At Gettysburg’s 1888 grand reunion, Confederate outcast James Longstreet turned man of the hour. but his memory tour was nearly fatal

For sheer star power, no gathering of Union and Confederate veterans rivaled the Grand Reunion at Gettysburg in 1888. “There are so many Generals and other chieftains here,” a newspaper marveled, “that a catalogue of them would be as long as Homer’s list of ships.”

Former Army of the Potomac commanders Daniel Sickles, Fitz John Porter, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Henry Slocum, Abner Doubleday, and Francis C. Barlow, among other Union luminaries, were joined in Pennsylvania by ex-Army of Northern Virginia generals Wade Hampton, Fitzhugh Lee, and John B. Gordon. But the biggest celebrity at the event clearly was the man sporting massive, white whiskers and a cleanly shaven chin: James Longstreet, who commanded the Confederates’ First Corps at Gettysburg on July 1-3, 1863.

Nearly everywhere Robert E. Lee’s “Old War Horse” went he drew appreciative, and often awestruck, crowds.

“No man now in Gettysburg,” a New York newspaper reported, “is more honored nor more sought than he.”

For Longstreet, the visit to Gettysburg—his first since he commanded troops there—stirred a wide range of emotions. And led to the shedding of many tears.

By 1888, James Longstreet was more popular with Northerners than with White Southerners. After the war, he aligned himself with the Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln, and supported his friend and former military rival, Ulysses S. Grant, as president. “Old Pete” also served in the Republican administration of President Rutherford B. Hayes, another Union veteran. And, of course, his postwar criticism of Lee’s soldiering at Gettysburg was an unforgivable sin for many Confederate devotees.

Longstreet, who lived in semi-retirement on his farm in Gainesville, Ga., arrived in Pennsylvania on June 30. On the train ride to Gettysburg, he sat near General Hiram Berdan, whose two regiments of sharpshooters slowed the Confederates’ advance at Devil’s Den and the Peach Orchard on the battle’s second day. The men eagerly discussed the fighting during their journey.

The 67-year-old Longstreet, who stood about 6-foot-2 and weighed more than 200 pounds, looked “enfeebled,” according to The New York Times. But another account called the broad-chested general “vigorous” despite his age.

In late June and the first days of July 1888, dozens of other trains packed with veterans unloaded at Gettysburg’s lone railroad depot for the Grand Reunion. “Most of the old soldiers went accompanied only by their memories,” according to an account, “but some took their wives and children with the intention of showing them the places in defense of which they fought so bravely.” The few hotels in town were booked, so tents were erected for veterans on East Cemetery Hill and elsewhere.

At least 30,000 people—White veterans and civilians alike—attended each day of the three-day event organized by the Society of the Army of the Potomac, a Union veterans’ organization. One newspaper even estimated attendance as high as 70,000 for a day.

“Such crowds,” the New York Evening World declared, “have not been seen here since the battle was fought.” (Black veterans did not officially serve in the Army of the Potomac as soldiers in 1863, and thus few, if any, African Americans are believed to have attended.)

With no hotel space available, tents for attendees were erected on East Cemetery Hill. The photo below was taken during the 1913 Grand Reunion. (Library of Congress)
With no hotel space available, tents for attendees were erected on East Cemetery Hill. The photo below was taken during the 1913 Grand Reunion. (Library of Congress)

Unsurprisingly, the massive gathering—which included about 300 Confederate veterans—severely taxed resources in Gettysburg, population roughly 3,100. “The want of a head” in town, the Evening World reported, “has seriously interfered with the success of the reunion,” while the New York Sun published a much more scathing Gettysburg critique:

The town is indeed a poor place for the accommodation of such crowds of visitors as come here. There is not a really good hotel in the village….Carriages are needed to go from point to point, for the battlefield covers an area of twenty-five miles, and the people take full advantage of the crowds and gouge everyone who hires a buggy or a hack. The extortion is worse than that practiced by the St. Louis hotel people during the Democratic Convention. And yet, in spite of all these unpleasant things, the people come, for the sentiment which attracts is more powerful than the feeling of disgust created at the meanness of the people of the place.

