By Jessica Roshon ’23
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.
For many 19th-century Gettysburgians, life on the Pennsylvania-Maryland border meant a nearly continuous interchange between northern and southern goods, civilians, and cultural values. For black Gettysburgians, life along the Mason-Dixon line created a tenuous and often terrifying existence between freedom and slavery. However, for many whites living in the area, the outbreak of war in 1861 wrought often irreparably destructive damage upon families who found their homes torn apart by fathers, sons, and cousins with conflicting political loyalties. Such was the case for the Wentz family, who not only experienced the physical impacts of war upon their doorstep and the emotional fallout of a house politically divided; they also became a focal point for postwar narratives about the meaning and legacy of the Civil War in the broader American consciousness.
Before the battle ravaged their land and home, John and Mary Wentz lived peacefully in a long, one-and-a-half story log cabin which stood at the intersection of the Emmitsburg and (what is now) Wheatfield Roads. Their quaint home and few outbuildings occupied a small tract of land adjacent to Joseph Sherfy’s now famous peach orchard. The couple had two children: Susan, who was from John’s previous marriage, lived with her parents at the time of the battle, but their son, Henry, had been disavowed by his father after deciding to enlist in the Confederate army in April of 1861. Prior to his disownment, Henry had moved to Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia) to establish his own carriage-building shop. He enlisted in Captain Ephraim G. Alburtis’s artillery battery, which formed in Berkeley County, Virginia. The unit’s command then fell to Captain James S. Brown and its name changed to the Wise Artillery, named for Governor Wise of Virginia, until it was discontinued in October 1862. Henry was appointed First Sergeant on February 10, 1862 and maintained this rank when he was transferred from Pendleton’s Battery to Brown’s Battery, eventually earning the rank of Corporal on October 8, 1862 after being transferred yet again to Eubank’s Battery. On January 1, 1863, Wentz was promoted once again to orderly sergeant, the grade he held when he finally returned home in July of 1863.
At the time of the battle, John, age 73, Mary, age 74, Susan, age 27, and a boy named Charles Culp, age 15, were present in the Wentz house. The family was not in danger during the first day of the battle, but their luck changed when General Lee extended his battle line along Seminary Ridge and General Meade responded in kind by stretching the Union line on Cemetery Ridge in preparation for a second day of battle. As a result, the family decided to flee while John Wentz remained behind and hid in the cellar. John’s choice might initially come across as an intriguing one, considering the gendered expectations of men for the time; men were expected to protect their families at all costs, so one would assume that he would flee with his family. However, he likely viewed the preservation of the family homestead – the physical embodiment of his family’s future and financial stability – as most vulnerable and in need of his defense. In any case, this decision ironically caused him to come within a mere few hundred yards of his son’s own artillery battery, which ultimately was posted about 200 yards northeast of the Wentz house, just opposite the Sherfy House. In one of the great, but fitting ironies of the battle, although John Wentz had officially purged his son from his real life, his very residence along the porous boundary between North and South ultimately made real John’s fears that his disavowed son and his “repugnant” political leanings would assault the very foundations of the Wentz family’s livelihood – but this time not merely with Confederate ideals, but with literal shot and shell.
Out of this incident came several extraordinary, though ultimately debunked, stories about Henry’s return to Gettysburg and his supposed reunion with his father, which fell neatly into line with the iconic, though flawed, “brother vs. brother” narrative of tragic domestic and national divides and the ultimate reconciliation of both that emerged shortly after the war.
The earliest story appeared in the 1887 book, The Great Invasion of 1863 by Jacob Hoke. In this clearly romanticized tale, which played on tropes common during the sentimentalist movement, Hoke claims that Henry commanded a Confederate battery and allegedly hid his parents in the cellar of their house prior to firing upon the Union line, or more specifically, upon the Pennsylvania Reserves. The next most commonly known story lies in W.C. Storrick’s The Battle of Gettysburg, The Country, The Contestants, The Results, published in 1931. This story also claims that Henry was given command of a battery but differs slightly in the description of the encounter between Henry and John Wentz. According to this rendition, the night following Pickett’s Charge, Henry supposedly checked on his father to find him peacefully sleeping in the cellar, so he pinned a note reading, “Good-bye and God bless you!” to his father’s lapel. The final interpretation of the Wentz reunion can be found in the memoirs of Rufus W. Jacklin of the 16th Michigan Infantry, who described finding paperwork connecting Henry to one of the dead soldiers being buried on the property. John and Mary Wentz replied to the pronouncement of the discovered paperwork with dismissal, claiming that their son was a traitor and they wanted nothing to do with his body.
As mentioned earlier, these stories reflect a domestically focused, overly sentimental and highly romanticized version of the Civil War which emerged around the same time as the “Lost Cause.” Such popular and politicized portrayals of the war and its aftermath often glossed over the uncomfortable roots of the conflict, wallowed in the tragedies of the war while celebrating stories of martial bravery and moral nobility, and sought to reconcile the North and South around comforting stories of domestic and national reunion and shared forgiveness. Jacklin’s story challenges key parts of this romantic trope with the family’s indifference to hearing of their son’s possible death – perhaps a result of Jacklin’s own military service which may have framed his personal perceptions of political disloyalty and family divisions within a more cynical, less forgiving light.
Despite witnessing intense fighting during the second and third days of the battle, the Wentz house suffered minimal damage. In April of 1870, John Wentz passed away at the age of 84. He was followed by his wife and daughter in the subsequent two years. John’s will stated that his estate would fall to Susan, and then to his surviving children after all his debts were paid, blatantly excising Henry from his inheritance. Henry had continued to fight with the Confederates until he was captured on April 6, 1865 at Sailor’s Creek near Farmville, Virginia and was subsequently released after taking the oath of allegiance on June 21, 1865. Once the Wentz homestead passed, by default, to Henry following the deaths of his mother and sister, he immediately sold it and ten acres of his own land in April 1872 to a neighbor named Joseph Smith, who had already acquired the neighboring Daniel Klingel farm. The property was later acquired by John Beecher, who remodeled the house in the 1880s. During the late 1890s and early 1900s, the original log cabin was dismantled and replaced with a number of white buildings which stood until 1960, when they were taken down by the National Park Service.
The history and memory of the Wentz family, and how that history is interpreted today, speaks to the complications undergirding interpretations of the Civil War itself as a whole. Rifts between families were quite common, especially among those living on the border, and showed how the war cut to the deepest parts of people’s lives, but the romanticization of Henry Wentz’s story reflects the nation’s need to heal and a forceful willingness to seemingly forget all that had transpired during the conflict itself. Stories of reunion and reconciliation were an integral part of the national narrative immediately following the war, and the myth of the Wentz family played right into these sentimentalist viewpoints. This romanticization of the war continues to be a convenient fallback for many still today as we often sanitize the truly unsettling, if not horrifying aspects of war. As the Wentz’s true family story reveals, such falsified representations of war inhibit our ability to comprehend, let alone accept how deeply scarred and divided the nation remained after the guns fell silent, leading to open wounds and sectional reverberations–generations out from the war that forever destroyed John Wentz’s home.