Civil Law and Civil War–This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Two of ‘Em

By Jacob Ross ’15

In old westerns the sheriff rules supreme. But as we often have seen, the sheriff and outlaws cannot coexist in the same town. That truth is based in the fact that the sheriff and outlaws are at their core the embodiment of two mutually exclusive concepts. While sheriffs represent the crux of civil authority and social order, outlaws characterize civil anarchy and the state of war. This political situation of opposed states of society can manifest itself in various scenarios, such as when two armies locked in battle occupy the territory of a civil government. Such a situation was present during the Battle of Gettysburg as titan Union and Confederate armies descended upon Adams County, Pennsylvania into the jurisdiction of the Adams County Sheriff Department.

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“Plan of the Town of Gettysburg, Adams Co. Penna..” From 1850 survey by J. G. Sidney, CE. Gettysburg College Special Collections, Gettysburg, PA.

Unfortunately, not much has been preserved from the Adams County Sheriff of the time. In the nineteenth century it was common for county sheriffs to take the documents accumulated during their term as sheriff home with them after their service ended. Ultimately, these documents were not seen as important enough to save. This has led to a faceless, even non-existent consideration of civil law enforcement during the battle. In fact, common history has even incorrectly identified the Adams County Sheriff during the battle. Sources ranging from the Adams County Sheriff’s website to published local histories such as Jim Slade and John Alexander’s Firestorm at Gettysburg mistakenly list Adam Rebert as sheriff during the battle. This myth was probably started by inattention to political context. Although it is true that Adam Rebert was sheriff in 1863, knowledge that Rebert’s election was on the second Tuesday of October, that his commission was not granted from Governor Andrew Curtain until November 16, and that he did not take his oath of office until November 23 indicates that Rebert was not even sheriff when President Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address, let alone during the battle. Therefore, let the public record be corrected to note that the sheriff during the Battle of Gettysburg was instead Samuel Wolf, elected in 1860.

The fact that few documents on the sheriff have survived and that misinformation about who was actually sheriff during the battle has flourished has created a rather large black hole of information about the sheriff during the battle. A few things are known about Samuel Wolf and his deputy Zachariah Myers during that fateful epoch in 1863, however.

First, we know that Wolf and Myers enforced civil law in a county that did deal with war issues. The sheriff kept suspected Confederate spies in the Adams County Jail until they could be transferred to an appropriate Union military force.

Secondly, it is evident that although the sheriff had the authority to arrest suspected military spies, even civil law enforcement became difficult when the mammoth armies approached. An 1863 report noted a civil disturbance that occurred shortly before the battle, citing that “several Copperhead men and women were in the neighborhood of Cashtown [a small village six miles West of Gettysburg] and the names of these despicable creatures are known.” However, there is no documentation that anyone from this rowdy bunch was ever arrested. This was due to the fact the group grew restless as Confederate forces were drawing close to Cashtown. This is a perfect example of the state of war that traveled around the army, and the void of civil authority it created. On June 29, 1863 the Gettysburg Complier expressed frustration about the county being enveloped in the bubble of war because it cut off any communication with the ‘outside world,’ which was still ruled by civil authority. This resulted in a state of civil information anarchy within Adams County.

Thirdly, there is an account of what Sheriff Wolf and Deputy Myers may have been doing during the battle. Zachariah Myers lived on Middle Street, which was occupied by Ewell’s Division on the second day of the battle. The only mention of Myers in any source is that of a local doctor who needed safe passage through Ewell’s line. After finally bribing a Confederate soldier with a bottle of whiskey, the doctor was allowed to pass, but only on foot. The doctor then handed his horse to Deputy Myers before continuing on to his home. Myers would not have been with Ewell’s Division if it were not for his home’s location on Middle Street. Therefore, the deputy probably stayed in his home as an average citizen during the battle, instead of enforcing the law. There is no account of Sheriff Wolf’s actions during the battle, but from a later statement made to a friend (which will be discussed later) it appears that he may have also stayed in his residence instead of enforcing the law. During the nineteenth century it was common practice for the sheriff and his family to live in the county jail, which was located on High Street. Sheriff Wolf’s fixity at the jail would have served the dual purpose of protecting himself and his family as average citizens, but also preventing the escape of the county prisoners.

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“The Adams County Prison on High Street, Gettysburg in 1865.” In Tyson’s Stereoscopic Views, #564. By C. J. Tyson. Gettysburg, PA: Excelsior Galleries.

From what we do know about the actions of Sheriff Wolf and Deputy Myers, it is clear that during the battle a sphere of war descended upon Adams County and that the two law enforcement officers existed in a void absent of civil government. Therefore, their offices ceased to exist and they assumed the same authority as private citizens existing in the state of war – their sole purpose was that of self-protection and the protection of their families. The only space where the state of war would not have existed in Adams County was within the walls of the county jail on High Street. Control over the prisoners was the only enforcement of civil law in the county occupied by titan armies. Even so, war was lapping up against that sole holdout of civil authority, for Sheriff Wolf would later request $817 from the Pennsylvania government for war damages in two separate applications, some money of which may have been to repair the Adams County Jail. But on the battlefield, the site of thousands of acts of assault and murder, the sheriff had no authority at all. And probably for good reason: the only personal statement from Wolf about his actions related to the battle said that he was glad that he did not have to hang anyone for that infamous event at Gettysburg. Sheriff Samuel Wolf and his Deputy Zachariah Myers could never have carried out their duties of law enforcement in the battle’s anarchy, or the scale of punishment which civil authority would have required.


Sources:

Adams County Deed Book W. Adams County Historical Society, Gettysburg, PA.

Adams County Prison File. Adams County Historical Society, Gettysburg, PA.

Gettysburg Compiler, June 29, 1863. Gettysburg, PA.

Myers Family File. Adams County Historical Society, Gettysburg, PA.

Pennsylvania Historical Survey Division of Community Service Programs Work Projects Administration. Inventory of the County Archives of Pennsylvania. No. 1. Gettysburg, PA: Adams County Board of County Commissioners, 1942.

Slade, Jim and John Alexander. Firestorm at Gettysburg: Civilian Voices, June-November 1863. Artglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1998.

Wolf Family File. Adams County Historical Society, Gettysburg, PA.

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