Much of the credit for arranging the 1938 Gettysburg reunion of veterans was due to the intervention of Richmond Times-Dispatch editor Virginius Dabney, whose mother was descended from Thomas Jefferson and his grandfather a Confederate veteran. It was suggested that the final airlifted load of whiskey for the pint-flasks home was confiscated by the greatly outnumbered Rebel contingent.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org
Airlifted Whiskey at Gettysburg, 1938
“. . . One of the greatest stories of the era occurred in July, 1938, when some 1,800 surviving Northern and Southern veterans held a reunion at Gettysburg. But everyone who followed the copious preliminary press coverage knew that arranging this reunion was almost as perilous as the conflict that took place at Gettysburg in July 1863.
Plans for the reunion began as early as 1935, but some members of the Grand Army of the Republic said they would not foregather unless the Rebels left all their Confederate flags at home. And, indeed, earthier epithets were used for “Confederate flags.”
The Rebels not only insisted on bringing their “unsullied oriflammes.” Some of the more irascible stipulated: “There’ll be no damned reunion unless the Yankee government pays for some of the property their army destroyed, and just for the hell of destroying it.”
Many of the Yankees drew the line at “playing host for the damned Rebs,” and the Rebs, frequently in graphic language, told the Yankees where they “can put their invitations.” Finally, the idea, but not the practical vehicle, of a “joint reunion” was circumvented when the State of Pennsylvania asked both sides “to attend a gathering at Gettysburg.”
Most of the Confederates were escorted by boy scouts, and those who embarked from North Carolina to Gettysburg were cheered to the local train station by huge crowds and bands, wherever bands were available.
Amazingly, the non-reunion reunion of the old foes was as tranquil as the blue July clouds that hovered over the once-bloody fields of Gettysburg. There was only one formidable problem, and this, which gained national attention, was keeping the 1,800 nonagenarians supplied with drinking whiskey. As Virginius Dabney noted, “The Southern contingent was afflicted with a notable thirst, and principally because of this fact the original consignment of five cases of liquor was exhausted almost as soon as it was opened.”
The hosts had assumed that a small cup containing a couple teaspoons of whiskey would be an adequate drink for men pushing one hundred years. But the first time the whiskey ration was doled out, one 97-year-old Rebel snorted: “That ain’t even a good sniff, much less a drink.”
An airplane was sent for more booze, and it returned with twenty-two additional cases. When this was consumed, the same airplane brought fifteen more cases. While the extra fifteen cases managed to last-out the encampment, there was none left to “see the boys back home safely.” With the third supply, the last fifteen cases gone, the “airplane of mercy,” as some dispatches called it, “brought back enough whiskey for each of the Rebels to have a pint-flask for the trip home.”
By all accounts, the Rebels, even more outnumbered at Gettysburg than they had been seventy-three years before, won the battle of the bottle, walking sticks down. A wire service reported that one veteran, 104-years-old, but never designated as to side, was picked up suffering from acute alcoholism.
Many of the North Carolina chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy denounced the wire service “for printing vile slander,” but the clear implication of these frothy demurrers was that the unidentified 104-year-old alcoholic was a Yankee. As one local UDC regent reasoned, in a letter to several [daily newspapers], “If the poor man had been one of ours, you can bet your bottom dollar the Yankee reporters would have said so.”
(The Tar Heel Press, Thad Stem, Jr., NC Press Association, 1973, pp. 263-265)