On the weekend of the 159th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, I am posting this article from issue #28 of my ‘zine METANOIA.
One of my favorite Gettysburg historians, Tim Smith, has been all over my YouTube suggestion queue lately, which doesn’t bother me; I’m always happy to watch any video in which Smith displays his unique mix of battle expertise and his dry, irreverent sense of humor. Smith, a historian at the Adams County (PA) Historical Society, delves deeply into battle topics that other historians often only treat on the surface, if at all. Two recent in-depth video interviews showed him at his best, fascinating and funny, discussing two of his pet topics: the early days of the Gettysburg campaign in Adams County, and civilian battle celebrity John Burns.
The interview about the early days of the campaign revealed a potential family connection to me. While the battle itself began on July 1, the Confederates had already come into Pennsylvania two weeks before, making mischief from Chambersburg east to Caledonia (where they raided Thaddeus Stevens’ ironworks).
On June 23, in Cashtown (about eight miles west of Gettysburg) a company of rebel cavalry chased a group of local militia into the woods. At the same time, in a Cashtown hotel, a local named Henry Hahn drunkenly announced “I’m going to shoot myself a rebel.” When the Confederate cavalry rode through, Hahn made good on his promise and shot and killed a cavalryman named Eli Amick, who was the first soldier killed in Adams County during the campaign. Hahn became known as “the bushwhacker.”
Far from feeling like a hero, Hahn went into hiding in the local woods for the next ten days (by military law, the Rebels could have executed him), and reportedly regretted this incident for the rest of his life. He still has descendants in Adams County, and the possible connection I found is in his last name, which is the same as my grandmother’s maiden name. I don’t know if there was any connection between the Adams County Hahns and the Hahns who settled in western Pennsylvania, but I’ll still investigate it sometime.
And if it’s not the same Hahn, maybe I can just do what Smith says John Burns did routinely: make up a story that sounds good.
Smith’s other interview was a discussion of his book John Burns: “The Hero of Gettysburg,” quotation marks employed because, according to Smith, that was how Burns referred to himself. It’s a fun book which explodes all of the mythology surrounding Burns, integrating newly-discovered primary source material from a pair of unfinished Burns bios by other authors, including first-hand accounts of townspeople and soldiers.
Burns was, to put it kindly, an unreliable source, especially concerning his own exploits. While he claimed to be a veteran of the War of 1812, Smith says that not only can that not be proven, but, in fact, it can easily be disproven by looking at muster rolls of units which fought where Burns claimed to have served, rolls on which his name is conspicuously absent. Aside from several terms as town constable, he drifted from job to job and was, if we are to trust contemporary accounts from other Gettysburg residents, seen as a humorless man and something of a local joke, if not an annoyance.
But Burns had one moment of glory, and that was on the first day of the battle of Gettysburg (July 1, 1863), when, at age 69, he grabbed his musket and went out to the field to join the fighting as a civilian volunteer, where he was wounded in action.
That Burns was wounded is beyond dispute; how many times he was wounded is unknown because he was never given a medical exam. (His pension was awarded by a special act of Congress, which didn’t require an exam.)
This gave Burns license to create (and re-create) his own truth: Smith says in varying accounts after the battle, including those of Burns himself, it was claimed that Burns had been hit by Rebel fire one time, two times, three times, four times, five times, and seven times.
“So we know for certain,” Smith said, “that Burns was not wounded six times.”
Have you heard the story that gossips tell Of John Burns of Gettysburg? – No! Ah, well: Brief is the glory that hero earns. Briefer the story of poor John Burns He was the fellow who won renown The only man who didn’t back down When the rebels rode through his native town…
…a Gettyburg resident named Henry Minnigh (himself a former captain in the 1st PA Reserves) wrote and printed a flier of a poem entitled “A Necessary Revisal,” which he distributed at the dedication of a Gettysburg memorial to Burns in 1903. The opening lines read…
Yes, we have heard the story gossips tell, Of John Burns of Gettysburg. Ah, well! Among the people here ‘tis a conviction, Half the tale is fact, the other half is fiction…
“It is a rare treat,” Smith wrote, “when we are able to actually confirm an aspect of the Burns legend,” and legend and fact seem to have converged in Gettysburg on the afternoon of July 1, 1863: Burns tried to get his neighbors to get their weapons and go join in the first day’s battle on the nearby field, but they refused (“the only man who didn’t back down”); he grabbed his musket and went out to the portion of the field now known as Reynolds Woods (so named because Union General John Reynolds was killed there); he tried to latch onto a Pennsylvania unit, but they basically told the old man to go back home, but Burns persisted and eventually fought alongside the 7th Wisconsin regiment (the famous “Iron Brigade”), where he received his wound(s).
