By Erica Uszak ’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.
In 1858, when Philadelphia butcher shop owner, George W. Rose bought his Gettysburg farm on the Emmitsburg Road, he likely thought the picturesque stone house and 230 acres of farmland, woods, and orchards, would bring him great profits and provide a peaceful and relaxing summer home. Those aspirations would be violently dashed only five years later when his farm bore brutal witness to some of the most destructive fighting of the Battle of Gettysburg. He weighed his options, wondering how he would recover from such a loss and to whom he could turn for help. Free labor ideology of the time dictated that the common man rose to and maintained prosperity through his own blood, sweat, and tears. George Rose had done everything right to reach his goal of prosperity, but much to his despair, he quickly discovered that his previous hard work would not win him any federal assistance when confronting subsequent financial struggles outside of his control.
Although George Rose owned the Gettysburg farm, he primarily resided in Germantown, a neighborhood within Philadelphia. He was a Pennsylvania native, born in 1808, and his wife, Dorothea (also spelled as Dorothy) Hegy Rose, was born in 1805. He and Dorothea belonged to the Market Square Presbyterian Church. George owned a butcher shop in Philadelphia, and he apparently rented the house to fellow butchers, as he and his wife lived with three of his younger coworkers in 1850. He had an estimated value of $8,000 real estate at the time. By 1860, his real estate value had increased to $10,000, and his personal estate stood at an estimated $500 value. $10,000 in 1860 is equivalent to about $330,000 in 2021. Clearly, he had some money to spare for a summer home, a place to enjoy the fruits of his labor, as he clutched the American Dream of prosperity and economic independence within his grasp.
His brother, John Rose, his wife, Ann, and their seven children primarily lived in the Gettysburg home. George or John Rose also hired four other people in 1860 to help maintain the property, assisting with the farm work and general upkeep of the house—yet another testament to their hard-earned financial stability that enabled them to hire the labor of others in order to guarantee an economically comfortable and physically less demanding day-to-day existence. John worked out a deal in which he and George evenly split the interest on the crops in exchange for John and his family’s residency and maintenance of the house. An additional tenant family, the Ogdens, might have lived in the stone house at one time. It remains somewhat unclear as to whether they actually resided at the farm itself, especially since the Ogdens did not file a claim for private property damages later. Francis Ogden, the father, was a tenant farmer who lived with his wife and four sons and possessed half interest in two of the Roses’ wheatfields. Francis and his sons provided further help with extensive amount of labor required for the 230 acre farm.
Civilians like the Roses and Ogdens reacted with uncertainly to news of the approaching Confederate army in mid-June. They had heard rumors of Confederate invasions before and pondered whether they should stay or flee the area. Francis Ogden did not take any chances. He rounded up his livestock and moved them temporarily to another farm outside Gettysburg before he evacuated. Ogden’s 13 cattle, two mules, and two horses were too integral to his livelihood to lose them to either army (although soldiers did seize nine of his sheep that he had moved a few miles away). John Rose, however, was not as prepared as Ogden, and he hurried his family out of Gettysburg as the battle approached their doorstep. Because he and his family left in a rush, they were only able to collect some food and a few valuables to take with them. John likely had no time to process the full extent of what could happen to the farm, but once he left Gettysburg, his stomach likely churned as he wondered what items might have been spared from the soldiers’ wanton destruction.
The Rose farm was especially hit hard by the fighting on July 2, although both armies traversed on the farm all three days. On July 1, Buford’s cavalry likely stopped for oats and corn for their horses, trampling and removing much of the Roses’ and Ogdens’ harvest–a product of their hard work and a source of future profit. George and John Rose would later claim these crops as part of their losses. On July 2, Confederates in McLaws’s division ofLongstreet’s corps surged past the Emmitsburg Road towards the Rose farm to fight the Union 3rd and 5th Corps, and later reinforcements from the Union 2nd Corps. In particular, General Joseph Kershaw’s South Carolina brigade, as well as Paul Semmes’s and George Anderson’s Georgia brigades, engaged with Union 3rd Corps troops under Régis de Trobriand and 5th Corps soldiers under Jacob Sweitzer and William Tilton. These troops clashed in the Rose family’s infamous Wheatfield, which passed in and out of control of both armies multiple times. Union artillery, under Colonel Freeman McGilvery’s command, further damaged the Rose house and the surrounding area.
