Tragedy, Tenaciousness, and Unlikely Triumphs: The Abraham Trostle Family

By Emily Jumba ’24

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.

Abraham (Abram) Trostle was born between 1821 and 1822 to Peter and Sussanah Trostle in Straban, Pennsylvania.  His parents belonged to the Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church.  Abraham was the second oldest of their four children.  Like his parents, Abraham eventually became a farmer, although most of the duties in running the farm eventually fell to his wife as he battled mental illness and alcoholism.  Peter Trostle acquired what would later become the Trostle family farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania from David Troxell in 1839 through Troxell’s will.  (The property came as payment for debts owed between Troxell and Trostle).  He decided to keep both this new property and his own farm in Straban Township.  Peter would later give the 144-acre Gettysburg farm to Abraham, who had moved there with his family at some point before the 1850 census.  In addition to the land, which encompassed 144 acres just south of the borough, east of the Emmitsburg Road, the farm included a farmhouse, a barn, and a springhouse. The farm would be engulfed by intense combat on the 2nd day of battle, sustaining significant damage, but still standing and operable in the wake of the fight; the farm was a fitting symbol of its unflappable family matriarch, Catharine, who herself bore the heavy burdens and scars of an embattled marriage, and of the war fought on her very doorstep, but whose survival and ultimate success bespoke of a remarkable inner strength.

Abraham Trostle married Catharine Walter at Gettysburg’s St. James Lutheran Church on January 15, 1844.  Later in their marriage, Catharine would feature as the head of the household for decades, defying typical gender roles of the time.  They had eleven children together, of whom the following ten survived to adulthood: George, Lydia, Conrad, Mary, (Abraham) Isaiah, Margaret, Ephraim, Peter, Layton, and Sarah.  According to the 1850 census, Daniel and Christian Sandy, who were respectively 16 and 11 years old, also lived on the farm with the Trostles and their young children.  Both Sandy children reportedly had at least some schooling.  Daniel worked as a laborer and was likely a farmhand.  Christian did not have a listed occupation.  Perhaps she helped Catharine with domestic work and caring for the other children.  It is also possible that the Trostles took the Sandy children in as borders, especially if their family was undergoing financial hardship and could not support them at the time.  Neighbors within the small community of Gettysburg often assisted each other, not just during the battle and its aftermath, but also as a part of daily life.                    

In 1859, Abraham found local infamy in the Adams Sentinel and General Advertiser. According to these two papers, the local court had found Abraham guilty for assaulting Edward Ziegler and ordered him to pay a $5.00 fine, as well as their court fees. While $5.00 was a significant amount of money, it was not necessarily a major financial burden on the Trostle family, whose real estate was valued at a modest but stable $5,200, and his personal estate at $1,500, just a few months later in the 1860 census.  Instead, being brought to court for the assault would have proven far greater of a humiliation, as it negatively reflected on Abraham’s temperament and respectability.  Further tarnishing the family name, he also began building a reputation for public drunkenness.  Abraham was not the only man in town who had a proclivity for drink (others included James Leister and Joshua Thompson, the deceased husbands of the famed Lydia Leister and Mary Thompson).  It is possible that Abraham resorted to drinking due to the stresses and struggles of balancing his farm and family’s financial well-being; however, if he struggled, the family still managed to remain rather well-off by then. 

Later in his life, Abraham was diagnosed as having an (unidentified) mental illness.  Perhaps he used alcohol to try to treat the symptoms of this mental illness that he struggled with.  Regardless of the cause, Abraham’s drinking habits would have negatively reflected on both him and Catharine.  Likely perceived by others as unable to properly care for his family and maintain a respectable and moral lifestyle, Abraham’s growing reputation put more pressure on Catharine to assume the duties of head of house, which in turn further contributed to Abraham’s sense of emasculation.