Despite less-than-ideal conditions, veterans—most in their early 50s—eagerly reconnected with former comrades. “The meeting of the survivors of the armies of Meade and Lee on the field of Gettysburg,” a Pennsylvania newspaper proclaimed, “is the greatest occasion of the kind known in our history, if not in the annals of nations.”

Many veterans went souvenir-hunting for battle relics in fields and woodlots. Scores attended the dedication of more than two dozen battlefield monuments. At one of those events, a New Jersey veteran claimed he found in a rock crevice the cartridge box he had hidden during a retreat in July 1863. Two bullets remained in the bent and rusty relic, which he proudly took home.

On East Cemetery Hill, where they were part of a desperate attack 25 years earlier, four veterans of the Louisiana Tigers Brigade from New Orleans became the center of attention. Pennsylvania veterans eagerly greeted the men, who wore blue, silk badges adorned with the letters “A.N.V.” for Army of Northern Virginia. “…such a shaking of hands,” The New York Times reported, “was never before seen on East Cemetery Hill.”

In town, residents and others hawked everything from lemonade and badges to horse-and-buggy rides, which were available from 50 cents to $2.50 an hour. At the Catholic church in Gettysburg, a special mass was held for members of the Irish Brigade who fell in battle. Bands played “Marching Through Georgia,” “John Brown’s Body,” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Electric lights mounted on a tall mast lit up Cemetery Hill at night, creating a dazzling scene.

Many found time for carousing, too. At Spangler’s Spring, near Culp’s Hill, veterans partied hard after the reunion’s official end, drinking beer in “huge quantities,” the Harrisburg (Pa.) Daily Independent reported.

Veterans of the 121st Pennsylvania pose on Cemetery Ridge with their families during the dedication of the regiment’s memorial in 1888. The monument was erected on Seminary Ridge in 1886 before being moved. (NPS Photo)
Veterans of the 121st Pennsylvania pose on Cemetery Ridge with their families during the dedication of the regiment’s memorial in 1888. The monument was erected on Seminary Ridge in 1886 before being moved. (NPS Photo)

Former enemies mostly were cordial with each other, although a number of Union men groused about Confederate veterans who wore lapel pins adorned with a Rebel flag. “That was the flag of treason and rebellion in 1861,” Union veteran John Gobin said in an impromptu speech at a morning campfire gathering on the battlefield, “and it is the flag of treason and rebellion in 1888.”

Gobin, who did not fight at Gettysburg, served as an officer in the 11th and 47th Pennsylvania during the war. In 1888, he was a state senator, a general in the Pennsylvania National Guard and active in the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans organization. He also served as lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania.

He and fellow Union veteran John Taylor offered scathing criticism of Confederate veterans who had the audacity to wear badges adorned with a Rebel flag. In his campfire address, Gobin said he was tired of hearing about Pickett’s Charge, the subject of many speeches throughout the three-day reunion. Why, he scoffed, some of the Confederates simply charged across a field and surrendered weaponless, with their hands up, further fuming that nearly every division in the Army of the Potomac showed more valor at Gettysburg.

“I want it distinctly understood now and for all time,” the 51-year-old veteran continued, “that at these reunions it should be remembered and put forth that the men who wore the blue and fought on this field were lastingly and eternally right and the men who wore the gray were lastingly and eternally wrong.”

His audience hollered its approval.

(HNA)

“The General said that the Grand Army of the Republic and the men who wore the blue were disposed to display all kindly feeling and extend the hand of friendship and of assistance to their late antagonists,” the Reading (Pa.) Times wrote of the reunion, “but this ‘gush’ and glorification of a rebel was not elevating in its effects on the youths of the country.”

Concluded the newspaper about Gobin’s speech: “Right, every time, General. Brave words fitly spoken.”

Taylor, who did fight at Gettysburg, also blasted “glorification” of his former enemies. As an officer in the 2nd Pennsylvania Reserves, he was captured at the Wilderness in May 1864 and spent 10 months as a prisoner. In 1888, he was quartermaster general of the Grand Army of the Republic.

“I want no part or lot in this intolerable slobber and gush,” the 48-year-old veteran said at the campfire, “and if I did take part in these reunions with men who are wearing rebel badges, I would be untrue to the comrades of my old company who fell on this field and some of whom are now resting in this beautiful cemetery.”

