A glance at the work of virtually any political philosopher, no matter the era, will often reflect the argument that the primary purpose of a government is to protect its people. That obligation, combined with the age-old adage that “all politics are local,” raises questions about the responsibilities and duties of Gettysburg’s borough government during the town’s fateful battle of 1863. Sadly, the duty felt by the borough’s leaders to protect the town and their actions in relation to that duty have long been overshadowed by what is considered by many to be the more exciting narrative of military glory. Other historians have written off Gettysburg’s local politicians as being too weak to have had measurable significance in the titan armies’ collision. Neither conclusion should be accepted, because their actions not only prevented the Confederate forces from gaining tactical supplies, but also saved the borough of Gettysburg from fiery retribution for not complying with Confederate demands.
Gettysburg’s borough government in 1863 was a dynamic institution. The March election of that year favored the Republican candidates in all offices: burgess (mayor), town council, judge, inspectors, assessor, school directors, and constables. Unlike Gettysburg’s borough elections today, Republican victory was not a foregone conclusion when the polls opened in 1863. And unlike today, these elections mattered a great deal to the residents – even to the point of inciting brawls in the street. (1) Local resident J. Howard Wert captured the spirit of Election Day in Gettysburg when he likened it to “a pitched battle in which knockdowns and drag outs were numerous.” He noted that the town’s courthouse was “the scene of many disgraceful encounters. This was especially the case on the afternoons of those days when the patriots on either side had had their enthusiasm well warmed up with numerous potation from nearby taverns.”
Although the Republicans garnered control of the borough government in the election, Democrat David Kendlehart assumed the presidency of the borough council in early 1863 after the medical resignation of Councilman William McClellan. Kendlehart, the owner of a shoe business on Baltimore Street, embraced strong anti-slavery sentiment despite his party’s opposing stance on the issue.
When Lieutenant General Jubal Early rode into town on June 26, less than a week before the outbreak of battle, and demanded to speak with the borough’s mayor, the Confederate officer’s inquiry proved fruitless. Burgess Robert Martin’s wife informed Early that Martin and most of the councilmen had already left the borough in advance of the Confederates’ arrival. The responsibility of representing the borough in negotiations with Early therefore fell to Kendlehart. Early demanded that Kendlehart furnish the rebel troops with thousands of pounds of provisions, shoes, hats, and U.S. currency. Kendlehart’s refusal to supply the rebels cited limited “authority extend[ing] but to the Borough” and the impossibility of securing so much material in a small municipality.
His tactful argument may have saved the town from conflagration in retribution for his noncompliance; although he refused to hand over the supplies, Kendlehart removed responsibility from the borough corporate. Kendlehart did, however, suggest that the Confederates go from household by household asking “the citizens [of Gettysburg] to furnish whatever they can of such provisions.” Kendlehart would leave Gettysburg proper that evening to remain hidden two miles outside of the borough at McAllister’s Mill until the end of the battle, at which point the leaderless citizens exercised their own political agency with Early. The money in the town bank was evacuated, families hid their food and possessions, residents protected their free black neighbors from capture, and most Gettysburgians lied about having anything of value when Early’s soldiers asked. The Confederates gained very little from the town’s unified defiance, marveling at how such a population could possess so little.
After the battle, Union Colonel Charles Wainwright commented negatively on the actions of Gettysburg’s civilian men, noting that “[they] had cleared out, leaving the women behind them and gone off after their own safety.” Although the evacuation of borough officials could be interpreted as a failure of their responsibility to protect the citizens under their charge, it may have been the best way to preserve the borough from the real and present danger of Confederates putting the borough to the torch. Kendlehart’s response to Early and the officials’ strategic absence during the battle transformed Gettysburg from a corporate target to a mere collection of houses, individually addressed by army personnel– the faceless borough could not be held responsible for noncompliance as a corporate body. The independent agency of the leaderless citizens also led to a unified success in preserving the town from confiscation and fiery retribution. Gettysburg’s leaders and civilians did everything in their power to deflect the destruction the Confederate army could have directed at the borough.
- Unfortunately local data about voter turnout rates does not exist for Adams County, PA. However, national voter turnout rates from the 1860s average about 20 percentage points higher than contemporary elections (77.7% of eligible U.S. voters cast ballots in the 1860s, in comparison to 55.4% in the 2000s). Local political zeal is seen through the hyperactive political associations which represented almost every party in almost every township and village in Adams County. Most of these groups held weekly meetings, and their leaders were closely connected to the publishing of the town’s partisan newspapers (the democratic Gettysburg Complier and the republican Gettysburg Star Sentinel) which made few attempts to hide their political biases.
Image credit: “The Streets of Old Gettysburg: Baltimore Street Looking Up from the Old Diamond.” On “Had You Been In Gettysburg the Week Before the Battle.” Passion for the Past: Thoughts and Social History for the Living Historian. By Historical Ken. March 31, 2010. http://passionforthepast.blogspot.com/ 2010/03/had-you-been-in-gettysburg-week-before.html (accessed September 19, 2014).
Bloom, Robert L. A History of Adams County, Pennsylvania: 1700-1990. Gettysburg, PA: Adams County Historical Society, 1992.
“Borough Election.” Gettysburg Complier, March 23, 1863.
Kendlehart, David. Letter to Jubal Early. Gettysburg College Musselman Library Special Collections, Gettysburg, PA.
Slade, Jim and John Alexander. Firestorm at Gettysburg: Civilian Voices, June-November 1863. Artglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1998.
Smith, Timothy H. John Burns: The Hero of Gettysburg. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 2000.