The Mystery of Penn Hall

Tyson Brothers. "Pennsylvania College (1862)." 1862. Special Collections/Musselman Library, Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Tyson Brothers. “Pennsylvania College (1862).” 1862. Special Collections/Musselman Library, Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

In academic terms, I do not consider myself a “Civil Warrior.” I find the Civil War to be very interesting, but unlike many of my fellows here, do not pursue its study as my main focus. In a way, this proves to be a minor difficulty writing for an institute dedicated to Civil War research. Experts – in this case, true Civil Warriors – often seem to have a way of drawing leads and context for events and sources out of thin air, much like a Sherlock or Poirot solving a seemingly unsolvable mystery by the power of sheer deduction and individual mastery. For me, however, I must take the route of a gumshoe, working step by step to solve the puzzle.

For writing history is indeed a lot like solving a mystery. Oftentimes, much like the work undertaken for many of the articles on this blog, you begin with a single source of information or a single subject to study—your first clue on the case, existing outside of all contextualization when first viewed. “What can I possibly do with this?” one might ask when reading an old letter that seems largely irrelevant to most studies. “What kind of case am I dealing with?”

That is how I first felt upon reading the letters of Captain H. B. Blood, a quartermaster stationed in Gettysburg immediately following the battle there. In his two letters read, Blood acts as an intermediary between the Washington-based Quartermaster General’s office and the local Pennsylvania (today Gettysburg) College. Between the two, Blood relays the offer of $625.00 to the college in order to pay for damages done to the campus facility during its occupation as a military hospital in the month following the battle. At face value, the letters say one thing, as directly stated: Pennsylvania College received $625.00 for damages. As a historian, where does one go from there?

If a detective threw their hands in the air after being unable to identify the source of a clue, they would be considered a very poor detective. The same goes for historians. Oftentimes, the best immediate path forward for both is to consult an expert or secondary authority. And so I did. The first step was to contextualize $625.00. Knowing its approximate worth, we can deduce how damaged the College facilities must have been, in advance of direct reports. A consultation of Gettysburg College histories reveals that Pennsylvania Hall, the campus’s primary building and the one seized for hospital use, was constructed for $13350 twenty-seven years before the battle. Using modern estimates for inflation, $625.00 in 1863 is equivalent to roughly $466.00 at the time of construction. If we divide that through the construction cost, we learn that if construction prices remained steady until 1863, the money provided by the Quartermaster was equivalent to roughly one twenty-eighth of the building’s cost.

Frankly, that does not seem to be very much money for a building which has recently experienced the horrors of battle and a battlefield hospital, but we cannot pass judgment without understanding the context in which our clue exists. We have arrived at our crime scene and found an object which appears to have been used as a weapon—but we will not know to what extent unless we examine the rest of the surroundings. In our case, two possibilities exist regarding the Quartermaster’s compensation: either it was enough to repair the damages in full or it was not. Noting the low amount, the first possibility thus suggests that Pennsylvania Hall was not substantially damaged. The second suggests the possibility for more damage than the first. Whatever the case is, the next step to solving this mystery is clear: how much damage was done to Pennsylvania Hall?

While first-hand descriptions of the damage are surprisingly scarce, Gettysburg College historians have written on the subject, and provide a good jumping point for a basic overview. Overall, most agree that the hall was little damaged by the battle, despite being “struck several times by cannon shot.” The interior of the building, however, is described as being “badly bloodstained” and needing “much purification and painting before [it is fit for use again].” This is unsurprising when one discovers that seven-hundred wounded and dying soldiers filled the building, where surgeons bound wounds and amputated limbs in every hall and on every porch. The material damage is written to have been substantial as well, especially among the College’s extensive library of books, many of which were used as headrests for the wounded soldiers, effectively sealing their pages shut with blood.

Overall, the experts paint a particularly bloody image of the campus following the battle–one that, while the college may have been spared the even more extensive damage that struck the rest of the town, seems to be a bit too pricey to be covered by so little money. Still, who am I to judge the prices of architectural repair from 150 years ago (a subject I have no grasp on even in the present)?

The trail would perhaps go cold here if it were not for the aid of experts. Much as for a detective on the trail of a case, their insights often point historians toward new leads and directions. Perhaps most important in my case are references made by college historians to an appeal made by the faculty of Pennsylvania College to the public at large, in conjunction with the associated Lutheran Theological Seminary, for additional funds to repair the College and Seminary. Together, the two institutions raised just under $4000, with the college receiving $1864 of those funds—almost three times the amount granted to them by the Quartermaster. Knowing this especially, we can come to a reasonable conclusion: that, while Pennsylvania College was spared a great deal of damage, the money provided by the Quartermaster was very likely inadequate.

I suspect that I will never consider myself to be a true Civil War sleuth. Yet by following the progression of clues, even seemingly inaccessible material can shed light on new conclusions. And thus, the mystery is solved . . . at least for now.


“Appeal in Behalf of the Theological Seminary and College at Gettysburg,” Adams Sentinel, July 21, 1863.

Breidenbaugh, E. S., ed. The Pennsylvania College Book: 1832-1882. Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society, 1882.

CWVFM-7: Correspondences of Captain H. B. Blood, Special Collections/Musselman Library, Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Glatfelter, Charles H. A Salutary Influence: Gettysburg College, 1832-1935, vol. 1. Mechanicsburg, PA: W&M Printing, Inc., 1987.

Glatfelter, Charles H. Yonder Beautiful and Stately College Edifice: A History of Pennsylvania Hall (Old Dorm), Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.” Gettysburg, PA:    Gettysburg College, 1970.

Hefelbower, Samuel Gring. The History of Gettysburg College 1832-1932. York, PA: The Maple Press Company, 1932.

Oregon State University. “Inflation Conversation Factors for Years 1774 to Estimated Dollars of Recent Years.” Oregon State University Political Science.

Wentz, Abdel Ross. Gettysburg Lutheran Theological Seminary, Volume 1: History. Harrisburg, PA: The Evangelical Press, 1965.

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