Shortly after he was shot, the Confederates took that part of the field; Burns, who, like Hahn, could have been executed by the Rebels for bushwhacking, hid his gun and ammo and pleaded with the Confederate doctors to treat him, which they did, but they left him on the field near where he fell. When night came, Burns crawled about a quarter mile to a house on the edge of town (the Riggs house, across from Robert E. Lee’s headquarters), where he lay on a cellar door overnight.
According to Smith, while he was lying wounded on the field, Burns described his house in town to a member of the 7th Wisconsin, and asked the soldier to tell his wife to come get him. The soldier balked at first, but later when he passed Burns’ house, he decided to stop and knock on the door. Burns’ wife Barbara answered and the soldier relayed her husband’s message.
Mrs. Burns’ reply?
“I told him not to go out there.”
Brief, indeed, was the glory that hero earned.
Book: Smith, Timothy H. John Burns: “The Hero of Gettysburg.” Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 2000. ISBN 1-57747-060-5
Youtube video interviews with Smith about… “the Bushwhacker:” tinyurl.com/henry-hahn-bushwhacker John Burns: tinyurl.com/tim-smith-on-john-burns
METANOIA is a semi-monthly print-only ‘zine. To get a copy of the latest issue, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to: Max Shenk Hotel Coolidge, rm 138 39 S Main St White River Jct, VT, 05001 OR email email@example.com for info.
One of the most moving scenes in the movie Gettysburg is one that I always suspected took a bit of dramatic liberty with the facts: the scene where Confederate General James Longstreet orders General George Pickett to lead his troops on what is now known as an ill-fated, failed assault on the Union center. General Robert E. Lee gave the order to Longstreet, who, by his account, objected, telling Lee that “It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arranged for battle can take that position.” In the movie, Longstreet is depicted as so deeply doubting the possibility of success– or so deeply believing in the certainty of failure– that he could not even bring himself to give the order directly to Pickett, delegating the responsibility to his artillery commander, Colonel Edwin Alexander, and then standing mute when Pickett asked if he should take his troops in.
I’ve always wondered about the movie’s depiction of this scene, particularly since it seemed to be based primarily on Longstreet’s accounts of the events, which, as the post-war years passed, not only became more detailed, but also more critical of Lee and more vociferous in their certainty of failure.
In the book Pickett’s Charge: Eyewitness Accounts, a collection edited by Richard Rollins, a series of letters that Pickett wrote to his wife Sallie immediately after the battle confirm that Longstreet, indeed, expressed his grave doubts to Pickett, could not give the order to Pickett directly, and, if anything, that the scene in the movie may have understated the emotion of the moment.
Here is Pickett’s first post-battle letter to Sallie dated July 4, 1863, the day after the failed charge:
My letter of yesterday, my darling, written before the battle, was full of hope and cheer; even though it told you of the long hours of waiting from four in the morning, when Gary’s pistol rang out from the Federal lines signaling the attack upon Culp’s Hill, to the solemn eight o’clock review of my men, who rose and stood silently lifting their hats in loving reverence as Marse Robert (General Robert E. Lee), Old Peter (General James Longstreet) and your own soldier reviewed them — on then to the deadly stillness of the five hours following, when the men lay in the tall grass in the rear of the artillery line, the July sun pouring its scorching rays almost vertically down upon them, till one o’clock when the awful silence of the vast battlefield was broken by a cannon-shot which opened the greatest artillery duel of the world. The firing lasted two hours. When it ceased we took advantage of the blackened field and in the glowering darkness formed our attacking column just before the brow of Seminary Ridge.