Confederates used the house for shelter and quickly transformed the comfortable rural abode and barn into grim makeshift hospitals. They used the beds for the wounded and left the house in bloody shambles. When John Rose returned, he found the ceilings, walls, and floor filled with holes from artillery and musketry fire. The carpet, living room furniture, kitchen table, and dishes suffered damage or utter ruin, and the Confederates had raided their pantry of all food. While George owned the house, these items were almost all John and his family’s possessions. Everything they owned had vanished in a matter of days. Who would John turn to for help? How would he relay the bad news to George? No doubt, George anxiously awaited news from John about Gettysburg, as he read newspapers avidly and wondered with sickening dread about his farm’s fate.
Yet the house would mark only the beginning of their problems. Outside, Confederate soldiers lay in shallow graves, sometimes half-buried or in some cases, left above ground, their bodies decomposing in the muddy fields and woods. One visitor, a Pennsylvania attorney named John B. Linn, described a burial ground by the Rose barn in graphic detail, writing that the dead South Carolina soldiers “were only slightly covered with earth and you could feel the body by pressing the earth with your foot.” He noted with horror how “one man’s left hand…stuck out of the grave looking like an old parched well worn buck-skin glove.” An April 1912 Gettysburg Compiler article claimed that a half-severed, bloodied body rested in the Rose family’s spring, making their water unusable. The Roses later assessed that at least one thousand soldiers lay buried on their property, as they and others attempted to pinpoint the exact number of men scattered across their farm and woods. (Official government estimates place the number at a likely more accurate, but still shocking figure of 400-500 bodies). George also tried to keep a written record of some of these Confederate dead, marking the names, rank, and burial locations of about fifty Confederates, in a small notebook. The graves presented the largest problem to the Roses. Who would want to live in a graveyard of shallow burials, surrounded by the smells of rotting flesh and tainted water? They could not till the land for farming if they had wanted to. This was no place to continue raising their children. Neither George nor John likely wanted to ever live in such conditions on the property, but then, who would want to buy it?
The dead also presented an ethical question as to how to give them a proper burial. Victorian culture dictated that the dead should be given a Christian burial and properly laid to rest with an identifying grave marker– all hallmarks of “the Good Death” of the nineteenth century. Many of these dead were buried without ceremony and often without markers denoting their identities. Alexander Gardner captured the horrific battlefield carnage at the Rose farm in his photographs of the South Carolina dead just days after the armies departed Gettysburg (seen below). This famous photo captures the haphazard rush to bury the bloated bodies in shared trenches, with only a few of the bodies receiving even the simplelest of wooden headboards. The image spotlights the grim realities of warfare and quelled many of the romantic ideas civilians held about battle. Photographs like Gardner’s shocked the public, who had not been accustomed to seeing such stark images of battlefield death. Civilians and soldiers alike struggled to understand and give meaning to the lives of each individual soldier who died in battle, amidst the overwhelming number of casualties and sobering reality of the often anonymous burials.
George tried to sell the house multiple times. In June 1866, he advertised a rosy picture of his farm in the local paper, describing it as “one of the most desirable properties in the county” with plentiful orchards, multiple springs, and good farming ground. This advertisement for public sale did not attract any buyers, who perhaps knew better that the farm was not the picturesque place that George had described. In the meantime, George entangled himself with a number of creditors. He mortgaged the farm multiple times and obtained loans from different individuals. The debt piled up, not only from the farm, but from meat suppliers for his butcher shop as well. When he paid off one person, another creditor appeared, demanding money. He became skilled at fending off multiple creditors, although in late 1871, the Adams County sheriff seized the house and auctioned it off. A man named Charles Hagy, perhaps related to George’s wife, Dorothea Hegy/Hagy, bought the title to the house for a mere $100. If he was a relative of Dorothea, perhaps he was merely trying to take the house off their hands temporarily or divert the attention of money-hungry creditors. In any case, he too, could not handle the house’s finances, so control of the house passed quickly back to the Roses. No doubt George felt both the frustration and anguish of his plight, but also shame over such a public fall from his privileged socio-economic position.