Interestingly, when Abraham’s father wrote out his original will, Peter Trostle initially left the Gettysburg property to Abraham, but later amended it in 1860.  Instead, he decided that the farm was to be held in trust for Abraham, rather than Abraham actually inheriting it in his name.  This noticeable change was likely due to Abraham’s growing reputation for vice.  In effect, Catharine took control of running the farm as Abraham continued to become less able to do so.  Such official legal responsibilities for the estate would have directly challenged the traditional gender roles that she had previously expected to fulfill in life.  In addition to maintaining their home as a wife and mother, she became more responsible for finances and the overseeing of manual labor, which traditionally fell under the purview of men during the nineteenth century.  While quickly teaching herself how to manage the family’s finances, Catharine also had to endure the deteriorating nature of their public reputation, which was crumbling under the weight of Abraham’s vices and the state of his household affairs; suddenly, it was Abraham who was dependent upon his wife, and not vice versa.  Additionally, owning property was a key tenet of free labor ideology, which championed an individual’s ability to make his way up the rungs of the socio-economic ladder through hard work, moral living, and determination.  By losing his land inheritance and the ability to own and operate property under his personal name, Abraham’s social status would have sunk even further in the community.  Tragically, these developments likely created even more internal strife for Abraham, which certainly did not help his addiction.

During the weeks leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg, the Trostles had heard about the approaching Confederate army from a variety of sources.  They saw posters calling for the local militia to defend their homes.  They also received a warning from Governor Andrew Curtin and heard rumors from other locals about the approaching armies.  On June 28, 1863, word arrived that a significant contingent of Confederates were looming just to the west of Gettysburg, in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.  According to Mary, one of the Trostle children, Catharine and George (one of Mary’s oldest siblings, who was eighteen years old at the time) made a plan to hide their horses and cows from the Confederates.  They also put some of the family’s valuables in a bag that George buried somewhere in their apple orchard.  Just as they were being inundated with the swirling rumors about the approaching Confederates, the Trostles likely also heard reports of the Confederates stealing or destroying civilians’ property.  By burying their valuables, they hoped to hide them from the marauding enemy.  Mary claimed that Abraham sometimes helped to execute these plans, but overall did not add much, as he was still fighting his mental illness.  Given Abraham’s illness and relative incapacitation, it was even more necessary that the family preserve their valuables in case they needed to use them to support themselves in the wake of a battle.

Before the battle began on July 1, 1863, the Trostle family uneasily went about their chores to try to distract themselves from their worries.  However, as the first sounds of gunfire began reverberating across the once pastoral fields to the north and west of town, Abraham grew restless. He grabbed a pistol and a musket and was just about to leave the farm to go find the Confederates when Catharine stopped him and pleaded with her husband, arguing that it would be better if he remained on their farm to defend both their property and their family.  He may have wanted to fight to try to help re-prove his masculinity and restore his honor that he had lost when he lost his inheritance and property.  Despite not being able to operate his farm, he could at least attempt to defend it and his family, thus somewhat boosting his reputation in the eyes of his peers.  It is also possible that his mental illness may have contributed to his rash decision to fight. By having to step in to calm her husband down and convince him to come back inside, Catharine once more solidified her role as the de facto head of the household, once again reversing traditional gender roles in serving as the rational and cool-minded individual who was responsible for talking her irrational and emotion-driven husband off the ledge of madness.

Throughout the first day of battle, the Trostle family anxiously remained on their farm, which was thus far left unscathed.  However, the sound of fighting and re-deploying soldiers became infinitely closer on the evening of the first as the broken Federal lines retreated to their stronghold atop Cemetery Hill, Confederate forces nipping at their heels all the way through town.  The family must have become increasingly more anxious as the sounds of gun-fire drew closer to their home.  It is also possible that Abraham became even more agitated as the battle closed in on their home, particularly after his earlier determination to defend his home.  During the evening, more troops began amassing on both sides, with lines of gray and blue eventually stretching forth along both sides of the Emmitsburg Road, atop Cemetery Ridge and Seminary Ridge.  It would not be long before their farm would become engulfed by combat.

On July 2, 1863, the Trostle family awoke to find Union soldiers positioned throughout their farm.  Major General Daniel Sickles, commanding the Third Corps, had defied Major General George Meade’s orders to maintain his position along the rear high ground stretching through Little Round Top; instead, he moved part of his Corps from Little Round Top significantly forward to an advance ridgeline encompassing the Trostle, Sherfy, and Klingel farms to counter the possible advance of Confederate forces from Seminary Ridge across the Emmitsburg Road.  As the day began, Catharine attempted to maintain a semblance of normalcy in the home, cooking dinner for her family.  George hid a horse and a cow in the woods near their home.  The family initially planned on hiding in their basement during the battle, but were later instructed to leave by a few Union soldiers that informed them of approaching Confederates.