I closed my letter to you a little before three o’clock and rode up to Old Peter for orders. I found him like a great lion at bay. I have never seen him so grave and troubled. For several minutes after I saluted him he looked at me without speaking. Then in an agonized voice, the reserve all gone, he said:
“Pickett, I am being crucified at the thought of the sacrifice of life which this attack will make. I have instructed (Colonel Edwin) Alexander (Confederate artillery commander) to watch the effect of our fire upon the enemy, and when it begins to tell he must take the responsibility and give you your orders, for I can’t.”
While he was yet speaking a note was brought to me from Alexander. After reading it I handed it to him, asking if I should obey and go forward. He looked at me for a moment, then held out his hand. Presently, clasping his other hand over mine without speaking he bowed his head upon his breast. I shall never forget the look in his face nor the clasp of his hand when I said “Then, General, I shall lead my Division on.” I had ridden only a few paces when I remembered your letter and (forgive me) thoughtlessly scribbled in a corner of the envelope, “If Old Peter’s nod means death then good by and God bless you, little on,” turned back and asked the dear old chief if he would be good enough to mail it for me. As he took your letter from me, my darling, I saw tears glistening on his cheeks and beard. The stern old war-horse, God bless him, was weeping for his men and, I know, praying too that this cup might pass from them. I obeyed the silent assent of his bowed head, an assent given against his own convictions, — given in anguish and with reluctance.
My brave boys were full of hope and confident of victory as I led them forth, forming them in column of attack, and though officers and men alike knew what was before them, –knew the odds against them,– they eagerly offered up their lives on the altar of duty, having absolute faith in their ultimate success. Over on Cemetery Ridge the Federals beheld a scene never before witnessed on this continent, –a scene which has never previously been enacted and can never take place again — an army forming in line of battle in full view, under their very eyes– charging across a space nearly a mile in length over fields of waving grain and anon of stubble and then a smooth expanse– moving with the steadiness of a dress parade, the pride and glory soon to be crushed by an overwhelming heartbreak.
Well, it is all over now. The battle is lost, and many of us are prisoners, many are dead, many are wounded, bleeding and dying. Your soldier lives and mourns and but for you, my darling, he would rather, a million times rather, be back there with his dead, to sleep for all time in an unknown grave.
This article was originally published in the June 29, 2013 issue of The Bridge, a weekly community newspaper in Montpelier, Vermont. My hope is to eventually expand this to book length, but in the meantime…
It could be said that the Battle of Gettysburg began and ended with Vermonters. Soldiers from the Green Mountain state played a role in key engagements before the battle, a Vermont native fired the first shot and three Vermont regiments not only defended against, but twice repelled, Confederate attacks on the heart of the Union line. Had it not been for Vermonters at Gettysburg, the battle—indeed, the Civil War—would have played out much differently.
Writer Shelby Foote told of a southern soldier who, when asked by one of his Union counterparts, “What are you Rebs fightin’ for, anyway?” replied with “We all are fightin’ because YOU all are down here!” For the first two years of the Civil War, nearly every engagement of the war took place south of the Mason-Dixon line, particularly in Virginia, and in spring 1863, General Robert E. Lee, weary of the ravages that had been inflicted upon his home soil, decided to take the war “up there” to the North. Lee believed that invading the North would, among other things, make the North’s “friends of peace . . . become so strong” that the Union would have no choice but to sue for peace.
In June 1863, Lee sent J. E. B. Stuart’s cavalry north along the Monocacy River, which splits into tributaries near the Pennsylvania-Maryland line. Stuart’s objective was to gather provisions while getting a sense of the Union army’s strengths and weaknesses. It was not long after the Confederates crossed into south central Pennsylvania that they ran into trouble. On the morning of June 30, the Union cavalry, including 840 soldiers of the First Vermont, rode north into Hanover, Pennsylvania (about 14 miles east of Gettysburg). According to Sergeant Henry Ide, “Flags waved everywhere. Bells were ringing. Hundreds of schoolchildren stood in the market square singing songs of welcome.”
At about 10 a.m., though, explosions sounded through the town. The soldiers at first thought that it was a salute from the townsfolk, but, according to Ide, when a shell burst nearby, “We came to the conclusion that people didn’t normally fire (live ammunition) for a salute.” The advancing Union cavalry had caught up with Stuart’s column, and the Rebels had chased the Union cavalry back into town. In the ensuing scrap, Major John Bennett’s Vermont cavalrymen were key in “repelling the enemy by a vigorous charge,” according to historian Joseph Collea, “capturing about 20 men.”
