Saved by the Land: The Codori Family

By Lauren Letizia

“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.

When Nicholas and George Codori emigrated to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania from Hottviller, France on 20th June 1828, they could not have foreseen the epic battle that would reshape both the physical and historical landscape of their new hometown.

The Codoris’ sprawling tracts of land and multiple houses would become some of the most significant locales during the Battle of Gettysburg, with one of the family farms playing host to over 500 buried Confederate dead, the most of any farm in the area. Although, like most Gettysburg civilians, the Codoris’ livelihoods were dramatically altered during and after the infamous clash, their story is, in many ways, one of mixed struggle and ironic success as a result of the bloody battle that transformed their town forever.

Like many European immigrants of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Codori brothers viewed American land ownership as the key to personal opportunity and family fortune. Inspired by the promises of a free labor society that championed hard work and the ownership of one’s own labor as the foundation for successful, stable, and moral living, twenty-two-year-old George and nineteen-year-old Nicholas hoped to become successful, independent, and contributing members of their local community. The U.S. Census lists their occupations as butchers. Nicholas became an apprentice with local butcher, Anthony Kuntz and eventually started his own business behind his home on York Street. Interestingly, his was the former house of Gettysburg founder, James Gettys.  During the aftermath of the battle, the York Street house would be used as a temporary church for the displaced congregation of the Catholic church, St. Francis Xavier, which served as a hospital for wounded and dying soldiers. 

Image of Nicholas Codori (Find A Grave)

Ambition defined Nicholas Codori’s life. In 1835, he married Elizabeth Martin, with whom he had two sons, George and Simon. Distrustful of banks, Nicholas continually invested his life savings into new land and farm properties. In 1854, he purchased approximately 273 acres of land along the Emmitsburg Rd., just outside the borough, and proceeded to build a brick house on the property between 1854 and 1863, leasing the farmhouse to tenants. In 1861, he purchased an additional 66 acres across the Emmitsburg Road. During the battle, Nicholas’s niece, Catherine Codori Staub, and her husband, John Staub, were renting the farmhouse. John was serving in the 165th Pennsylvania at the time, so an extremely pregnant Catherine, her children, and her parents were alone in the house. Codori family history states that Catherine hid in the basement; however, there are no records or diaries to indicate this as fact. Other rumors suggest she fled to Carlisle, but this is unlikely given the advanced state of her pregnancy; she gave birth to twin girls on July 8, 1863.  (A more likely explanation states that the Staubs may have owned their own farm behind the Sherfy property, giving Catherine and her family another place to wait out the violence).

However, according to an officer in General George Stanndard’s Vermont Brigade there were occupants in the Codori farmhouse on the eve of the battle. The officer writes that, when his brigade stopped at the farm, an old man ran out of the house, opened the gate, and (rather comically) begged the soldiers to “move around his wheat field and not pass through it.” This man may have been Catherine’s father, Anthony Codori, as there is no record of Nicholas’s and his family’s movements during the three days of fighting.

During the Civil War, George’s family would suffer the worst of the Codoris. In 1829, George had married a fellow French immigrant, Regina Wallenberger. They had made their home on West Middle Street and began a family, raising two daughters, Suzanne and Cecelia, and a son, Nicholas. Apparently eager to go to war to defend his family’s adopted nation and the ideals of Union and free labor that defined the northern war effort, Nicholas enlisted in Company E of the 2nd Pennsylvania on April 20, 1861. Discharged after his 90-day enlistment expired, it is unknown why he chose not to immediately re-enlist.  In 1864, perhaps fearful of the draft or due to community pressures, he finally renewed his enlistment with the 210th PA, but deserted twelve days later. Perhaps the divergence between romantic notions of warfare and the realities of soldier life was simply too much for young Nicholas.

The Codori Farm (George Neat via Flickr)

During the Battle of Gettysburg, while George’s daughter, Suzanne and her husband hid in his brother Nicholas’s basement on York Street, George fell victim to marauding Confederates and was one of eight Gettysburg citizens to be captured and imprisoned by the Confederate Army. There is no definitive record of why 57-year-old George was arrested, but the family claims he was detained by suspicious southern cavalry as he was returning home from a business trip to Baltimore, perhaps wearing his son’s old Union soldier’s jacket. Conversely, Annie McSherry, the great great-granddaughter of George, states that he and part of his family had fled to the Culp Farm on July 1 and had returned home on the 4th to find a wounded Confederate soldier hiding in their home. McSherry claims that George helped the soldier return to the lines and that George may had been detained while doing so. Whatever the circumstances, George was transported to a prison in Richmond, Virginia and then moved to Salisbury Prison in North Carolina. The Codoris anxiously awaited his return, baffled by how Confederates could justify his continued incarceration following the Gettysburg Campaign. Sadly, George did not return home until March 1865 and severely weakened by his time in southern prisons, he died of pneumonia just days later. Regina soon followed, passing away a few months after. The George Codori family story speaks to the myriad unexpected tragedies that upended the lives of numerous families living along the Pennsylvania-Maryland border during the Gettysburg Campaign. 

