“Keenly Alive” – Gates Fahnestock and the Children’s Experience of Gettysburg

By: Brandon Neely

“War on the Doorstep: Civilians of Gettysburg”

By late June of 1863, alarms warning of approaching Confederate forces were nothing new for the 2,400 residents of Gettysburg. Living just ten miles from the Mason-Dixon line, small-scale raids, kidnappings of freed-people, and rumors of an imminent clash between the two great armies had long plagued the borough and its surrounding community.  Nevertheless, none of these events could prepare Gettysburgians for the ferocious 3-day fight between 165,000 soldiers in early July of that year that would transform the lives and lands of Gettysburg’s civilians forever. However, these civilians’ experiences were not monolithic; while some were defined by tragedy and blight, others included remarkable episodes of perseverance, successful pragmatism, and creative profiteering.  This new blog series profiles the lives of diverse Gettysburgians who were forced to confront the war at their very doorsteps, each on their own terms, whose stories speak to the kaleidoscope of experiences of civilians struggling to survive, and thrive, along the Pennsylvania-Maryland border during the Civil War.

At the corner of Gettysburg’s Baltimore and West streets stands a beautiful red brick structure. Three stories tall, the Fahnestock Building sits across from the Gettysburg Courthouse, a part of Gettysburg’s town center. Today, it is used for senior living, but since its construction sometime around 1810, it has played countless other roles. For Gates Fahnestock, born in 1853, the Fahnestock building became more than just a family home – during the Battle of Gettysburg, its use by Union and Confederate troops, living and dead, proved fundamental in the shaping of the young boy’s notions of war, and of humanity.

            Gates Fahnestock was the grandchild of Samuel Fahnestock, a businessman who moved to Gettysburg sometime before 1833. After purchasing a local tavern and setting up his new store within it, Samuel had become one of the town’s “most active and successful merchants.” From 1833 to 1863, Samuel and his three sons worked to make the “Samuel Fahnestock & Sons Store” the largest store in Gettysburg, and a central figure in the town’s business scene. When he passed away in 1861, the store passed down to his three sons, becoming the “Fahnestock Brothers Store.” The oldest of the “Fahnestock Brothers,” James Fahnestock, lived across the street with his five children, including ten-year-old Gates Fahnestock.

             For young Gates, the busy-ness of the business provided plenty of excitement and activity. As he remembered later in life, “A boy of that age is an active creature – not thinking of hazard or danger as in later years.” From the second floor of his home, he and his brothers watched as the people of Gettysburg went about their lives. Recollecting his early life, Gates described that he spent his early childhood “not appreciating or understanding the great problem of life and the nation as in later years – but [I] was keenly alive to activity about [me] and usually [wanted] to have a part in it.” On June 26th, 1863, this activity came to life when Confederate cavalry rode through the town center, firing pistols and looting supplies. As for Gates and his brothers, “they enjoyed it as they would a wild west show.”

            For the ten-year-old boy, the coming battle was an exciting form of entertainment. The adrenaline-inducing galloping of horses and bullets shot into the sky soon transformed into an awesome spectacle of martial grandeur when Union troops set up camp on Seminary Ridge, west of town. Just 24 hours before the battle would officially begin, Gates and other children of the town were curiously strolling through Union encampments. The panorama of thousands of men, costumed in blue uniforms with flashing sabers and bayonets, preparing busily for battle, provided a fascinating and glorious sight to Pennsylvania children who had, for two years, heard rumors of battle along the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, but had not yet witnessed the harsh realities of war.

            This is not to say that Gates or others had not been affected by the war, however. In June 1863, goods from the Fahnestock store were stolen from railcars en route to Philadelphia. Additionally, not all of the prelude to the battle had been fun and games: While the Confederate cavalry gave Gates and his brothers their very own wild west show, they had also raided the Fahnestock Brothers Store. Fortunately for Gates and his brothers, several members of the family, including the youngest son, Edward, were enlisted in a nearby infantry regiment. It was one of these family members – a cousin of Gates’s father – who warned Gates and the other children to run home on the morning of July 1st as fighting began west of town. Gates and his brothers returned to their home, but did not want to miss out on the thrill of a real battle in their own backyard; they climbed onto the roof of their home and sat next to the chimney, watching shells fly over the home. In a poignant juxtaposition of childhood innocence and martial grimness, as the boys were eagerly soaking in the panorama of war, Union Major General Oliver Otis Howard also stood atop the Fahnestock Brothers Store, solemnly surveying the battle as it moved through the town.  The boys were “having a good time” when Gates’s uncle discovered his missing children on the roof, and brought them inside the house.

            As Union troops were pushed back to Cemetery Hill, around a dozen of them entered the Fahnestock home to hide from advancing Confederate soldiers. In his recollections, Gates youthfully describes these men like participants in a game of hide-and-seek: “Some to closets, under beds, cellar room, potato bin – one went and covered himself with potatoes – some to attic among boxes with stored winter clothing.” The excitement of battle for the brothers continued into the night, as the famed “Louisiana Tigers” camped on the sidewalk in front of the family home. Fascinated by the battle which had been brought to his family’s doorstep, Gates and his brothers eavesdropped on the conversations of the Confederates outside.

