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.
No matter how far and safe non-combatants saw themselves from the conflict, the Civil War always managed to find itself on the doorstep of countless helpless civilians. Henry Spangler’s family was no exception: They had no specific reason to believe the war would come to their very home, and, despite the fact that they lived along the tenuous boundary between North and South, unlike many families, no one from the Spangler clan was serving. Unfortunately war is impersonal, destroys everything it touches, and can appear on one’s doorstep at any time as it did for Henry Spangler’s family.
Henry’s family was one of three wealthy Spangler households in Gettysburg—all of which would become famous witnesses to history in July of 1863. Although he owned a 156-acre farm on the Emmitsburg Road, Henry was renting the property out to tenant Jacob Eckenrode in 1863. (This farm would become the infamous “stepping off point” for the Armistead’s brigade during the July 3rd Pickett-Pettigrew assault.) Instead, Henry lived on a farm owned by his father, Abraham that was located behind Culp’s Hill during the time of the battle. Abraham and his wife, Elizabeth resided west of town on Chambersburg Pike, between Willoughby Run and Herr’s Ridge, on a farm he had purchased in 1855. Henry’s older brother, George, also owned a farm south of the Culp’s Hill farm along the Baltimore Pike that was used by the Union Army as an artillery park for reserve batteries as well as a hospital for the Union 11th Corps. (It was also in the summer kitchen at George’s farm that Confederate General Lewis Armistead would famously die after his July 3rd wounding during “Pickett’s Charge.”) Abraham’s farm—that is, the July 1863 home of Henry and his family–would become host to several bloody and iconic battlefield landmarks such as Spangler Meadow, Pardee Field, and most famously, Spangler’s Spring, whose cool, pure water famously drew thirsty and bloodied men from both armies toward its sustenance during the battle.
The war-time residence of Henry Spangler encompassed 130.84 acres, all of which were purchased by the United States government on March 28, 1955. The main house was constructed around 1820 and made of brick and stone. The central part of the home was two stories, with an extension on the west side which tapered down to a height of one story. This section was eventually raised to meet the rest of the house in 1880. In addition to the house, a blacksmith shop lay about 20 yards to the west and the property held a barn as well. Several additional outbuildings were constructed after the battle, such as a large summer kitchen, small brick smokehouse, and a structure which functioned as a toolshed and chicken house.
In July of 1863, Henry Spangler, his wife Sarah (whom he had married in 1855), and their four children, Calvin, Alice, Anna, and William, lived at the Abraham Spangler farm. A day before the battle began, a Union officer arrived at the home and asked Sarah Spangler to take her family and flee out of fear for their safety. After packing some belongings, Sarah departed with her children to the nearby village of Two Taverns in a spring wagon, but Henry decided to stay at home in the cellar to try to protect the home from ransacking soldiers. General Slocum’s 12th Corps of the Union Army eventually arrived at the property on July 1st where they constructed earthworks above the spring and remained until the next day. Slocum was then called away temporarily, leaving the earthworks virtually unoccupied due to General George Greene’s inability to reach the area. Consequently, Confederate Brigadier General George Steuart’s brigade arrived on the scene unopposed but was quickly swept up in a series of attacks and counterattacks until the firing slowly died away into the night. The fighting resumed early the following morning when the 12th Corps attacked Steuart’s men from the west and rained artillery fire from the Baltimore Pike down on the earthworks where the Confederates were trapped. At the climax of the battle, the 2nd Massachusetts and the 27th Indiana regiments were incredulously ordered to charge Steuart’s Virginians after a series of miscommunications. The results were devastating. While charging through what is now known as Spangler’s Meadow, the Union troops were under blistering musket fire from three sides and suffered heavy losses. Colonel Ario Pardee of the 147th Pennsylvania led a far more successful charge across a nearby field which now bears his name. 1200 Confederates were reported dead, 500 taken prisoner, and many more were wounded as a result. After seven more hours of brutal fighting, General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson ordered Steuart to retreat and reform at Rock Creek, which allowed the Union troops to reoccupy the earthworks and proceed with retrieving the wounded and burying the dead. The last troops to march through the Spangler farm were Union soldiers involved in the repulse of “Pickett’s Charge” on their way to the “Angle” atop Cemetery Ridge.
When Sarah and her family returned, they found the property in complete ruin. Soldiers had cleared the home of food and bed clothes. One of the family’s best horses and all their cows were stolen. All of the fences had been torn down and the crops severely damaged. Union and Confederate bullets littered the ground. The house itself was partially damaged due to its use as a field hospital where countless men soaked the floorboards and stained the furniture with blood. Their corpses and amputated limbs were buried across the property. Despite all this destruction and bloodshed, a tale of brotherhood and comradeship managed to arise from the property. Reports emerged of truces being called between the opposing forces in order to fill up their canteens and cups. These stories likely originated from veterans reminiscing on their experiences and fit neatly into the post-war Lost Cause narrative of reconciliation. However, as comfortable as this little story is, it is highly unlikely that this event actually occurred because of the location of the spring and the vicious fighting which occurred around it. Romanticizing this portion of the battle does not change how thousands of men lost their lives and wounded men screamed in agony for their comrades in an attempt to find them, ironically on a farm owned by a “war immune” family.
The story of Henry Spangler, and every branch of the Spangler family in the Gettysburg area, is an intriguing one because it is a story that is common, yet still shocking at the same time. Countless civilians had their property and lives destroyed by the war, but the contrast between peaceful farmland and roaring guns, cool flowing springs, and the screams and flowing rivers of blood from the dying remains chilling, nonetheless.