Luckily for Nicholas Codori, fortune once again favored ambition and boldness. In 1865, Nicholas purchased a large tract of land across the Emmitsburg Road from Nicholas’s farmhouse which had belonged to William Bliss. Capitalizing on the damages the Bliss land and burned-out house and barn sustained during the battle, Codori purchased the property from a despondent and financially desperate Bliss. Three years later, in 1868, Codori decided to further profit from the prime location of the farmland east of the Emmitsburg Road, where hundreds of Confederate soldiers had been buried in shallow graves. When this was discovered, he sold the land to Southern organizations that were commissioned to repatriate Confederate remains. He bought this portion back in 1872 after the soldiers’ bodies were removed and sent back to the South. Nicholas continued to prosper from his rampant purchase and sale of local farmlands until 1878, when he sustained mortal injuries from a mowing accident on one of his farms. While driving a horse-drawn mower, Codori fell into the sharp blades of the mower after his horse became spooked and suddenly jerked its body. Nicholas lay alone amidst the mowing with a partially severed leg for approximately 30 minutes, until help finally arrived. He survived for a few days afterwards before succumbing to his wound on July 11, 1878. In one of the great ironies of his life, the cherished land that had long sustained his family’s fortunes, and which had enabled his family to endure and thrive in the wake of the cataclysmic battle fought around them, had fatally failed him.

Despite Nicholas’s tragic death, the Codori family fortunes continued to prosper. By 1880, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) had purchased significant ownership of the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association. The combined GAR-GBMA began to encourage widespread erection of monuments and memorials on pivotal pieces of the battlefield. Well-aware of the enormous historical value of the family’s sprawling farm and sensing a financial boon for the Codori family, Nicholas’s son, Simon started selling large portions of his family’s land to veterans’ groups, stating that wished to memorialize their soldiers’ sacrifices. Codori land now claims monuments to the 106th and 26th PA, the death sites of Colonel Willard of the 126th NY and Colonel Ward of the 15th MA, as well as the site of General Winfield Scott Hancock’s famed wounding. Due to Simon’s foresight, Codori land was no longer solely of monetary value, but of pivotal commemorative value. The Codori family’s wartime experiences were defined by a kaleidoscope of emotions and fortunes—confusion, fear, chaos, tragedy, grief, and loss—but also opportunity, ironic success, and growth. However, in the end, it was Nicholas Codori’s antebellum foresight about the importance of land ownership, his unwavering belief in the power of free labor ideals and practices to secure upward mobility and financial security, and his family’s opportunism that enabled the Codoris to ride out the storm of civil war on the Pennsylvania border—and to emerge, largely, better for it. His land and various properties became battlefields, hideouts, havens, churches, burial grounds, and memorial landscapes. Throughout this constant repurposing and shifts in meaning, the Codori properties played an integral role not only in the family’s fortunes, but also in the history and memory of the Gettysburg landscape as we know it.

Family, Fraternity, and Ferocity – The Story of Private Elias Gage, 136th New York

By : Felicia Marks

Freshman students in CWI’s all-volunteer First Year Experience Program spent the year discussing scholarly articles about the soldier experience, attending workshops with practicing public historians, participating in on-site interpretive battlefield experiences, and researching and writing about a soldier of their choice for the Compiler blog. Their pieces roughly follow an abbreviated format of the CWI’s “Killed at Gettysburg” digital history project.

Authors Note: I would like to thank Mrs. Virginia Gage for graciously providing me with family history and additional resources that allowed me to learn more about the 136th New York. Although the 136thhas long been overlooked, she, alongside numerous other descendants, continue to memorialize these men and their contributions through their Facebook page today.

