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.
Upon their return after the battle, John and Catherine Slyder must have looked despairingly upon their farm that they had called home for over a decade. A place where they had watched their children grow, a home that they had marked with their initials as their own, now lay in ruin from the destruction of war. As with many other families in Gettysburg, faced with harsh decisions to rebuild or move elsewhere, they chose to move on, selling most of their possessions and heading west to Ohio in search of a new start.
John and his wife, Catherine Study Slyder were Maryland natives and possibly moved to Gettysburg as early as 1840. They attended St. James Lutheran Church in Gettysburg, celebrating their son’s baptism in 1844. They had five children in all, but by the time of the battle, likely only three children remained in the house: John D. (age 19), Hannah (16), and Isaiah (9). John and Catherine made sure that their children attended school in Gettysburg. Catherine is marked in the 1860 census as illiterate, although she is not marked as illiterate in other census data. Regardless, she still impressed upon her children the importance of education.
 His daughter, Matilda, was born in 1840 (age 10 in 1850 census) in Pennsylvania. The eldest son, William, was born in 1836 in Maryland.
In 1849, John and Catherine saw an opportunity to further themselves as independent farmers. They poured their savings into the purchase of seventy-four acres at the foot of Big Round Top. In the next year or so, they also bought another thirteen acres on the Taneytown Road. It remains unclear how much John built himself or what structures already existed on the property in 1849. In 1852, one of their sons, William, etched his initials into the two-story stone house, forever marking it as the Slyders’ home. Perhaps the house had been finished in that year. In 1850, John only had about $1,600 worth in real estate, worth about $57,000 in 2022, a modest but meager amount. He likely had to start from the ground up to establish himself as a successful farmer.
By 1860, the Slyders’ investment in their farm had played out well. Census records estimate their real estate value at $2,000 and personal estate at $800. Agricultural census data reveals their success at an even better scale: The census taker evaluated the farm’s worth at $2,500, noting that about half of the eighty-eight acres were improved and used for various purposes. They raised plenty of animals, including two horses, five dairy cows, four cattle, and sixteen pigs. They harvested multiple crops including oats, wheat, corn, potatoes, and sweet potatoes, and they picked pears and peaches from their orchard. They also built a barn, kitchen, and other structures to keep the farm and house running. No doubt the family looked upon their farm with pride, knowing that their hard labor and persistence had paid off. They likely felt assured that they had a future in Gettysburg if they kept the farm in good order and continued their hard work.
In June 1863, when news of the approaching armies became harder to ignore, the Slyders, like other Gettysburg residents, grew apprehensive. Just as they pondered their options, Union troops arrived at their very door, advising them to leave before any fighting began. The family scrambled to get a few things together, likely taking food for the journey and their valuables with them. No doubt that many thoughts about their home and their safety flashed through their minds as they wondered where to go and who to turn to. Perhaps they, as parishioners of St. James, took this moment to pray for their safety, drawing strength from their faith. Their property soon turned into a Union sharpshooters’ nest on July 2 when the skilled marksmen took refuge in the Slyders’ buildings. All too quickly, the once pastoral homestead and embodiment of a hopeful future turned into a sinister hotbed of well-executed killing. Companies E and H of the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters slowed Hood’s Texas Brigade and Robertson’s Confederate division, of Longstreet’s Corps, as the Confederates picked their way across the rolling, boulder-strew ground up to the hotbeds of fighting along Devil’s Den and Little Round Top. Fighting also took place around the Slyder farm the next day. Union Brigadier General Elon Farnsworth led cavalry in an ill-fated charge against Confederates in the area. By the end of the battle, eighteen Confederates and three Union soldiers were laid to rest in the Slyders’ ground.
 NPS files say three US soldiers, but historian Gregory Coco says five. On Stone Sentinels, it says that the 2nd USSS lost 5 men.
