From Fiery Ruins to Lucrative Legend: The Harmon Farm

By Alexander Dau ‘22

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 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 the farmers of Gettysburg, the battle that took place there from July 1-3, 1863 was a devastating event. Their fields were the sites of immense violence and carnage. When the smoke cleared, many farms had been destroyed and the farmers’ livelihoods appeared hopelessly ruined. While some left Gettysburg to try their luck elsewhere, many others stayed, determined to rebuild. Once such farmer was Emanuel Harmon. His story showcases some of the more unique and resourceful practices that farmers relied upon in order to gain back their fortunes in the aftermath of the war’s devastation.

The Harmon farm was located west of Gettysburg along Willoughby’s Run and included a large, two-story colonial mansion known as the McLean House after its former owner. Emanuel Harmon bought the 124-acre property in October of 1857 for $10,000, equivalent to $315,000 today. Harmon must have been an already well-to-do individual to make such a purchase. Born near Gettysburg in 1818, Emanuel applied to the US Military Academy at West Point in 1836, but was rejected. At the time of the battle, Harmon lived in Washington, D.C, where he was something of an inventor, holding several patents, including one (ironically) for a fireproof house. The fact that he did not actually live at the farm himself further highlighted his wealth. He was an absentee landlord who had the luxury of renting out his farm to tenant farmers. The ability to hire tenant farmers to work your land was considered the goal of 19th century farmers, showing a mastery of the free market economy.

The site of the former Harmon farm, taken from the roof of the Gettysburg Springs Hotel.

When the battle began, the only residents of the Harmon farm were the 16-year old Amelia Harmon, whose father, Richard, was a “hydropathic” physician and Amelia’s aunt, Rachel, who was married to one of the tenant farmers named David Finefrock. Another tenant William Comfort, who would later marry Mary Harmon, another one of Amelia’s aunts, was absent from the property when the battle erupted. While census records indicate that Richard, Rachel, and Mary were all siblings, it is unknown how they were related to Emanuel. It is possible that he may have been another sibling, although there are no records to indicate such. The male tenant farmers had fled with their horses to the safety of South Mountain before the armies arrived, leaving Amelia and Rachel alone. While some today may view their actions as cowardice on the men’s part, they had good reason to leave, as it was vital that they protect the livestock that enabled their farm to function. Additionally, as several of Gettysburg’s white male citizens would be captured by the Confederates and taken to Southern prisons, it was wise for many men to flee the town before the army’s arrival. As for why the women stayed, Amelia later wrote that they felt safe behind the house’s 18-inch thick walls.

Amelia left a very detailed account of her experience of the battle. She wrote that on the morning of July 1, she and her aunt heard cannon shots from the west. Overwhelmed with anxious curiosity, both women raced to the window to see what was going on. They saw Union cavalry racing past their home to seek shelter in the woods west of the farm. But before they could reach safety, Confederate shots rang out from the trees and the Union men returned fire from behind the Harmons’ barn and various outbuildings. Amelia and her aunt immediately locked all the doors and went to the second floor. They opened one of the windows for a quick glance that nearly cost Amelia’s aunt her life when a spent Minié ball struck next to her ear. From the window, Amelia saw that the woods were swarming with hundreds of Confederates. A Union officer saw the two women and yelled at them to leave the window in order to not get killed. Amelia and her aunt obeyed, but instead of heading to the cellar where they would be safe, they headed to the house’s cupola. This may have been a case of reckless curiosity on the women’s part, since they were no longer protected by the house’s thick walls. But the possibility of seeing a battle excited them more than it frightened them. Perhaps they believed that if they were up high, they did not need to worry about being accidentally shot. Additionally, they likely were desperate to gain a sense for how the battle was unfolding—who was winning, who was losing, and in whose hands their property might ultimately fall into.

From her high vantage point, Amelia witnessed the Confederates of Archer’s brigade clash with the Union Iron Brigade along Willoughby’s Run. The Union forces were initially successful before being pushed back by Confederate reinforcements, who took up a position next to the house. Around midday, two Union companies took the farm and ordered Amelia and her aunt into the cellar. Above them, the Union sharpshooters were firing out the windows of the house into the Confederates. This period was especially frightful for Amelia. Even though it was more dangerous, she preferred to stay up top, where she could at least know what was going on. But in the dark cellar she knew nothing, only hearing booms and cracks of cannon and muskets and watching a continuous flow of blue and grey legs running past the cellar window.

At some point in the afternoon, Amelia heard the scurrying of feet above her. Through the cellar’s windows she could see grey pants. Amelia and her aunt returned upstairs to find that the Confederates had forced the Union troops out and entered the home. Alarmingly, they saw that the Confederates were preparing to burn the house in order to prevent it from being used by any other sharpshooters. Amelia begged the Confederates to spare the house, but they refused. They piled up furniture, books, and rugs and set them aflame. They also burned the barn. The fire forced Amelia and her aunt to rush out of their home. To their horror, they found that they were between the lines of the clashing armies. They made their way to the rear of the advancing Confederate line, bullets whistling past their ears and bodies falling around them. The actions of the two women surprised and amazed the Confederates. Eventually, they encountered a group of Confederate officers and journalists. After telling them their story, one of the journalists found a place for the women to stay for the rest of the battle along Seminary Ridge, and provided them with a guard and rations. Although doubtless thankful for the shelter and food, the situation must have infuriated Amelia. The Confederates had destroyed her home and now she was forced to rely on them for food and salvation. She was under the protection of the enemy, and there was nothing she could do about it.