The engagement at Hanover was a prelude to what followed in Gettysburg, and one of the results was that, for the next three days, Stuart’s men rode far out of their way to avoid a second confrontation with Union forces. One of Lee’s complaints when Stuart finally reached the field on the evening of the second day was that, in Stuart’s absence, Lee had been “deprived of his eyes and ears.” That absence could in part be attributed to his run-in with the Vermonters and Union forces at Hanover.
First shot from a Vermonter
While Stuart’s cavalry rode a loop northeast from Hanover to York and then west to Carlisle, Confederate infantry came north along the mountains through Chambersburg, shelling Carlisle (about 25 miles north of Gettysburg) before heading south to seek provisions. Union forces were pursuing them from the south, and their meeting point was Gettysburg, a small town that was the convergence point of 11 different roads. As has been noted so many times, the Confederates came into the town from the north, while the Union entered from the south.
Among those Union troops were five Vermont regiments belonging to the First Corps of the Army of the Potomac. The Vermonters had marched over 100 miles in the six days leading up to the battle, and two of those regiments (the 12th and 15th) stayed in Maryland to guard wagon trains, but the other three—the 13th, 14th and 16th—continued north, arriving at Gettysburg during the afternoon of the second day, July 2.
However, some Vermonters were already on the field of battle, and one of them is widely credited with firing the first shot. Lieutenant Marcellus Jones, a native of St. Albans who had moved to Illinois, was west of the town in a small group of men called a vidette post. Their job was to “feel out the enemy,” and on the morning of July 1, around 7:30 a.m., one of Jones’s four men noticed what looked like dust clouds about 700 yards away on the Chambersburg Pike.
The soldier raised his carbine to fire a shot, but Lieutenant Jones reportedly said, “Hold on, George . . give me the honor of opening this ball.” Jones steadied the soldier’s gun on a fence rail, aiming at a distant Rebel officer on a gray horse. The carbine had an effective range of about 300 yards, but the point was not to hit the officer; when Jones fired, the Rebels knew that they’d met up with the opposing army, and the battle of Gettysburg was soon underway.
“I saw a fine body of Vermonters”
The key to a tactical understanding of both the Battle of Gettysburg and the battlefield at Gettysburg can be found in the Union line, which formed on high ground called Cemetery Ridge, stretching from north to south between two sets of hills: Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill on the northern edge of the town and Little Round Top and Big Round Top south of the town. Between those high points, the Union occupied and fortified their defenses, from which they looked down on the Confederate positions. The line was roughly fishhook shaped, with the eye at the north, and the curve and barb at the south. The Confederates’ hope, repeatedly, was to break that line either at the ends (one of the goals of the repeated attacks on Culp’s Hill and the famous attack on Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s 20th Maine at Little Round Top) or in the middle (the goal of Pickett’s Charge).
Beyond that Union line, Confederate commanders told their men, “lies Virginia and home.”
When the 13th, 14th and 16th Vermont infantry reached Gettysburg late in the afternoon on July 2, they camped at the base of Cemetery Hill, behind the Union lines, near General George Meade’s headquarters, and had little time to recover from their long march before they were called to action.
The Confederates had been attacking the ends of the hook-shaped Union line, but late in the day, Georgia Brigadier General Rans Wright spotted what he thought was a weakness in the center along Cemetery Ridge, the north–south high ground that the Union forces were fortifying. He ordered an attack, and the Georgians, he wrote, “charged up to the top of the crest” of Cemetery Ridge “and drove the (Union) infantry . . . some 80 or 100 yards in rear of [their] batteries. We were now complete masters of the field, having gained the key, as it were, of the enemy’s whole line.”
Unfortunately, Wright’s advancing men were alone, without support, and Wright quickly realized that “my advanced position and the unprotected conditions of my flank invited an attack.” On the other side of the line, Union captain John Tidball reported this dilemma to General Meade, as well as a solution. “If you need troops” to close the line, he told Meade, “I saw a fine body of Vermonters a short distance from here.” Those Vermonters were the 13th, 14th and 16th, and Union General Abner Doubleday (who, stresses writer Howard Coffin, “did NOT invent baseball!”) ordered the three regiments forward to plug the gap and drive back Wright’s Georgians.
