, as the country still smarted from the internal conflicts the war had caused.

By 1913, feelings had healed enough to bring Union and Confederate soldiers together at Gettysburg — and thousands of them traveled by way of Connellsville.

Reunion planner had Connellsville ties

Connellsville sent many Civil War veterans to the July 1913 event, which was planned and carried out by a man with local ties. His name was James Schoonmaker, who had served as a colonel with the 14th Pennsylvania Cavalry during the war and had received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

After the war, Schoonmaker maintained homes in Pittsburgh and Connellsville, as he managed the 1,500 coke ovens around Dawson, Uniontown and East Huntingdon Township, which he inherited from his father-in-law in 1879.

Eventually, he sold his interests to Henry Clay Frick and dabbled in railroads, managing the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie railroad between Connellsville and Youngstown. (P&LE's headquarters, built around 1900 by Schoonmaker, is now Pittsburgh's Station Square.)

In 1913, Schoonmaker was appointed Gettysburg reunion chairman by Pennsylvania Gov. John K. Tener.

Attended by President Woodrow Wilson and hundreds of other dignitaries, including former President William Howard Taft (who was then-chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court), it was the largest veterans reunion ever held in the United States.

More than 50,000 Union and Confederate veterans attended; only a fraction of them had actually fought at Gettysburg, but the men were compelled to gather at the event, which was heralded as a time of healing between the North and the South.

Pennsylvania footed the bill for the 280-acre “Great Camp.” Miles of tents were constructed in and around Gettysburg, as veterans — ranging in age from their early 60s to over 100 — shared hot meals, swapped stories and forgave old wounds.

All states attended 1913 Gettysburg event

They came from all the states, even New Mexico, which sent one veteran. Among those attending were many Connellsville-area Civil War veterans. On June 30, 1913, the city held a parade to honor those en route to Gettysburg.

Approximately 70 veterans gathered at Brimstone Corner and, led by the Connellsville Military Band's playing of “Dixie,” they marched in a column of twos down Crawford Avenue, across the bridge spanning the Youghiogheny River, to the Western Maryland train station on West Side. Those who were unable to march met their comrades at the train station; others drove to Gettysburg rather than riding the train.

The 1913 battle re-enactment included Pickett's Charge, featuring only those who had personally participated in the July 1863 battle charge that nearly wiped out several Confederate regiments — and marked the beginning of the end for the South. Only a few old Southern men with white beards remained from that 1863 battle.

Waving their Confederate flag, they met the Union survivors of Pickett's Charge, who were carrying the U.S. flag.

There on the battlefield, they hugged each other and cried, according to reunion accounts.

The event was covered coast-to-coast, including in The Daily Courier. One American reporter noted, “Their duty was done. They had healed a nation.”

1938 was the last Gettysburg reunion

By 1938 — the battle's 75th anniversary — even the youngest Civil War veterans were in their 80s. Of the 2,000 Civil War veterans who attended the 1938 Gettysburg anniversary, less than 100 had actually fought in the battle.

It is fitting that Americans pause to honor the memory of Gettysburg's 150th anniversary, and to be thankful that the nation — as President Lincoln said, “Of the people, by people and for the people” — has not perished from the Earth.

Also, Connellsville area residents should take time to reflect on the local area's input to the Union cause, as well as its contribution to possibly the greatest veterans reunion of all time.

Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.

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