Word of the Pennsylvania veterans’ disdain soon filtered south. “Lurid” and “sulphurous,” the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph called Gobin’s oratory. “The people of the South will not be disturbed by these words of bitterness,” the newspaper wrote. “They do not come from men who represent any respectable element at the North. If Gobin and Taylor want to keep up the war feeling they and their little gang can do so.”

Nearly eight years later, though, it remained clear how Gobin felt about the vanquished Confederacy. “Lee intended that Gettysburg should be his Austerlitz,” he said in an address in Gettysburg for the dedication of a monument to George Gordon Meade, “but it was his Waterloo, and more than that, the Waterloo of human slavery in the greatest country on earth.”

Almost from the beginning, James Longstreet’s Gettysburg visit was eventful; often, it was even surreal.

When word spread on June 30 that Longstreet was staying at the popular Springs Hotel, about two miles from town, hundreds headed in that direction. But the general was already gone, having departed earlier for the dedication of Wisconsin Iron Brigade monuments in Herbst Woods (Reynolds Woods today).

There, “Old Pete” briefly met with Brevet Brig. Gen. Rufus Dawes, the Iron Brigade officer whose soldiers famously captured 200 Confederates nearby in the Unfinished Railroad Cut west of town on July 1, 1863.

“General,” Dawes said as he surveyed the area near the Chambersburg Pike, “it looks very different from the scene of 25 years ago.”

“Yes,” Longstreet said, according to a New York Times reporter, “it reminds me of a camp meeting.”

Another U.S. Army veteran remarked to Longstreet that the battle might have ended quite differently had the Confederate command listened to his advice. Then he asked the general if he was dead against Pickett’s Charge.

“Yes, sah,” he replied.

Asked if Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early might attend the Grand Reunion, Longstreet expressed his doubts. The commander who ordered the sacking of nearby Chambersburg, Pa., in 1864 probably would not have been well received. Longstreet, on the other hand, rarely had a free moment at the reunion. Veterans of all stripes were eager to exchange pleasantries and shake the hand of “Old Pete.”

Veterans of the 40th New York pose in Devil’s Den. The 40th, known as the “Mozart Regiment,” was part of Daniel Sickles’ 3rd Corps and fought at the base of Little Round Top. The regiment’s monument stands nearby at the intersection of Crawford and Warren Avenues. (Library of Congress)
Veterans of the 40th New York pose in Devil’s Den. The 40th, known as the “Mozart Regiment,” was part of Daniel Sickles’ 3rd Corps and fought at the base of Little Round Top. The regiment’s monument stands nearby at the intersection of Crawford and Warren Avenues. (Library of Congress)

Later that day, Longstreet had a private meal at his hotel with 68-year-old Dan Sickles—the first meeting of the former enemies. As commander of the 3rd Corps at Gettysburg, the controversial Sickles lost his right leg to enemy artillery on the battle’s second day.

“They were friends in a moment,” according to an account of their meeting, “and there was very little eaten at that table for 30 minutes as they talked about events a quarter century old.” While the old foes dined, others in the room gawked and “let their dinner go almost untouched.”

The pairing of Sickles, a cigar-smoking New Yorker, and Longstreet, a South Carolina-born part-time farmer, was a hit. As a group of New York veterans marched through Gettysburg one morning, the two rode in a carriage behind them. “This was a meeting of blue and gray worth recording,” a Philadelphia newspaper correspondent wrote, “and as they passed along the street that led to Seminary Hill and Seminary Ridge the enthusiasm of the crowd who recognized them was something beyond description.”

With Sickles and other former Union bigwigs, Longstreet visited the notable battlefield sites—the Peach Orchard, Wheatfield, Devil’s Den and Little Round Top, the “apple of Longstreet’s eye.” Little had changed, the general observed, since his soldiers had made desperate assaults on the Round Tops on July 2, 1863, and, a day later, at the “Bloody Angle” during Pickett’s Charge. The attack was “a great mistake,” said Longstreet, who discussed battle strategy and tactics with former Union commanders as he toured the field.

When the general began a tour on horseback with Generals Hiram Berdan and Daniel Butterfield, among others, a large crowd gave the group three cheers. After they reached the summit of Little Round Top, word quickly traveled of Longstreet’s presence there. Union veterans gathered nearby for a monument dedication rushed toward their former adversary.