“A large brigade advanced from (a) point of woods on my left,” reported Wright, and “we were now in a critical condition.” The Vermonters effectively surrounded Wright’s men, the “converging line . . . rapidly closing upon our rear. A few more moments and we would be completely surrounded.” Wright’s men retreated, and “with painful hearts abandoned our captured guns.”
Wright’s unremarkable description of the “abandoned guns” downplays one of the most dramatic incidents of the second evening. Union General Winfield Scott Hancock spotted Wright’s men retreating with four Union cannons in their clutches, and asked Colonel Francis V. Randall if his Vermonters could recapture the guns. Randall’s reply, according to Coffin, was, “Goddamn, we can if you let us!” Hancock “let” him, and Randall rode to the front of the regiment to lead the reconnaissance.
“We had not gone ten yards,” recalled Vermont sergeant George Scott, “ere Randall’s horse fell shot through the neck,” leaving Randall struggling to free his leg, which was caught in the stirrup between the fallen horse and the ground. “Go on, boys!” Scott recalled Randall shouting. “I’ll be at your head as soon as I get out of this damned saddle!” Several soldiers rolled the horse off Randall’s leg, and Randall went to the front of the unit on foot, reported Scott, “limping badly, his hat off, his sword swinging in the air.” The Vermonters charged forward to the stolen cannons and, said Scott, “the enemy did not await us. They abandoned the guns and fled.” As the Vermonters rolled the retrieved battery back to the Union line, a soldier from another unit asked where the regiment was from.
“Green Mountain Boys!” several Vermonters called out in response.
“I thought you must be green,” the soldier replied, “or you would’ve never gone in there.”
The four cannons were back behind Union lines, but Randall and some of his men were still in the field, moving toward Rogers House, a farmhouse on Emmitsburg Road where Confederate snipers were holed up. Randall ordered Captain John Lonergan’s Irish Company to “drive those damned Rebels out of those buildings or kill them– about face, charge!” Lonergan’s men charged toward the house, and “the Confederates came tumbling out . . . Each man laid down his gun, until I had a considerably larger number of . . . prisoners than I had [soldiers] in my entire company.”
Randall initially reported 200 captured Rebels, but, says Coffin, “he had a tendency to overstate.” The actual number was around 80, which still meant that they outnumbered their Vermont captors two to one. The prisoners included about 50 Rebels who tried to run for the woods behind the house, until Randall yelled “Halt!” and then, more emphatically, “God damn you boys, stop that running!” at which point the 50 threw down their guns and surrendered. The gap in the Union line was closed, the Union position was strengthened, the sharpshooters were silenced and the captured cannons were retrieved, all by the Vermonters.
“We propose resting on our arms,” Randall told an aide to Vermont General George Stannard when he returned to the line, “until [Stannard] acknowledges our achievements.”
“Glory to God! See the Vermonters go at it!”
Night fell on the second day, and according to Vermont soldier Wheelock Veazey (as quoted in Coffin’s book Full Duty), “it was the saddest night on picket that I ever passed. The line ran across the field that had been fought over the night before, and the dead and wounded of the two armies, lying side by side, thickly strewed the ground. The mingled prayers and imprecations of the wounded . . . were heart-rending . . . Scores of wounded men died around us in the gloom, before anyone could bring relief or receive their dying messages.”
The Union forces had strengthened their position on the ridge, and Lee was planning an attack. Historians have argued for years about why Lee would send his infantry on a charge one mile across an open field toward the heart of a fortified Union line, but some historians now believe the charge was part of a coordinated two-part attack, the other element of which was Stuart’s cavalry attack on the Union rear. (That assault was repulsed by Union cavalry commanded by, among others, General George Custer.)
At about 1:30 p.m., Confederate cannon opened fire on the Union line. According to soldier George Benedict, “The air seemed to be literally filled with flying missiles. Shells whizzed and popped on every side. Spherical case exploded over our heads and rained iron bullets over us . . . and round shot plowed up the ground before and around us.”
