James Crocker: A Pennsylvania College Graduate Returns to Gettysburg by Natalie Sherif

Before, during, and after the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennyslvania College students and the residents of the surrounding town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, were overwhelmingly Union sympathizers. Nearly 200 students and former students of Pennsylvani…

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Before, during, and after the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennyslvania College students and the residents of the surrounding town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, were overwhelmingly Union sympathizers. Nearly 200 students and former students of Pennsylvania College ultimately served in the military during the Civil War; among these, were at least ten graduates, eight non-graduates, and an additional seven enrollees in the preparatory department who served the Confederacy. At least half of the ten Confederate Pennsylvania College graduates would return to Gettysburg as soldiers.  Among them was James F. Crocker.

Crocker was born in Isle of Wight County, Virginia on January 5, 1828 and entered the Pennsylvania College freshman class from Smithfield, VA, in 1846. Among his accomplishments and distinctions at Pennsylvania College, Crocker was also valedictorian of the Class of 1850. In the initial draft of his valedictory address, Crocker included this line that was deleted by President Henry L. Baugher from the final draft: “Who knows, unless patriotism should triumph over sectional feeling but what we, classmates, might in some future day meet in hostile battle array.” The events that transpired at Gettysburg from July 1-3, 1863, made this statement and prediction eerily accurate and ironic. Perhaps it was the charged political atmosphere in 1850 or a hidden intuition that led Crocker to write these words at the age of twenty-two.

After his graduation, Crocker taught briefly at a private school and as a professor at Madison College, before eventually becoming a Virginian lawyer and member of  the Commonwealth’s General Assembly from 1855-1856. Crocker enlisted in the Civil War as the adjunct of the 9th Virginia Infantry on April 19, 1861, receiving his first wound at the Battle of Malvern Hill, VA, on July 1, 1862. During the Battle of Gettysburg he was a member of Armistead’s brigade and participated in Pickett’s Charge, where he was wounded a second time. In the span of only one hour, more than half the troops who participated in Pickett’s Charge became casualties. Of the charge, Robert E Lee said this: “I never saw troops behave more magnificently than Pickett’s division of Virginians did today…” Crocker himself noted:

As the lines cleared the woods that skirted the brow of the ridge and passed through our batteries, with their flags proudly held aloft, waving in the air, with polished muskets and swords gleaming and flashing in the sunlight, they presented an inexpressibly grand and inspiring sight…No sooner than our lines came in full view, the enemy’s batteries in front, on the left, from Cemetery Hill to Round Top, opened on them with a concentrated, accurate and fearful fire of shell and solid shot. These plowed through or exploded in our ranks, making great havoc…As the killed and wounded dropped out, our lines closed and dressed up, as if nothing had happened, and went on with steady march…men fell like ten-pins in a ten-strike…My God! it was magnificent this march of our men.

Left on the field with his wound, Crocker was taken prisoner and was brought to the Twelfth Corps Hospital — the George Bushman Farm — located near the left of the Federal battle line just west of Taneytown Road and the Baltimore Pike (which was the location of the George Spangler Farm that absorbed some of the wounded) and today sits off of US Route 15. There, he was treated “with much kindness and consideration.” Upon his request (due in part to his desire to get a new suit), the Federals gave Crocker a free pass into town with the condition that it be presented at the Provost Marshal’s office in Pennsylvania College to have it countersigned. Crocker gladly accepted these terms and left, unaccompanied, for town. For the Union soldiers to trust one of their prisoners on a solo trip to town was atypical, and Crocker later mentioned that “they somehow knew — I know not how — that I could be trusted; that my honor was more to me than my life.” The Provost Marshal’s office game him free rein of the town and, with that, this wounded Confederate soldier clad completely in grey ventured into the Union town of Gettysburg, immediately after the devastating battle.

Rather than encounter hostility in town, Crocker was met with kindness and warm regards. He met many old friends from his college years, among them Miss Kate Arnold, a “leading belle of the college days.” Crocker said that “It was a queer, incongruous sight to see a Rebel lieutenant in gray mingling in the crowd, and apparently at home. They could see, however, many of the principal citizens of the town cordially accosting, and warmly shaking by the hand, that Rebel.” Rather than harbor resentment for a Confederate soldier who could have potentially killed one of their loved ones, the people of the town were polite and hospitable to their enemy prisoner. Perhaps they recognized the ease with which he fit into the town, no doubt stemming from his four years at the college. Or maybe they were too transfixed with the battle, the thousands of dead, the stench of rotten flesh, and the shock of seeing their town in shambles after three days of intense fighting to pay much notice to a solitary Confederate roaming the streets. Surely the Union victory helped to somewhat lift their spirits and was then reflected in their cordial treatment of Crocker.

 

During his walk through town, Crocker was invited to dine with Professor Baugher, still President of Pennsylvania College. Prior to dinner, Crocker encountered Michael Jacobs who cautioned him about meeting Baugher, perhaps for the very reason that Crocker noticed a slightly reserved dignity about the president that night:

He [Professor Baugher] was thoroughly conscientious, and was the stuff of which martyrs are made… My [Crocker’s] knowledge of him left me no need to be told that his views and feelings involved in the war were intense. And there he was, breaking bread with a red handed Rebel in his gray uniform, giving aid and comfort to the enemy… The venerable doctor saw before him only his old student, recalled only the old days, and their dear memories.

This account is a testament to the hospitality that the members of the Gettysburg community displayed toward the Confederate soldiers. President Baugher’s son, for example, was killed not long before the Battle of Gettysburg, making his tolerance and acceptance of James Crocker seem a more remarkable feat than one would think at first glance. In his Prison Remembrances, Crocker appears equally as befuddled about the town’s generous reception of an enemy soldier. Is it possible that the Pennsylvania College alumnus had a guilty conscience? This town had a special meaning to Crocker — the men he was shooting might have been his old classmates, professors, and friends. In essence, his war became personal. There’s a difference between a man who has an eye for violence and one who has respect for his surroundings and seems to fit in with the town. Crocker must have been the latter. Even though they were fighting against one another, the Federals in Gettysburg put aside the fact that James F. Crocker was the enemy, making him, for the short period of time in which he remained in Gettysburg, a single man wandering the streets of his youth, reawakening fond memories while wearing Confederate grey.

Crocker was eventually moved from the Twelfth Corps Field Hospital to David’s Island prison via train, made a full recovery, survived the war, and became a judge. When reflecting back on his time after the Battle of Gettysburg, Crocker wrote that:
“It was a queer episode — a peace episode in the midst of war. This experience of mine taught me that the hates and prejudices engendered by the war were national, not individual; that individual relations and feelings were but little affected in reality; and that personal contact was sufficient to restore kindliness and friendship.”


For Further Reading:

Coco, Gregory A. A Vast Sea of Misery: A History and Guide to the Union and Confederate Field Hospitals at Gettysburg July 1-November 20, 1863. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1988.

Crocker, James F. Prison Remembrances. Portsmouth, VA: W.A. Fiske, 1906.

Frassanito, William A. Early Photography at Gettysburg. Pittsburgh: Thomas Publications, 1995.

Moyer, Anna Jane. To Waken Fond Memory. Gettysburg, PA: Friends of Musselman Library, Gettysburg College, 2006.

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