Catharine and George leapt into action, George readying their wagon with a horse that he had kept on the farm, and Catharine collecting her other children.  In a usual display of perhaps overconfident masculine bravado, Abraham declared that he intended to stay on the farm to help defend it against the enemy.  George ultimately offered to stay with him (perhaps seeking to protect his unwell father as much as his property), so Catharine fled alone with her younger children.  In a postwar account to her grandson, Mary later described her respect for her mother’s immense strength in that instant in which she bravely took sole charge of whisking her children to safety, despite crying upon leaving her home.  As they pulled away in the wagon, en route to a relative’s house in Hanover, Catharine later noted to Mary that she caught sight of Union soldiers who were boldly sitting down to eat the dinner that she had just finished making.  A flurry of emotions likely went through her mind at the sight.  She was certainly upset about the battle coming literally over her doorstep and into the home she had worked so hard to maintain.  She may have also felt a glimmer of pride in the knowledge that she had helped to feed the farm’s defenders who devoured the bread.  As she left with the children, Catharine’s mind likely buzzed with worries and wonder as to what might happen to her husband and son, as well as their home. Would she ever see any of them again? And if so, in what condition?  Once again, the traditional gender roles that Catharine had grown up with were being flipped.  Rather than her husband rushing her and the children to safety, it fell to her to see her children out of the battle’s reach.  Perhaps she had been somewhat prepared for this, after taking on the challenge of managing the farm years earlier while Abraham’s mental illness and alcoholism worsened.  However, running a farm was very different from fleeing the destruction of battle and the devastation it had the potential to wreak on the home she had worked so hard to maintain.

Shortly after Catharine’s departure, the 5th and 9th Massachusetts Batteries moved into position on the Trostle Farm, the air riddled with shells.  Colonel Freeman McGilvery had brought in the 9th Massachusetts, led by Captain John Bigelow, from Taneytown to help reinforce the Union lines.  Bigelow complained about the lack of visibility at their location, as he was stationed within a swale that hid most of the action along the Emmitsburg Road and the Peach Orchard (where Sickles’s new “salient” pivoted) from sight; nevertheless, he was ordered to remain by the farm’s stonewall and await further orders.  The fighting began around 4:00 PM and lasted for approximately three hours, with approximately 15,000 Confederates under James Longstreet’s division swinging out, en echelon, from right to left as they attempted to push the Union troops from the heights along Devil’s Den and Little Round Top, the Peach Orchard, and the Wheatfield—their sights set on the heart of Cemetery Ridge, near Cemetery Hill.  The Confederates plowed through Sickles’s advanced line at the Peach Orchard and began driving the retreating Federals north and east, in the direction of the Trostle Farm and Cemetery Ridge.

Bigelow commanded six cannons, although two of them experienced such violent after-fire recoiling against the stone wall that they were soon damaged beyond use.  Bigelow ordered his men to take those cannons to the rear.  As his subordinates attempted to roll the two cannons through the Trostles’ farm gate, the first cannon overturned, blocking the road and forcing the artillerists to maneuver the second cannon over the wall.  Meanwhile, the 9th Massachusetts was under heavy shell fire from Confederates, who had seized control of the now-abandoned Union guns in the Peach Orchard, and were using them to deadly effect against Bigelow’s gunners.  Bigleow himself was wounded in the fighting and fell from his horse.  The 21st Mississippi, under Colonel D. B. Humphreys, surged forward and the farmyard dissolved into chaos as many men engaged in brutal hand-to-hand fighting, while still others desperately loaded and fired the remaining cannon into the onslaught of Rebels.  Sensing defeat, Bigelow ordered a retreat and was guided to safety by Bugler Charles Reed, while five of his cannons were lost to the Mississippians.  The 9th Massachusetts lost an estimated eighty of their eighty-eight horses at the Trostle farm, the mangled bodies of whom were later captured in post-battle photographs of the area.