On the morning of July 4th, Amelia and her aunt found that their guard had vanished, as the Confederates fled from Gettysburg. They stayed the night in town before venturing back to what was left of their home the following day. Amelia found the Harmon house a blackened ruin, surrounded by scores of bodies from both sides, along with the bloated remains of many horses. In the aftermath of the carnage the town’s residents buried the Confederates on the property. Although most would later be reinterred in Southern cemeteries, some were left behind and in the decades to come local newspapers would frequently mention visitors finding skeletons on the property. After the war, Amelia married a Gettysburg minister and moved across the country with him. She would not record her experiences of the battle until 1915, when she was 70 years old. At the end of her narrative she wrote, “Here I draw the curtain and allow the scene to fade into the shadow of the past.” Amelia did not take joy in recounting her harrowing experience. It is possible that she only did so because she believed that it was a story that needed to be told, and when she was done she wished to forget about it entirely.

Although Amelia Harmon eventually left Gettysburg, Emanuel Harmon began to become more invested in his property there. Despite the destruction of his farm, Harmon’s finances did not appear to suffer significantly from the battle. In 1864, he purchased some neighboring property to increase his Gettysburg land to 190 acres. But he was always looking to make more money. Along Willoughby’s Run, on the Harmon property, there was a spring which, since the 1830’s, had been rumored to possess special medicinal properties. During the battle, Confederates drank from its water and rumors soon spread of its supposed miraculous healing powers. Harmon, ever the entrepreneur, took advantage of these stories.

In 1865, several chemists tested the water and found that it had a unique composition, including lithia, a type of salt with supposed health benefits. Soon afterwards, the story of Harmon’s water became national news as individuals from various states began purchasing it. In 1867, a New York company signed a contract with Harmon to bottle and ship the water across the country. At this time, the springs from which the water originated began to be called the Katalysine Spring from the Greek for laxative, perhaps revealing one of the water’s benefits. The New York company constructed a building next to the springs where the bottling took place. However, many Gettysburg residents were unhappy with the state of the Katalysine Spring business. They felt that with the water being shipped out of Gettysburg, they were missing a huge opportunity for growing profitable local business. Therefore in 1868, they proposed to construct a hotel next to the springs to attract tourists. Harmon sold five acres of land on which the Gettysburg Springs Hotel would be built. He also ended his contract with the New York bottling business, as he saw the hotel as the more profitable venture.

The Gettysburg Springs Hotel, circa 1890.

The Gettysburg Springs Hotel would cost $30,000 dollars to build. It was three stories tall with rooms for 250 guests and included a large ballroom. The showers and baths of the hotel would use the famous Katalysine Spring water. In order for guests to easily access the hotel, Gettysburg’s residents constructed a horse-drawn railway, which included a bridge over Willoughby’s Run (the ruins of which can still be seen today). The Gettysburg Springs Hotel opened on June 28, 1869. Among the first guests to stay there was none other than George G. Meade himself, the victor of the Battle of Gettysburg. The hotel proved to be popular that summer for both tourists and veterans. In the 1870’s, the hotel expanded to include a bowling alley and ice house, as well as an artificial lake that was constructed for swimming and boating. The resort rivaled many of the grand city hotels of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston at night. Harmon, meanwhile, continued to negotiate contracts for the bottling of the Katalysine Spring water until his death in 1876.

The horse-drawn railway crossing Willoughby’s Run. The Springs Hotel can be seen in the background and the Katalysine Spring on the right.

In the years after Harmon’s death, the popularity of the Gettysburg Springs Hotel steadily declined. It remained a favorable spot for veterans, both Union and Confederate. But as these veterans died off, so did business. By 1900 the hotel was only opened for special events, including the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913. On December 17, 1917 a fire broke out in the empty hotel. Due to a recent snowstorm, firefighters were unable to arrive in time and soon the three-story building was nothing but a blackened ruin, just like the Harmon house fifty years earlier. In the 1930’s there was an attempt to revitalize the Katalysine Spring business, but this effort proved unsuccessful. In 1947, the land of the former hotel and Harmon farm was sold and the new owners built the Gettysburg Country Club on it. Among the frequent users of the Club’s golf course was President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 2008, the Gettysburg Country Club declared bankruptcy and in 2011 the former site of the Harmon farm became part of Gettysburg National Military Park.

Emanuel Harmon was a true entrepreneur of local legend. He saw in the Katalysine Spring an opportunity to profit from the destruction of the battle, but the question remains as to why. Did he truly believe that the water of the spring contained healing qualities and wanted to share it with the country? Or did he view the stories of the water’s power as a chance to cajole people into giving him money, essentially creating one of Gettysburg’s first tourist traps? It is impossible to know the truth for sure. But whatever his motivations, Harmon was successfully able to turn his destroyed farm into a profitable enterprise, and transform the site of some of the most vicious bloodshed of the entire battle of Gettysburg into the stuff of lucrative legend.

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