Crucible of War?: The Borough and the Battle of Gettysburg by Brian Johnson

Upon cresting Cemetery Hill, painter George Leo Frankenstein captured this panorama of the newly famous borough of Gettysburg. Frankenstein did not have to dodge gunfire nor breathe the smell of death as he strode up the gradual rise southeast of …

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              Upon cresting Cemetery Hill, painter George Leo Frankenstein captured this panorama of the newly famous borough of Gettysburg.  Frankenstein did not have to dodge gunfire nor breathe the smell of death as he strode up the gradual rise southeast of town, for it was summertime, 1866, and only scant evidence remained of the landmark battle fought three years earlier.  But perhaps this reality weighed on his mind.  He was a painter who had come to capture a town and landscape made famous by war, but as he stood atop Cemetery Hill that experience must have seemed obscure.  Only the pair of cannon emplacements behind which Frankenstein placed his easel suggested that this was anything other than an ordinary community; but even these, visible in the foreground at the bottom of the painting, seem out of place amidst a backdrop of summertime green, neat houses, and rolling fields once again filled with crops.

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              As dusk turned to night on July 4, 1863, Gettysburg residents shared with Frankenstein the challenge of trying to comprehend the Battle even though their experience with it was only too vivid.  One day earlier, the last Confederate attack, Pickett’s Charge, had failed and as rifles and cannon began to fall silent, many had hoped that the decrescendo signaled that an end to battle was near.  That hope was being realized that Independence Day, as residents listened to the wagons of a defeated Army of Northern Virginia rumbled southward through the darkness, pursued two days later by the Army of the Potomac.  The withdrawal of troops meant that the Battle of Gettysburg had come to a definitive end.  As residents emerged from the protection of their cellars, the calm finally offered them a chance to process their experiences and consider the battle’s effects on their community.  This task had no certain end, as, in the words of one witness, the borough had become “a strange and blighted land.”

 

Prior to 1863, only fellow residents of Adams County attributed Gettysburg any significance, as it was typical of Northern communities.  Gettysburg was the prosperous home of 2,400 residents, eight percent of the county population, and claimed the designation of county seat.  Due in part to its location at the convergence of several important roads and as a new stop along the Gettysburg and Hanover Railroad, the borough developed as a center of commerce amidst the largely agrarian Adams County.  Its businesses included hotels, tanneries, shoemakers, a prosperous carriage-manufacturing industry, a Lutheran seminary, and a college, all of which probably help explain the prevalence of skilled laborers; half of the population listed themselves as artisans or craftsmen while another quarter categorized themselves as professionals, merchants, or retailers.  Despite its proximity to the Mason-Dixon line, this population was also exceedingly Northern.  More than four out of every five residents were from Pennsylvania or other Northern states, while just over 200 of its 2,400 residents hailed from Maryland and states of the future Confederacy. 

 

National politics also played out much as they did throughout the rest of the North.  In the watershed election of 1860, fifty-four percent of the borough’s votes were cast for Republican Abraham Lincoln, even as many other Adams County residents selected opposition tickets.  Local Democrats would continue to engage Republicans and Unionists in bitter debate over federal policies, especially those concerning slavery, but fury over the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April of 1861 ensured Gettysburg’s support of a military response to secession.

 

As the borough mobilized for and sustained its commitment to the war, its experiences again fit into broader patterns.  When President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to help put down the rebellion, recruiters had no difficulty enlisting local men, many of whom flocked to form distinctive units such as the Independent Blues, Adams Rifles, and perhaps with the most flair, the Gettysburg Zouaves.  Later, after the ninety-day enlistment periods had run out, patriotism coupled with new financial incentives were enough to draw many veterans to commit to three more years of service.  Both local papers, the pro-Republican Sentinel and pro-Democratic Compiler, made sure that the accomplishments of these local units did not go unnoticed even as their partisan attacks against one another dragged on.  While local men enlisted, Gettysburg women mobilized for war through local voluntarism, a logical extension of their role in domestic life.  By forming the Ladies’ Un
ion Relief Society, an organization that sewed and collected basic necessities for Union troops, local women orchestrated their efforts so as to meet the needs of local enlistees as well as appeals from military hospitals in Baltimore, York (PA), and later Antietam and Washington D.C.