Captain A. Judson Clark and New Jersey’s Battery B were also engaged in the fighting around the Trostle farm, posted on the front-left side of the property.  They had arrived at their post early in the morning and held the position for several hours before eventually being shifted forward to try to stem the tide of Confederates advancing across the Emmitsburg Road, diagonally from the Trostle house.

Perhaps most notably, Major General Sickles himself came to observe the fighting at the Trostle farm during the three-hour afternoon onslaught.  Setting up a “field headquarters” in front of the farm house, he commanded his troops from the field next to the Trostle barn.  It was there that he was famously struck in the lower leg by a twelve-pound cannonball while sitting atop his horse.  In an attempt to calm his subordinates who had witnessed the grievous wound, Sickles casually smoked a cigar as he was stretchered off the field; his leg would later be amputated and sent to the Army Medical Museum, and eventually to the Smithsonian for display.

Like most other homes in the area, the Trostle farm became a field hospital after the fighting there ended on July 2nd.  It would remain a hospital for the remainder of the battle and through July 4th, despite the renewal of Confederate advances bordering much of the Trostle property during the July 3rd famed “Pickett-Pettigrew” assault.  Catharine and her children returned to the farm on July 6, 1863 to find complete carnage.  Their yard was full of the dead—both soldiers and horses.  Photographers such as Alexander Gardner were already there, documenting the scene.  Additionally, their home was riddled with bullet holes and the brick barn wall bore a large hole from a cannon shell that had passed through it.  Abraham and George rode out the entire battle in their home as bullets tore through the walls.  They likely hid in the basement during the worst of the fighting.  Despite Abraham’s intentions to protect the farm from the invaders, he was unable to save it, even with George there to help.  The two of them did not stand much of a chance against the sheer destruction that could be caused by the armies.  The battle delivered a devastating blow to the family’s precarious financial situation, especially as Abraham was not able to provide much help in the farm’s restoration.  Aside from the bullet-riddled house and the barn that was hit by a cannonball, most of their crops were destroyed, and they were missing several necessary items like quilts, pillows, and timber.  Approximately one hundred dead horses littered the farm, in addition to the dead and wounded soldiers that lay on the fields.  After the battle, the family began to sort through the devastation and went to work tending to the wounded soldiers with the help of some of their neighbors, particularly the Walter family.  Mary would go on to note that the already mentally ailing Abraham never really recovered from seeing the battle rage across his land in such a devastating manner.

Adding to their miseries on the farm, Peter Trostle passed away on September 11, 1863, and the property was officially listed in Catharine’s name in 1865.  By then, Abraham was living in a sprawling asylum called the Harrisburg State Hospital.  The hospital, which boasted seventy buildings and extensive agricultural fields to allow self-sufficiency in producing food for its inhabitants, was in operation from 1845 until 2006.  Despite humane reforms to asylums in the mid-nineteenth century, they often remained institutions in which people were incarcerated for a variety of reasons without much differentiation as to their individual cases.  People with mental illnesses, alcoholics, and even women whose husbands wished to divorce them, but could not, were collectively housed there.  Abraham’s relocation to the Harrisburg State Hospital likely further diminished his family’s reputation amongst fellow Gettysburgians as asylums and mental illness as nineteenth-century society held a strong stigma against them.  Due to Abraham’s now physical (and long-time mental) absence, most of the responsibilities of raising the Trostle  children and both restoring and running the farm fell upon Catharine, further deepening the gender role-reversals that Catharine had continuously faced throughout her marriage to Abraham.  By 1870, George had moved away from home, but his younger siblings were starting to come of an age where they could better assist Catharine on the farm and with restoring their battle-torn home. (Eventually, George would inherit the property after his parents’ deaths and would sell it to the federal government for $4,500 to help with the creation of Gettysburg National Military Park.  Abraham passed away in 1877, with Catharine outliving him for a decade).  However, in 1870, the Trostle children still at home ranged in age from a mere 10 to 17 years old; no doubt, the misfortunes plaguing their family forced them to grow up fast and abandon any shred of what may have once existed of their youthful innocence.