John Gobin (above left) and John Taylor (left) were part of a relatively small but vocal group of Reunion attendees: Union veterans not yet ready to forgive their former enemies. (Reading Room 2020/Alamy Stock Photo (2); 507 Collection/Alamy Stock Photo)
John Gobin (above left) and John Taylor (left) were part of a relatively small but vocal group of Reunion attendees: Union veterans not yet ready to forgive their former enemies. (Reading Room 2020/Alamy Stock Photo (2); 507 Collection/Alamy Stock Photo)

“Boys, here’s Longstreet,” shouted the one-legged Sickles as he sat at the foot of a tree, “and he meets us once more on Round Top.” Three rousing cheers from the crowd of about 100 “went surging through the shimmering air to the plain below.”

On July 1, Longstreet nearly broke down during a speech before an estimated 10,000 Union 1st Corps veterans in Reynolds Grove, near the monument to Union Maj. Gen. John Reynolds, who was killed on the first day of the battle. As he walked to the massive speakers’ stand, Longstreet was greeted by a Rebel Yell, the Gettysburg Cornet Band played “Dixie” and veterans crowded around the commander.

“General,” a one-legged Federal veteran told Longstreet, “I fought against you at Round Top. I lost a wing there, but I am proud to meet you here.”

The “Granite Tree Monument,” dedicated on Oak Ridge in 1888, is one of three 90th Pennsylvania monuments at Gettysburg. (Library of Congress)

“Yes,” Longstreet replied as he grasped the man’s hand, “those were hot times then. But I’m all right now.”

After Longstreet took his place on the stand, a former Federal officer shouted, “Comrades, you see on this platform one of the hardest hitters whoever fought against us. I propose we give three times three for General Longstreet, one of the best Union men now in the country!” The crowd erupted, surging toward the wooden stand and “showering God bless you’s” on the teary-eyed general. Moments later, though, the platform collapsed amid shrieks, falling two feet. But no one was seriously hurt.

Smiling, Longstreet bowed left and right. Then “Old Pete,” his voice shaking as he began his speech, told the veterans how proud he was to commemorate the battle and, according to a newspaper report, “to mingle with those brave men who know how to appreciate heroism which will give up life for country’s sake.” Longstreet called the third day at Gettysburg the greatest battle ever fought.

“But times have changed,” he said, according to the Times. “Twenty-five years have softened the usages of war. Those frowning heights have given over their savage tone, and our meetings for the exchange of blows and broken bones are left for more congenial days, for friendly greetings, and for covenants tranquil repose.

“The ladies are here to grace the serene occasion and quicken the sentiment that draws us nearer together,” he continued. “God bless them and help that they may dispel the delusions that come between the people and make the land as blithe as bride at the coming of the bridegroom.”

On July 2 at Gettysburg’s National Cemetery, the final resting place for more than 3,500 Federal soldiers, Longstreet shared the speaker’s rostrum with Dan Sickles, John Gordon, Francis Barlow, and others. Nearly 5,000 people crowded onto the hallowed ground where Lincoln had delivered the Gettysburg Address in November 1863. A New York Times reporter was there to capture the most momentous scene of Longstreet’s remarkable visit:

The actors were the very men who defended the ridge on whose slopes the cemetery lies against the repeated assaults led by the very men 25 years ago this very day who joined them here now in pledges of friendship, loyalty to a common flag and unity of devotion to a common country. All—place, scene, and the living figures of the men themselves—were inspiring.

Gettysburg veterans, including Longstreet, pose on Little Round Top next to the 155th Pennsylvania monument, which had been dedicated in September 1886. A statue of a Zouave soldier was added in 1889, even though 155th soldiers were not dressed in those colorful uniforms during the battle. (NPS Photo)
Gettysburg veterans, including Longstreet, pose on Little Round Top next to the 155th Pennsylvania monument, which had been dedicated in September 1886. A statue of a Zouave soldier was added in 1889, even though 155th soldiers were not dressed in those colorful uniforms during the battle. (NPS Photo)

Shortly after 5 p.m., Sickles delivered a short speech. “As Americans,” said the general, who became instrumental in preserving the battleground, “we may all claim a common share in the glories of this battlefield, memorable for so many brilliant feats of arms.” He later read a telegram from George Pickett’s widow, LaSalle, who offered “God’s blessing” to the throng.