Returning home and confronted with the appalling destruction along their now blood-soaked ground, the Slyders must have raised their hands in despair. What were their options? Should they bother to rebuild? How much money should they invest in their devastated property? What did their future look like if they stayed in Gettysburg? They had suffered at least an estimated $800 worth in damage, valued at almost $18,000 in 2022. Their real estate had been valued at $2,000 in 1860, and so the cost of the damages weighed heavily upon the family. The family’s 1868 claim later emphasized the valuable livestock they had lost—cows, hogs, chickens (thirty of them)—as well as the damage to their crops and their home furnishings. In 1860, their livestock had been valued at $360. The loss of these important animals and the significant damage to their home and land played significantly into the Slyders’ decision to move elsewhere in hopes of a better future.
By October of 1863, the family decided to sell most of their possessions in a public sale—a rather degrading practice in and of itself—and left the bulk of their life and personal history behind them. They emphasized the sale of their remaining livestock as “first-rate” and “valuable,” likely hoping to use the money towards their future in Ohio. A newspaper advertisement in Gettysburg Compiler includes a long list of items for sale, ranging from wagons to farm equipment and tools to stoves to sinks. One gets the impression that it was an “everything-must-go” type of sale. Despite this heart-wrenching sale of nearly all the tools and fruits of their free labor dreams, the Slyders likely did not want to overburden themselves with bulky items on their journey and wanted to get rid of their physical baggage, as well as their mental anguish, that had been attached to the house. It was only shortly after the sale that they moved west, placing their faith in the belief that they could somehow do it all again from scratch.
The family chose to move to Johnsville (now New Lebanon), a small town just outside Dayton in southwest Ohio, although it remains unclear what attachments they had to the area. Did they know anyone in the area? Did they have relatives? Or did they find it to be good farming land? The 1870 census lists John Slyder as a “retired merchant” with $1,400 real estate and $2,730 of personal estate. He had recovered enough money to make ends meet and retire, although it is unclear of the details of his employment and recovery after Gettysburg. In 1868, he filed a damage claim, seeking compensation for the heavy losses the family had sustained. However, there was some pushback from the government, which mistakenly recorded him as merely a tenant of the farm and not the owner. The result must have deeply frustrated and aggrieved Slyder, who, like so many others, had unfairly fallen victim to the bureaucratic, error-ridden process.
In 1873, John Slyder died in Johnsville. Determined to receive some sort of compensation, Catherine continued the damage claim process, although without success. The claim was disallowed by the government in 1877, the same year that the Slyders’ house supposedly sold. Before this time, Catherine’s brother supposedly rented the house from time to time; however, the burden of upkeep and taxes on the property sure placed a significant strain on the Slyder family. While the Slyders managed to rebuild a future in a new state, they surely looked back upon Gettysburg with anguish and frustration; yet even in their personal loss, they could still take comfort in knowing that their fortunes were inextricably bound to a great victory in their nation’s history. They had sacrificed their modest farm and home for the Union.
2-12 a Slyder Farm History, Structures, Etc., Vertical Files, Civilian Battlefield Files, Courtesy of Gettysburg National Military Park.
Coco, Gregory A. A Strange and Blighted Land, Gettysburg: The Aftermath of a Battle. Gettysburg: Thomas Publications, 1995.
“Farm Field to Battlefield.” National Park Service wayside interpretative marker.
Hawks, Steve A. “Battle of Gettysburg: Slyder Farm.” Stone Sentinels. https://gettysburg.stonesentinels.com/battlefield-farms/slyder-farm/, accessed February 27, 2022.
Hawks, Steve A. “Battle of Gettysburg: Vermont Sharpshooters, Companies E & H.” Stone Sentinels. https://gettysburg.stonesentinels.com/union-monuments/vermont/vermont-sharpshooters-companies-e-h/. Accessed February 27, 2022.
“John Slyder.” Ancestry.com. 1850 United States Federal Census for Gettysburg, Adams, Pennsylvania [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009.
“John Slyder.” Ancestry.com. 1860 United States Federal Census for Cumberland, Adams, Pennsylvania [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009.
“John Slyder.” Ancestry.com. 1870 United States Federal Census for Jackson, Montgomery, Ohio [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009.
“John Slyder.” Ancestry.com. Pennsylvania and New Jersey, U.S., Church and Town Records, 1669-2013 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011. HistoricalSociety of Pennsylvania; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Historic Pennsylvania Church and Town Records; Reel: 671.
“John Slyder.” FindaGrave.com. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/24787890/john-slyder, accessed February 26, 2022.