Years after the war, in 1875, Catharine filed a claim for $3,094.50 with the federal government on Abraham’s behalf for help covering the damages to their farm.  (For perspective, the 1860 census had recorded the combined real estate and personal estate value of Abraham and the farm to be $6,700.  The family lost almost half of their assets in the battle).  She claimed that the damages were caused by Union soldiers, but, as was the common response to many Gettysburgians who filed damage claims, claims agent, Major George Bell replied that the inflictors of the damage could not be proved; thus, Catharine’s claim was denied.  Her claim had included 16 tons of hay, 20 tons of wheat, 10 acres of oats, 10 acres of corn, 12 acres of grasses, garden vegetables, 2 quilts, 2 pillows, 2 pairs of shoes, 7 yards of carpet, 1 featherbed, 1 bridle, 20 posts, 1 saddle, 20 acres of timber, 4 cords per acre, and the use of their buildings for hospitals.  Even worse, the family was never able to recover the bag of valuables that George had buried in the apple orchard.  Perhaps they had somehow been uncovered amidst the shot and shell that ploughed up the land and an unsuspecting soldier happened across them in the midst of battle.  Alternately, George may have simply forgotten where he buried the bag.

With Abraham’s mental health only continuing to decline in the asylum, and her damage claim rejected, the future of the farm and of the Trostle family lay largely in Catharine’s hands, as well as those of her children.  They ultimately decided to leave the cannonball hole in the barn wall; perhaps it proved too difficult to remove without incurring additional damage, or perhaps it was a testament to the historic battle that their farm and family had borne witness to—and had managed to survive.  In many ways, the still extant hole from that cannonball, which has since become an iconic tourist attraction for visitors to the battlefield, speaks to the larger story and spirit of Catharine Trostle and her brood—a silent reminder of the tragedy and unmendable damage inflicted on the family by both Abraham’s mental illness and the battle, but a wound that ultimately was unable to defeat the tenacious and unflappable woman at the head of the house.

The rear of the Trostle house and the stone wall that was defended by Captain Bigelow’s six cannons on July 2nd.
The front of the Trostle farm house and its springhouse.
A side view of the Trostle barn, with the cannonball hole from the battle that Catharine ultimately left in the wall.
A closer view of the cannonball hole in the Trostle barn.
The land between the Trostle barn and farmhouse, littered with dead horses after the battle (courtesy of the NPS)

Works Referenced

“1850 United States Federal Census – AncestryLibrary.Com.” Accessed March 21, 2022.

“1860 United States Federal Census – AncestryLibrary.Com.” Accessed March 21, 2022.

“1870 United States Federal Census – AncestryLibrary.Com.” Accessed March 21, 2022.

“Abraham Trostle (1821-1877) – Find a Grave…” Accessed March 21, 2022.

ARIESIN. “Saving Captain Bigelow.” Civil War Tails at the Homestead Diorama Museum – Gettysburg Miniatures (blog), August 4, 2018.

“Battle Unit Details – The Civil War (U.S. National Park Service).” Accessed March 23, 2022.

Clarke, Tim. “Sickles’ Leg and the Army Medical Museum.” Military Medicine 179, no. 9 (September 2014): 1051–1051.

Gettysburg, Mailing Address: 1195 Baltimore Pike, and PA 17325 Contact Us. “Trostle Farm Then and Now – Gettysburg National Military Park (U.S. National Park Service).” Accessed May 15, 2022.

Luskey, Ashley. “An Unflappable Spirit: Facing Hardship Both Within and Outside the Trostle Home.” Civilians of Gettysburg, 2022.

“National Park Civil War Series: The Battle of Gettysburg.” Accessed March 21, 2022.

“National Park Service: Gettysburg Seminar Papers — Unsung Heroes of Gettysburg.” Accessed March 23, 2022.

“Pennsylvania and New Jersey, U.S., Church and Town Records, 1669-2013 – AncestryLibrary.Com.” Accessed March 21, 2022.

“Pennsylvania and New Jersey, U.S., Church and Town Records, 1669-2013 – AncestryLibrary.Com.” Accessed March 21, 2022.

“Pennsylvania and New Jersey, U.S., Church and Town Records, 1669-2013 – AncestryLibrary.Com.” Accessed March 21, 2022.

“Peter Trostle Sr. (1788-1863) – Find a Grave…” Accessed March 21, 2022.

“Susannah Cashman Trostle (1790-1870) – Find a Grave Memorial.” Accessed March 21, 2022.

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