When John Gordon, a brigade commander at Gettysburg but now governor of Georgia, appeared, he was greeted by a deafening roar, and his speech was interrupted by shouts of “Hurrah!” and “Good!” Longstreet spoke only a few sentences. “I changed my suit of gray for a suit of blue so many years ago,” he said, further endearing himself to the Union veterans, “that I have grown myself in my reconstructed suit of blue.”

At the 95th Pennsylvania monument dedication that day in the Wheatfield, Longstreet’s actions spoke louder than words. The general held the regiment’s tattered battle flag, which had been pierced by 81 holes in fighting at Gettysburg, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Malvern Hill and elsewhere. Gently, he pressed the flag to his lips…and wept. 

“The Piedmont Airline” train crashed crossing a wooden trestle like this postwar one used by the Union Pacific Railroad. (Alamy Stock Photo)
“The Piedmont Airline” train crashed crossing a wooden trestle like this postwar one used by the Union Pacific Railroad. (Alamy Stock Photo)

Dragged Into the Vortex

Longstreet finds a way to escape death in central Virginia yet again

Nearly a quarter-century after he was severely wounded at the May 1864 Battle of the Wilderness, James Longstreet had another brush with death in the heart of Virginia. Early on the morning of July 12, 1888, the former Confederate lieutenant general survived a deadly train accident at a rickety railroad trestle known as “Fat Nancy”—20 miles southwest of the famous Wilderness battleground in Spotsylvania County.

Die in a mere train wreck? Fat chance for Robert E. Lee’s “Old War Horse.”

En route from the Grand Reunion to his home in Gainesville, Ga., the 67-year-old Longstreet was aboard the southbound Virginia Midland Railroad’s No. 52 train, “The Piedmont Airline.” At least two other Confederate veterans were heading home as well, including New Orleans-bound Louis G. Cortes—a “whole-souled, open-hearted, compassionate man” who, as a 19-year-old private in the 7th Louisiana, lost his left leg at Gettysburg. Fighting for Brig. Gen. Harry T. Hays’ famed “Louisiana Tigers,” he was taken prisoner in Pennsylvania and not exchanged until early 1864. Cortes (spelled Cortez in some accounts) lived in a soldiers’ home in New Orleans. He had saved up for years to attend the reunion in Gettysburg.

The train, scheduled to make stops in Augusta, Ga., Atlanta, and New Orleans, typically carried between 150 and 200 passengers. No. 52 consisted of mail, baggage, smoking and ladies’ cars, three sleepers, the locomotive (Engine 694), and a tender.

Longstreet was in a sleeper car as the train snaked its way through countryside ravaged by warfare decades earlier. At roughly 2 a.m., “The Piedmont Airline” arrived with sleeping and groggy passengers at Orange Court House. A short time later, the train eased out of the station on the Virginia Midland Railroad line. Twenty minutes later, two miles south of Orange Court House, the train slowed to about 5 mph as it approached a 44-foot-high, 487-foot-long wooden trestle spanning rain-swollen Two Runs Creek.

To locals, the trestle was known as “Fat Nancy,” after a plus-sized African American named Emily Jackson who lived near its western approach. Jackson liked to wave her green-checkered, gingham apron at railroad workers as she stood near the doorway of her house. Occasionally, the workers tossed her apples and oranges from their lunch baskets.

That July 12, the trestle was in the process of being repaired—it would eventually be replaced with a culvert and dirt fill. Apparently, after the locomotive and tender made it across the bridge, the smoking car in the center of the trestle plunged through the wooden beams and into the creek. It dragged four cars, followed by the tender and locomotive, into the vortex. Two sleepers remained on the track above; the other sleeper, which also fell, rested precariously atop the crumpled wreckage. Frightened passengers—adults and children alike—moaned and cried. Steam hissed from the crippled locomotive. All lights on the train were extinguished after it plunged. In the inky blackness, passengers frantically worked to free themselves from the wreckage or aid the injured.