Added soldier Ralph Sturtevant, “The passing of each minute seemed a lifetime.” The Vermonters occupied the position closest to the Rebel line, and that, ironically, may have saved them: According to Coffin, the shells were mostly flying over the Union line to the rear of the ridge, so that “the closer the soldiers were to the Confederates, the less likely they were to be struck.”
After about 90 minutes, the artillery barrage stopped, and according to a soldier quoted by Coffin, “someone with a glass to his eye says, ‘There they come,’ and just emerging from the rebel lines you can see the long ranks of grey, the shimmering of steel in the July sun.” The Union forces waited until the gray lines came within range and then opened fire, tearing gaps in the Rebel ranks as soldiers fell. The Confederates closed ranks as they pushed forward, toward a central “clump of trees” about 300 yards north of where the Vermonters were waiting. But as the Rebel infantry approached the 14th Vermont’s position, they suddenly changed direction and started moving across the 14th’s front. As Benedict put it, “it was a terribly costly movement for the enemy. The 14th at once opened fire with very great effect. The 13th joined its fire . . . and a line of dead rebels at the close showed distinctly where they had marched across the front of the Vermonters.”
It was clear to both Hancock and Stannard that a flanking movement was called for—Stannard issued the order himself shortly before Hancock asked him to issue the same order—and Stannard ordered the 13th and 16th regiments to, in Benedict’s words, “swing out at right angles to the main [Union] line, close upon the flank of the charging [Rebel] column, and open fire.” The two regiments marched north about 200 yards, then turned a full 45 degrees so that they were facing the Confederate forces right at the “clump of trees.” The 16th then did an about-face and moved back toward units of Florida and Alabama troops who were still advancing. “Glory to God, glory to God,” Doubleday called out, “see the Vermonters go at it!”
According to Benedict, this maneuver proved “more than the Rebels had counted on. They began to break and scatter from the rear in less than five minutes, and in ten more it was an utter rout.” Added Veazey, “The movement was so sudden and rapid that the enemy could not change front to oppose us . . . A great many prisoners were taken . . . They were sent to the rear without a guard [but] none were needed, as the prisoners were quite willing to get within the shelter of our lines.”
Pickett’s Charge had been broken, with Vermonters at the center of the victory. Confederate prisoners later told Doubleday that “what ruined them was Stannard’s brigade on their flank. They found it impossible to contend with . . . and they drew off in a huddle to get away.”
A final, futile attack
Pickett’s Charge is often called “the high water mark of the Confederacy,” not only because its failure ended the Battle of Gettysburg, but because the Confederacy never came so close to victory again during the remaining 22 months of the war. Pickett’s Charge was not the last Vermont action at Gettysburg, though. Near the base of two hills on the southern end of the field, Little Round Top and Big Round Top, Union Cavalry General Judson Kilpatrick feared that the rebel cavalry might regroup if given too much time. “All we have to do is charge,” he told a subordinate, “and the enemy will throw down their arms and surrender.”
Kilpatrick ordered Vermont cavalrymen commanded by General Elon Farnsworth to attack a group of Rebel horsemen. Farnsworth looked at the rocky, rough terrain and said that no cavalry attack on that ground could succeed, to which Kilpatrick, who once argued that a cavalry attack could succeed anyplace except the open seas, responded by calling Farnsworth a coward.
Farnsworth followed Kilpatrick’s orders and took his men in, and it was a rout. The Vermonters rode through a line of Texas cavalrymen into a hornet’s nest of fire from Alabama cavalry. Farnsworth was surrounded and shot through the chest five times, and by the time the Vermonters retreated, 13 of their men were killed, 25 were wounded, and another 27 were missing. It was a futile, ill-conceived attack, one which had no effect on the outcome of the battle. The retreating Confederates were already preparing to head south, and the Vermonters and the rest of the Union forces would soon follow them.
The Battle of Gettysburg had ended, and the war would rage for almost two more years, and while many of the Vermont soldiers at Gettysburg would soon be mustered out (they were near the end of their nine-month service when the battle started), their contribution to the victory at Gettysburg was seen by some as the most important of all Union troops. As Doubleday later said, “You ask what I think of the valor of the Vermont troops [at Gettysburg]. I can only say they performed perhaps the most brilliant feat during the war. For they broke the desperate charge of Pickett, saved the day and with it, the whole North from invasion and devastation.”