Elias Gage was born on April 4, 1835, in Danbury, CT. He was one of seven children born to parents Elias P Gage and Mary Oakley. He was a tall young man with light hair and blue eyes. He and his family later moved to Burns, Allegany County, New York, and established a successful farm. Family stood at the forefront of his moral values; rather than attending college, he continued to work on his family’s farm into adulthood. On June 2, 1860, he married Lodorsca Miller, the eldest daughter of Joseph and Eunice Miller, in Almond Village, New York. With little money to his name, Elias became a paid farm laborer to a member of Lodorsca’s family in exchange for residency. On July 5, 1861, the two welcomed their first daughter, Susan Ann Gage. By spring of the following year, Lodorsca was expecting her second child.

In the summer of 1862, President Lincoln issued a call for 300,000 more troops. Men were to enlist by August 15, and if this quota were not met, vacancies would eventually be filled through conscription. Elias now faced a moral dilemma. With a pregnant wife and infant daughter at home, he was struggling to support his family financially, and he was in no position to leave them. However, by staying home, he risked being drafted into the ranks. Volunteering would offer him greater financial support as he would receive a $100.00 bounty and a higher salary than he would as a conscript. Additionally, if he lived to see the end of the war, how would his reputation play out? Would he be remembered as a valiant patriot who volunteered to serve his country at a time of need, or would he go down as a coward who was forced into the ranks or evaded service entirely? After Lincoln’s deadline passed, Elias was consumed by a heightened sense of urgency to choose between his family and his nation. On August 25, 1862, Elias and his older brother, Joshua, enlisted at Burns, New York, to serve in Company B of the 136th New York Volunteer Infantry at the rank of Private. The Gage brothers were mustered into service on September 25, 1862, and Elias bid his final farewell to his family.

 Before deployment, Elias arrived in Portage, New York, for training. Initially, life in the ranks had been a pleasant surprise. He served under Col. James Wood, who was well-respected by his troops for his willingness to cultivate camaraderie with Privates, a practice not common in other units. Military service brought many fortunes to Elias. His barracks were comfortable, and he was well fed. His need for his familial companionship was fulfilled not only by serving alongside his brother, but he additionally received a furlough for his hard work. These pleasantries, however, were not permanent. With immense pressure to deploy, Elias and his regiment had only trained for two weeks before leaving Portage on October 2, 1862.

Two days later, Elias and his regiment arrived at Arlington, VA, where they joined the 11th Corps. The harsh realities of military service quickly set in. On their first night after settling at an encampment near Fairfax Court House, all of the men slept on the ground without tents. They had gone to bed hungry because their supper that night was practically inedible as it was riddled with dirt and grease. New problems continued to emerge even after men became fully settled in camp. Each day was a battle against the elements as large periods of rain prevented them from getting adequate amounts of sleep or being able to cook their food properly. Whereas Sundays had once been a sacred day for prayer and relaxation, officers now expected men to work on Sundays as if it were any other day. Days became weeks, and Elias became accustomed to the same repetitive patterns of long marches and keeping watch, but he had yet to see any action. By the end of November, the arrival of the extreme cold weather had a detrimental impact on morale and health. Many of Elias’s comrades grew ill and were discharged for poor health. Others, now disillusioned with the war, deserted and returned home to their families. Elias and Joshua, however, found strength in each other. Their companionship acted as a constant reminder of the promises of life after the war and how they might one day be able to return home and reunite with their family. Elias, in particular, looked forward to one day meeting his second daughter, Mary, who was born on February 2, 1863.

Battle flag of the 136th New York (New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center)

For months, Elias had only engaged in minor skirmishes with the enemy, and he had yet to see action. Hardened by his experiences at camp, he was anxious to one day experience true combat. The spring of 1863 brought new hope to his regiment, self-nicknamed “the Ironclads.” On April 30, the regiment had been out on reconnaissance when the rest of the 11th Corps was attacked at Chancellorsville. They arrived the next day, and they were drawn into line in the evening. Waiting on a plank road, they were ordered to cap their guns and lie down on their stomachs. Hearing the firing of cannons, musketry, and faint screams from the battlefield, Elias had long anticipated this very moment with both excitement and anxiety. The night soon fell, and the men still waited to be called into battle. Eventually, they were ordered to move down the road and go to bed for the night. For the remainder of the battle, the regiment saw no action; they primarily waited on standby or helped other regiments to bring back men after engagements with the rebels. By the end of the battle, the regiment had only lost two men. Although disappointed with his lack of engagement, Elias was likely content that he and Joshua remained in good health and were safe after seeing the tremendously bloody carnage wreaked upon friend and foe alike by the great battle. Doubtless, the enormous Union defeat at Chancellorsville weighed heavily upon his mind; however, Elias had more on his mind beyond battles at this point as he anxiously awaited news of his second child’s birth back in New York. The men eventually returned to camp, and the weeks following Chancellorsville were uneventful. With the exception of certain tests to measure how quickly the regiment could deploy in the event of an attack, life at camp returned to its previous state of waiting.