Both George and John filed a claim for damages to the federal government, directing their claim to the Quartermaster General’s Office. George’s real estate claim focused on the damage to the house itself, including compensation for repairs to the ceiling, walls, and flooring. He needed reimbursement for destroyed fencing and some livestock. And more importantly, he sought compensation for the destruction of his grounds. Most of the Confederate dead remained on the property until 1870 or 1871, making it difficult to farm the land, and most importantly, to even continue living at the house. Shouldn’t the government compensate him when the army turned his private property into a public soldiers’ graveyard?
The government thought not, and turned away his claim. He did not have enough evidence that the Union army was responsible for the damages, as he had no documents to support that it was the Union army that took anything from his house; the federal government’s rigid policy only compensated owners for documented Union army-incurred property damage. George’s frustration with the government only multiplied with the absurd futility of his situation. After such a costly war, the government was reluctant to shell out additional war-related funds. However, politicians and civilians warned that some men would take advantage of the government, creating fraud and wasted money. They also feared that individuals would grow too dependent on the government for funds and that society would degenerate into a state of immoral pauperism. Nineteenth-century culture dictated that respectable men were those who worked hard and independently. People who applied to the government for financial assistance were looked upon with harsh scrutiny, as Civil War Americans often associated poverty with vice and poor character, rather than with personal misfortune beyond one’s control.
John also applied for a personal property claim, claiming interior objects like his furniture, beds, mirror, tables, and chairs, as well as small farming equipment that had been destroyed or seized by the Confederates. His claim was also turned down for the same reasons as George. In 1874, he advertised the sale of many of his personal items, producing a long list of furniture, stoves, a wide variety of farming tools, horse saddles and other items for riding, and multiple horses and cows. The advertisement read like a long list of his remaining possessions. Perhaps he, too, was trying to rid himself of debt, but it remains unclear as to the amount of items he actually sold. He listed many of the same items a year later in another advertised sale. Clearly, both brothers struggled to recover from the utter destruction of everything they owned, even as long as ten or fifteen years after the battle. Worse yet, their struggle was on display for everyone in the greater Gettysburg community to witness.
George’s troubles with the house continued, but in 1875, he sold the house to Rosanna and William Wible. However, they soon returned the house to him less than two months later, finding it unfit. The record shows that George ultimately bought the house from the Wibles for $9,000, an amount the Roses clearly could not have paid easily. Maybe the Wibles knew the Roses and had tried to temporarily lift their financial burden with their short ownerships. George closed his butcher shop for several years, instead earning meager wages as a clerk, until 1878 or 1879, when he finally saved enough money to open a small butcher shop from his Philadelphia house. By this time, George and Dorothea were physically and emotionally exhausted, approaching the age of 70. They no longer had the energy to work long hours or confront their struggles with the Gettysburg farm. By 1880, the Roses resumed renting their house to boarders for extra income, as the census shows another couple in their Philadelphia abode.
For unknown reasons, Rosanna Wible took interest in the Rose farm again in 1880, and finally bought the house for $8,000. She offered some long-standing relief to the Roses, who remained weakened by the financial burden. Dorothea Rose died in December 1881, and her husband quickly followed, passing away only one month later on January 2, 1882, of stomach cancer. They no doubt keenly felt the stress of their creditors, and although it must have brought great relief to finally unburden themselves of the house, that relief arrived just a little too late. The house had already inflicted too much damage upon the Roses’ physical and mental well-being, bringing unrelenting anguish over long sought-after, but cruelly denied dreams of prosperity and repose in the south-central Pennsylvania countryside.
Before the war, George and Dorothea Rose had no idea that their home-away-from-home would morph into their worst nightmare. They invested their life savings in the property and looked forward to a relaxing upper-middle-class lifestyle. George’s brother, John, who escaped right at the battle’s beginning, also confronted the loss of all his material possessions and hopes for eventual economic independence. The battle and its destruction had cruelly snatched away all of their dreams and finances, and the repercussions lasted until their deaths. Furthermore, they faced the humiliation of confronting their struggles in public for all of Gettysburg, as well as Philadelphia society, to see. Worst of all, they must have felt cheated by the federal government and the entire concept of free labor ideology–the very thing that hundreds of thousands of their northern comrades were fighting to preserve and in whose name they had sacrificed their own livelihoods—and the refusal to financially compensate them for their sacrifice revealed the harsh realities, risks, and perils that accompanied the promises of free labor society.