 

            This quintessential Northern experience with the Civil War came to an abrupt and violent end on the morning of July 1, 1863.  By July 4, as residents were finally able to shed the safety of their cellars, three days of nearly constant fighting between Union and Confederate soldiers had transformed the theretofore-unknown Pennsylvania town into a scene of absolute devastation.  Ten thousand dead and 21,000 wounded littered the streets, fields, and hills interspersed with thousands of dead horses.  One volunteer nurse from Philadelphia must have voiced the thoughts of many as she confronted the panorama hidden from Frankenstein: “The whole town…is one vast hospital…avenues of white tents…good God! What those quiet-looking tents contained! What spectacles awaited us on the rolling hills around us!  It is absolutely inconceivable…Dead and dying, and wounded…torn to pieces in every way.”  Suffering pervaded the town and residents struggled to react as best they could.  Robert Harper, editor of the Adams Sentinel, took in fifty wounded in his large home.  Pennsylvania College’s Old Dorm was filled as well, housing more Confederate wounded than it ever did students. When Sally Myers tried to enter the borough’s Roman Catholic church, she found dead and dying men on and beneath every pew.  Soon after, she began crying and had to remove herself in an experience far from unique among local volunteers.

  

          

 

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           Gradually the situation improved.  Burial parties interred the dead while other work groups set about burning the carcasses of dead horses.  Those wounded who had survived the initial days of their injury were removed to formal hospitals, including a new military hospital, Camp Letterman, set up on the outskirts of town.  But the stench of death still lingered.  Not even spreading disinfecting chloride of lime over the city streets was able to abate its heavy presence.  Even if they did manage to ignore the mixture of odors, residents were still preoccupied with the memories of those first days in July.  “The streets of Gettysburg were filled with the battle,” recalled one nurse, referring not to actual fighting but to locals who “thought and talked of nothing else.”  However slowly, though, life did return to normal and by September another witness reported the borough was “a scene…greatly changed.”  Churches, finally cleared of wounded, were offering regular services again.  Pennsylvania College and the Lutheran Seminary opened for fall classes, as did the local public schools.  Local men continued to fight and local women continued their volunteer benevolent efforts.  The borough economy was soon booming again just like the political broadsides exchanged between Democrats, Unionists, and Republicans.  After the local African-American populace fled before the Confederate advance, those few who decided to return remained second-class citizens.

 

            As the normal rhythms of life returned to the borough, excitement surrounded the realization that Gettysburg was now an historic national symbol.  Residents were enthused by the idea of preserving parts of the battlefield as well as the proposal of local lawyer David Wills for a Soldier’s National Cemetery.  By mid-October, plans for the latter were concrete and the borough focused its energies on preparing for a grand dedication ceremony for the newly established resting place of Union dead.  A date was set, a speakers’ podium was installed for the selected orators, and bodies were reinterred on the newly purchased ground a top Cemetery Hill.  One month later, when President Lincoln spoke his now famous Address, Gettysburg was confirmed as sacred ground for the embattled nation.

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      As devastating as the Battle of Gettysburg was, it was not a crucible that produced social, economic, or political transformations.  Life continued on in these arenas just as it had before.  War instead changed the way Gettysburg collectively viewed itself and its relationship with the ongoing national struggle.  Few residents could have forgotten the carnage they experienced more vividly than any other Northern community, but instead of
causing residents to look skeptically at the war the battle caused many to embrace new roles as guardians of a sacred, historic place.  Gettysburg, its new cemetery, and especially President Lincoln’s words served as a reminder of why the war had to continue and why, after its conclusion, the struggle had been worthwhile.  As George Leo Frankenstein gazed out over the scene recorded in his painting, the reality of war eluded his brushstrokes, but his very journey captured the way in which the war had transformed the borough: he had made a pilgrimage.

 

 

 

For further reading:

 

Gallman, J. Matthew. Northerners at War: Reflections on the Civil War Home Front. Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2010.

 

Boritt, Gabor. The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech that Nobody Knows. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.

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