Longstreet, a large man, somehow squeezed to safety through the bottom of the sleeper car on the tracks. (Another account said it was a window.) “He afterwards looked at the hole through which he had emerged,” a newspaper reported, “and wondered how he had ever got through it.” The general, apparently unscathed physically, assisted survivors until daylight and then lay down to rest.

Dozens were injured—or worse.

“The train was piled in such an inextricable mass of debris that it was difficult to discover the outlines of human forms,” the Baltimore Sun reported. “Through the interstices of the wreck arms and legs protruded in every direction.”

A woman in her 20s in one of the first-class cars was traveling with at least two bantam chickens, but when there was a complaint about the noisy birds, she moved forward into a smoking car. She would be one of eight passengers who died at the scene, “her head mashed beyond recognition.”

Cortes was among the dead. He was initially discovered carrying only $4.. But as he was being prepared for burial in the Confederate Cemetery a mile or so away in Orange, Va., a policeman examined the man’s cast-off shoe. In it, he discovered $82 in bank notes.

Cortes’ death rocked some of his former enemies. After the reunion, he was invited by Union veterans of the George Meade Grand Army of the Republic Post to be their guest in Philadelphia. When he said goodbye to his new friends at the train station about a week later, “the brave old rebel shed tears of gratitude,” the Boston Globe reported.

A month after the death of Cortes, the Louisiana Division of the Army of Northern Virginia passed a resolution in the veteran’s honor. “He sleeps…in the sacred soil of Virginia made precious by the best blood of the south,” it read. “Flowers will bloom upon his grave, the birds make melody above him, and at night the stars will watch as sentinels…”

Another New Orleans-bound passenger, an “unknown Italian” who was killed, was found with a railroad ticket, a poker chip, and three cents. Cornelius Cox, a civilian engineer who had been directing repairs on the trestle, also died in the wreck. A severely injured mail agent died in a nearby Charlottesville hospital just before his wife and brother arrived from Prosper, Va. Miraculously, the train’s crew survived.

William N. Parrott, a postal clerk in Piedmont, Va., was aboard the mail car. The Confederate veteran lived a charmed life apparently. When he was 6, he survived a blow from a large, fallen tree limb sawed from an oak by workmen, and as a private in the 7th Virginia, he was wounded at Second Manassas, Gettysburg, and Dinwiddie Court House.

A passenger from Baltimore said it was a miracle how anyone survived the plunge from the trestle. To free the baggage master, who was found under an iron safe and several trunks, rescuers had to cut away the top of a car. A couple living nearby in the rural area apparently was first to assist. The train’s slightly injured engineer escaped from the wreckage, walked two miles to Orange, and telegraphed for help. At about 7 a.m., physicians from Charlottesville arrived on the scene. Among the first responders was Dr. Elhanon Winchester Row, who had been 14th Virginia Cavalry’s regimental surgeon during the war.

A local woman did such a fabulous job aiding and comforting the wounded that the railroad company later awarded her $250. The supremely efficient U.S. Post Office Department sent special agents to collect mail that littered the accident scene.

In Charlottesville, anxiety was high. “As the hours went by the excitement grew very intense,” according to a report, “so much so that when a special train from Orange arrived bearing the wounded the depot and platforms were literally packed, and it was as much as the police could do to keep a passageway clear.”

A reporter quizzed one of the survivors from the sleeper car about the cause of the accident. “Why, sir,” he said excitedly, “there were rotten timbers in the trestle and the rotten wood bulged out where the timbers broke. I made careful examination of the structure and am willing to make oath as to its condition.”

A coroner’s investigation quickly confirmed the obvious: Rotten timbers were indeed the culprit. In the investigation’s aftermath, the Virginia Midland Railroad’s chief engineer was fired.

In newspaper accounts, Longstreet—the most prominent passenger on the train—was barely mentioned, if at all. Days later, the general was spotted in Washington, D.C., reportedly seeking a pension for his service in the U.S. Army during the Mexican War. Years after the accident, Longstreet served in another role for the American government: U.S. commissioner of railroads under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt from 1897 through 1904.

Nashville-based John Banks, a regular America’s Civil War contributor, is the author of two Civil War books and the blog john-banks.blogspot.com.