George Leo Frankenstein’s View of McPherson’s Ridge and Reynolds Woods

This 1866 George Leo Frankenstein watercolor encompasses the wooded area where Union Major General John F. Reynolds was killed. Based on Frankenstein???s annotations, the location seems to be in the proximity of the former Gettysburg Country Club, a…

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This 1866 George Leo Frankenstein watercolor encompasses the wooded area where Union Major General John F. Reynolds was killed. Based on Frankenstein’s annotations, the location seems to be in the proximity of the former Gettysburg Country Club, along Chambersburg Pike (U.S. Route 30) at the western foot of McPherson Ridge.  Frankenstein, standing on ground between the Union and Confederate lines on July 1st, 1863, was looking east, taking in an area against which A. P. Hill launched a series of Confederate assaults. While the growth of the trees and modern development make it impossible to obtain this view today, Frankenstein’s painting provides a remarkable view of a historic landscape that no other visual evidence captures. Today, if one were to stand where Frankenstein painted this scene, he/she would see the Gettysburg Country Club.  The country club, which opened in 1948 and was once a favorite place of Dwight Eisenhower, closed in 2008 because of unpaid back taxes and mortgages.  This painting reveals the possibilities of historic preservation, for while much of the former golf course seems likely to end up in the hands of the National Park Service, some of the acreage will remain in the hands of private developers.  Due to the modern incursions of man and unchecked natural growth, this piece of art offers a one-of-a-kind view of this portion of America’s most celebrated battlefield, ground over which Archer’s and Brockenbrough’s men marched to defeat, and over which Scales’ North Carolinians passed in the final attacks on the Union position on Seminary Ridge in the distance.

To help viewers identify the scene, Frankenstein depicts several well-known landmarks, and he also provided identifications in the margins for other landmarks that were less noticeable to casual observers. One notation identifies the ditch running from left to right in the foreground as Willoughby Run, an important feature of the first day’s battlefield.  Another prominent feature of this scene is the John Herbst Woods and McPherson Ridge which mostly obscure the Lutheran Theological Seminary on Seminary Ridge.
Lesser-known features are depicted on the rising slope of the left panel of the portrait. The building in the foreground is the Isaac I. Leeper mill constructed a couple of years after the Battle. The pond and sluice gate for directing water to the mill are visible in the yard.  Further in the distance is the M. Johns Toll House, around which Dorsey Pender’s Confederate division formed for battle. The toll house still stands on the south side of the Chambersburg Pike.
On the bottom of the left panel, Frankenstein indicates that he is looking at the “R. R. cut.” This is a reference to the brown furrow on the far left of the painting running west to east parallel to the Chambersburg Pike. This so-called “western cut” was one of three remnants of an 1830s attempt by Thaddeus Stevens to bring rail service to Gettysburg.   Here, on July 1, Junius Daniels’ Confederate brigade was engaged with Colonel Roy Stone’s Pennsylvania Bucktail brigade.   Of this position Daniels later reported, “At the railroad cut, which had been partially concealed by the long grass growing around it, and which, in consequence of the abruptness of its sides, was impassable, the advance was stopped.”  Three hundred yards east of this cut lies the infamous “middle cut”, in which hundreds of Confederate soldiers sought shelter during the fighting. At first glance, the depression seemed an excellent defensive position that afforded cover from Union bullets. However, the very same steep embankments that appeared to promise protection acted instead as a barrier trapping the Confederate fugitives inside and many were taken prisoner.
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In the opening stages of the Battle, Union Cavalry under General John Buford established a defensive position along the ridges in the background of the painting. Buford, who was desperate to hold off the numerically superior Confederate infantry until Union infantry under General Reynolds arrived to relieve him, instantly recognized the value of the terrain. Buford deployed his mounted cannoneers, or “flying artillery”, under Lt. John H. Calef along McPherson’s Ridge north and south of the Pike. The Confederate artillerists also appreciated the terrain. Immediately behind Frankenstein’s reference point is another rise, Herr’s Ridge. Here, in response to the fire from Calef’s guns, Confederate General Henry Heth arrayed his cannons under Colonel William Pegram.  A Confederate artillerist later reported,

the battalion moved forward to a commanding position on the right and left of the pike, a mile distant from Gettysburg.

Here we found the enemy’s batteries in position, and partially concealed from view behind the crest of a hill. We opened upon them with ten Napoleons and seven rifled guns (the two 12-pounder howitzers were not brought into position, and one of Lieutenant [W. E.] Zimmerman’s rifles was disabled while being brought rapidly into action), and forced them to limber up and retire their pieces three distinct times.

They were brought back twice under shelter of the hills, in order to support their advancing infantry, whose lines our guns played upon as they advanced, with telling effect.

Military commanders, especially artillerists, are trained to search for ground that offers a clear line of sight with minimal obstruction. This might also have been Frankenstein’s primary motivation for choosing this spot as his scene. This perspective offers a view of much of the fighting that occurred on July 1. After an hour of hard fighting between Confederate infantry and Union cavalry, the first of Union General John Reynolds’ infantry arrived and hastily went into action on McPherson Ridge. His first division, under General James Wadsworth, was composed of two brigades. The first brigade to arrive on the field was General Lysander Cutler’s, followed by General Solomon Meredith’s famed Iron Brigade. Reynolds ordered Cutler to defend the area around the middle Railroad Cut while Reynolds directed Meredith’s men into action in Herbst Woods. As Reynolds led a regiment of the Iron Brigade into the woods against James Archer’s Confederate Brigade, he looked directly behind him to the Lutheran Seminary to see if any more of his men were coming into view and a minié ball struck him in the head killing him instantly.  Frankenstein noted the spot of Reynolds’ death at the top of the right panel.

Further to the right on the top panel Frankenstein notes the location of the Round Tops, scene of the some of the most famous fighting on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg.

The bottom right panel is marked “Gettysburg Spring.” This is a reference to the Katalysine Springs which was long thought to produce water of medicinal value. The legend persists that Union and Confederate soldiers bathed and drank from the springs. After the Civil War, when the springs became a popular spot for tourists visiting the Battlefield, a group of investors constructed the Katalysine Springs Hotel. The hotel, completed on June 28, 1869, was a lavish four-story structure that could accommodate over 200 guests. Guests included Civil War veterans, politicians, writers and artists, so it is almost certain that Union and Confederate veterans shared a drink together at the springs after the war.  The Gettysburg Country Club was built on ground formerly occupied by the Katlaysine Springs Hotel.

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The Battle of Gettysburg resulted in approximately 51,000 casualties. In spite of the prodigious bloodletting that took place on these fields, the amount of post-battle construction and development that occurred is a testament to the geological, topographical and historical value of the ground. In some ways this development posed the first threat to the preservation of the historic battlefield.  The wealth of natural resources, coupled with the societal impact of the battle, made this spot a focus of public interest for several decades.  The Katalysine Springs Hotel was destroyed in a fire in 1917, but its footprint remains today in the form of the old country club, and in the spirit of economic development, which is a blessing and a curse.


To see other Frankenstein paintings of the battlefield at the Musselman Library, visit Special Collections’ Civil War Era collection at: http://www.gettysburg.edu/library/gettdigital/civil_war/index.html .

 

 

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