The writer wishes to thank the following for their assistance and support in writing these articles: Howard Coffin; Bill Greenwood (Green Mountain Tours); John Heiser (Gettysburg National Military Park Library); and his parents, Marjorie and Larry Shenk, who live in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and provided support of all kinds while he researched and wrote this piece.
One of the projects I’m working on a little bit at a time is an expanded book version of my articles about Vermont’s soldiers at the Battle of Gettysburg, and part of that book will include the text of an 1864 Vermont soldier’s memoir entitled The Second Brigade.
I’m about 2/3 through the slow process of formatting that manuscript; my source for the text is a New York City Public Library scan of the original 1864 book: JPG files which I ran through an online text conversion (OCR) program.
Here is a scan of the first page of chapter one:
When I ran this page through the photo-to-text conversion program, here’s what I got:
Each valley, each sequestered glen,
Mustered its little horde of men,
That met as torrents from the height
In highland dales their streams unite,
Till at the rendezvous they stood
By hundreds. prompt for blowszdtr.CoTT.
Amazingly, I have seen many, many online documents like this, and in fact have also bought several Kindle edition e-books, where the text was apparently converted from a JPG scan using an OCR program and NOT edited or proofread.
But, you know, as blowszdtr.CoTT said, Tivilorethnt’fon,tirt.irlinotnsfrong.
One thing I love about exploring Gettysburg is discovering unexpected bits of history, many of them not even directly related to the battle.
For instance, I’ve been in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery maybe a half dozen times and have certainly seen the section of fence that passes behind the “witness tree” in the photo to the right, but I had no idea that…
…this section of fence is called “Sickles’ Fence,” after General Dan Sickles, a Union commander…
…the fence was brought to Gettysburg from its original location in Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C….
…at that original D.C. location in DC, it marked the spot where Sickles shot and killed his wife’s alleged lover in 1859. Sickles was later acquitted by reason of temporary insanity, one of the first such acquittals in US legal history…
…the section of fence was removed from Lafayette Square and “donated to the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association by a joint resolution of Congress on October 12, 1888 through the efforts of (then) Congressman Sickles… (who) urged Congress to pass the resolution”… and…
… “legend states that Sickles wanted the fence on display at Gettysburg so that he could ‘show the world how I got away with murder.’”
I’ll never walk by a nondescript section of antique fence again without thinking twice.
Here’s a link to an article about why this section of fencing is getting attention recently:
What I love about this book is not just its subject matter (the hotly contested section of battleground at Gettysburg), but the authors’ skepticism and thorough debunking of myths that have seeped into the history of the battle and land and become accepted as truths.
In one of the chapters I read today, “Post Battle History,” Adelman and Smith trace numerous outright untruths about the battle to their roots, debunking what are basically tall tales told by early battlefield guides, many of whom had no qualifications for their work other than “born in Gettysburg.” (Both Adelman and Smith are licensed battlefield guides, a certification that requires at least the knowledge equivalence of a masters in Gettysburg history, if not a PhD.) The book is not just a history of Devil’s Den, but a history ABOUT that history… about how a lie, if repeated often enough, will become accepted as fact.
“Someone asked him why he told such a yarn as that,” the authors quote from a 1915 interview with Samuel Bushman. Bushman’s reply? “Oh, well! It amuses the people. They want things made exciting.” And there, as I commented to a friend on Facebook, is our entire culture summarized in thirteen words.
Adelman and Smith quote a 1938 Gettysburg Times article entitled “Baltimorean Says ‘Little’ Round Top Named For Her Great-Grandfather.”
A great many Gettysburgians who have lived these many years under the delusion that Little Round Top was so named because of its proximity to a larger hill of similar shape (Big Round Top) are set aright about the matter by Mrs. Lily N. Neary, Baltimore, who calmly asserts that hill was named for her great-grandfather–Peter Little– the person for whom Littlestown (PA) was named.
Write Adelman and Smith: “If only we could identify the ‘Big’ family for which Big Round Top is named, we would have it all sorted out.”