            In the following two days of battle, the harsh realities of war truly set in as the Fahnestocks hid in their cellar for safety after a stray bullet smashed into the home above their heads. They buried a few prize belongings and wondered what they would do if the house caught fire or was intentionally destroyed. When the battle was over, Gates and his family did what they could to aid the wounded men left on the battlefield and filling any available building in town. It was this experience – the intense suffering and fear experienced by wounded men – which ultimately transformed Gates’s notions of war and, almost overnight, seemingly matured him by years. His awe at flying shells and booming musketry was replaced by horror at the sights, sounds, and smells of Civil War hospitals, but also by an impressive moral courage and a burning yearning to help mitigate the suffering: “There was so much to excite the interest and sympathy of the boys and it was nearly overpowering, but after seeing the first amputations, at which [I] nearly fainted, there came a remarkable self-control and the interest in the wounded and an inspiring desire to do something to help them,” Gates reflected.

            Gates’s and his family’s desire to help the wounded would transform the Fahnestock Brothers Store from a booming business into a supply hub for the U.S. Sanitary Commission. In addition, delegation members from the Sanitary Commission and the Christian Commission arrived to aid in the humanitarian crisis left in the wake of the battle – including Ohio Governor David Tod, who stayed with the Fahnestocks. The exhilaration of the first few days of battle faded quickly for Gates, and a curiosity for battle turned into abhorrence: “The horrors of war new to the boy brought bitter abhorrence of war in itself and as a medium for settling differences – a deep reverence for the soldiers who sacrificed life. We never could, never will be reconciled to the thought that individuals or nations can by standing on opposite lines and shooting each other to the death rightly decide any questions,” he declared some 71 years later, in 1934.

The Fahnestock Brothers Store, July 9 1863. (Courtesy of the United States Military History Institute)

By August, 1863, the Sanitary Commission had returned the home to the Fahnestock family, and the Fahnestocks began to rebuild their lives and livelihoods. When President Lincoln arrived in November to deliver the Gettysburg address, Gates was too young to fully understand the meaning of his speech or the eloquence of his words. Rather, he remembered, “It was the face I saw – sad – deep lined – earnestly thoughtful. That thoughtful look back of the eyes. It was the spirit of the man I seemed to see.” Undoubtedly, Gates’s sensitivity to Lincoln’s emotions had been awakened by the death and destruction that consumed his home and his community.

            Ultimately, Gates would leave the Gettysburg community behind, becoming a successful businessman in Philadelphia and Brooklyn. Not only did he carry on his family’s legacy of generating wealth, but he also became known for his philanthropic devotion. By the time of his death in 1936, the 83-year-old Gates was an active member of his church and a number of charitable organizations.

            Gates Fahnestock was witness to a number of incredible transformations in his lifetime. As a boy, he witnessed his childhood hometown erupt into a vicious and iconic battlefield. His home became a front-row seat to wild cavalry rides and artillery demonstrations, then a port of refuge for hiding Union soldiers, then a life-saving shelter for his own family. The family store was used as a gathering place for Union commanders, then a storehouse for the supplies needed to treat those commanders’ wounded and dying men. Cemetery Hill, once a pastoral neighborhood feature, became the point upon which the fate of the nation seemed to depend during those three days in July, and later, the point upon which the meaning of the nation was articulated. But, the most significant transformation was within Gates himself: Over three days, Gates went from an innocent, curious boy endlessly entertained and thrilled by the romantic aesthetic of battle to a young man disgusted by war and its inhuman consequences—a young man, in many ways, well-beyond his years whose mission in life was now driven by a passion for aiding others and restoring humanity to a war-torn nation.

            Gates’s individual story provides a window into the myriad transformations that affected Gettysburg during and after the battle. The town he called home was permanently altered by the events which occurred on its soil, both during those three July days and for months afterward. The nearly mythical stories of battle and bravery that occurred in this small Pennsylvania town do not capture the full weight of what the people of Gettysburg witnessed. Gates’s story isn’t just important because he was witness to the battle, it is important because he was changed by it. As we seek today to understand the legacies of Gettysburg, Gates’s story provides an instructive example of the battle’s transformative power upon the worldviews and perceptions of those who witnessed it and who would carry its conflicting memories with them for the rest of their lives.

Gates Fahnestock’s grave in Philadelphia.Courtesy of Ellen Johnson (Find A Grave)

One thought on ““Keenly Alive” – Gates Fahnestock and the Children’s Experience of Gettysburg”

  1. What a great article! Your presentation reminded me of the frequently overlooked and forgotten emotional aspects of the children in the Civil War. They paid a huge price, too! Thank you for writing this.

Leave a Reply