Funny though that story is, it points to the way that myths and lies get twisted into fact. Lily Neary, the authors note, “was the daughter of Gettysburg native Ephraim Hanaway Little, whose grandfather … Ephraim Hanaway (owned) the western slopes of Little Round Top at the time of the battle. It just goes to show that a shred of truth can be found in every myth.”
So I’m missing a lot of my books (in storage, not that I currently have the space for them anyway) but a couple weeks ago, some Facebook posts on Garry Adelman’s Civil War page made me miss his book Devils’ Den: A History and Guide (co-authored with Timothy Smith) enough to order a used copy online. I’d get a second copy for around ten bucks, read it now, and then when I get my next real home, give away the copy I don’t want. Right?
So I went to Amazon and ordered a “very good condition” used copy from Better World Books, a vendor I’d dealt with before… usually their books are gently used, maybe ex libris copies with the stickers-markings etc.
That’s what I was EXPECTING…
What I received today was a new (as in “spine not even cracked) hardcover “Special Gettysburg Foundation Edition” SIGNED by both authors!! This was the book that was described generically as “very good condition.”
So I suppose I’ll be keeping THIS copy.
Several chapters of Devil’s Den: A History and Guide focus on a subject that always has intrigued me: the non-military history of the town and the battlefield, and particularly the uncomfortable convergence of the battlefield and the town… particularly the Gettysburg-Harrisburg Railroad (GHRR), which had its terminus in… my hometown of Carlisle!
The GHRR spur line ran south from a terminus near the current Wenger’s Meats in Carlisle, south through Letort Park and along Bonnybrook Creek–that section of the line is now a rails-to-trails path– crossing the Yellow Breeches near Craighead House, and continuing south from Mt. Holly along rt 34; Conrail still uses that section of track for freight traffic. The line runs south through rural Cumberland and Adams county, and terminates at a railroad station on Washington Avenue in Gettysburg, adjacent to the Gettysburg College campus (NOT the “Lincoln Train Station” on Carlisle Street).
Further, the GHRR built a spur line from that spur line, running excursion trains from that station in downtown Gettysburg out to Little Round Top (crossing the battlefield on the section of field where Pickett’s Charge took place… talk about your alterations to the field!). This excursion line terminated at a resort adjacent to Little Round Top, called Round Top Park, which the GHRR also owned. A handful of other attractions were there (most notably a photo studio run by early photographer William Tipton), but GHRR closed the spur and sold the park, and that was when the trouble started.
Among other “attractions,” there was a casino there, but the Army ALSO had an installation near there called Camp Colt.
I love this piece that Adelman and Smith found, from a 1918 report written by an inspecting Army officer at Camp Colt… particularly the shadings of meaning in words like “association”:
Colonel John P. Nicholson, Chairman of the Gettysburg Battlefield Commission, stated to me that he has been trying to get conditions on Little Round Top corrected; for this purpose he had an item in the sundry civil bill [budget] for $5000 with which to purchase and thus control the privately controlled grounds now used as a dance house and general resort, but that it was stricken out; as a result the resort is continued on privately owned property that lies just beyond but immediately adjacent to his jurisdiction [what is now protected Park Service battlefield land] and likewise just beyond the jurisdiction of the military authorities [MPs-etc at Camp Colt]. The condition described to me by Col. Nicholson is certainly very deplorable. He says that this resort is frequented by prostitutes, not only from Gettysburg, but who come in excursions [I bet they did, haha] from the neighboring towns of York, Harrisburg, Chambersburg and Emmitsburg. These excursions bring with them quantities of beer and whiskey which they give or sell to the soldiers. As a result of this debauchery the grounds, the immediate surroundings of the resort itself, part of them lying with the Battlefield reservations, are used for association purposes. On a single evening over 50 couples were detected and driven from hiding places behind the tablets, monuments, rocks and trees of the reservation [battlefield]. On one occasion his officers found over 300 empty beer bottles scattered around their various hiding places. Colonel Nicholson further stated that he found it impossible to properly police this point.
I would imagine so.
All of this land is now Park Service property, and very few traces of the non-military attractions can be found (although the rail bed is visible in the brush if you know where to look).
The story of the Gettysburg-Harrisburg Railroad and Round Top Park is ripe for a book… maybe a novel?