            Six weeks later, rumors began to spread about movement, but no one knew quite how far the men would travel. On June 12, they received orders to prepare to march by the afternoon. Once they began moving, it was evident that this march would prove to be the greatest challenge Elias had encountered yet. Marching an average of twenty miles per day, many men in his regiment succumbed to physical exhaustion and were left behind. Water was scarce, as many creeks had dried up, leaving men to depend on the few springs they encountered for survival. The intense summer heat, coupled with the long marches through alternately muddy and mountainous terrain fatigued Elias more and more each day. Nevertheless, he persisted as his regiment continued northward through Maryland. Beginning in the afternoon of June 28, these men would complete a whopping thirty-eight-mile march from the Boonsboro Gap to Emmitsburg in twenty-four hours with no food or rest. However, the difficulty of this stretch was no match for the Ironclads; finding strength within their martial brotherhood, they fought off physical and mental exhaustion, completing the march with no stragglers. Their arrival at Emmitsburg had been a highlight of their journey. Many men were enticed by the rolling wheat fields and beautiful countryside and were thrilled to be back near northern soil. However, their sense of relief was relatively short-lived. Less than one day after their arrival, there was a general muster of the army in preparation for a battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

            Early in the morning on July 1, the 11th Corps began marching toward Gettysburg with Col. Orlando Smith’s Brigade. They arrived in the midst of a raging battle. The brigade was halted by General Steinwehr, who promptly formed it into a line of battle at the rear of Cemetery Hill for support. Smith’s men advanced through the cemetery to the front of the hill. He strategically placed his four regiments to resist any attack made on the hill, which 11th Corps commander General Oliver Otis Howard had deemed the lynchpin of the entire battle. Inundated with excitement, Elias knew that Gettysburg would provide him with the long-awaited opportunity to engage in combat. After a long day of fighting on the northwestern edges of town, which had resulted in the retreat of the 1st and other portions of the 11th Corps back through town and up to Cemetery Hill, the Confederates paused as they awaited orders to renew their pursuit of the beaten Federals and attack Cemetery Hill. However, the weariness of the Confederates, combined with a lack of immediately available fresh reinforcements, and the resolute appearance of the 11th Corps atop the formidable hill, forced Confederate generals to waffle and their opportunities to launch a successful attack were soon lost. By the end of the first day of the battle, the 136th New York had once again been denied the chance to fight. The long lines of wounded and bloodied comrades from the 1st and 11th corps streaming up the hill and the tales of the brutal fighting earlier that day likely weighed heavily on Elias’s mind as he contemplated when—or if—it would finally be his turn to “see the elephant” at Gettysburg.

During the second and third days of fighting, the 11th Corps maintained the same position. The 136th New York held the leftmost position of the 11th Corps line along Taneytown Road. Elias was introduced to heightened levels of intensity beginning on the second day, and the reality of hard war utterly transformed his perceptions of battle. Black clouds of sulfurous smoke consumed the landscape. The Confederate army deployed skirmishers and sharpshooters to rain down a constant fire upon the brigade, who were deployed within easy musket range. Col. Wood deployed his own line of skirmishers and sharpshooters from the Ironclads to meet this imminent threat. Somewhere in the midst of this utter ferocity of chaotic combat, Elias was struck and killed by the bullet of a sharpshooter. Of his regiment, seventeen other men were killed, eighty-nine were wounded, and three went missing.

Letter written by an unknown member of the 136th New York who mentioned Elias Gage’s death

Despite the smashing Union victory at Gettysburg, Elias’s former comrades experienced a drastic shift in morale. The harsh realities of war had now crushed the once prideful Ironclads. As the surviving members of the regiment returned to the skirmish line on July 5, they were met with a sea of wounded men groaning in the field, begging for someone to simply put them out of their misery. In a journal entry written by John T. McMahon of the 136th New York, he recounted his impressions of that day, writing, “This is the first battle field [sic] I ever went over and never wanted to see another.” The fact that the unit had lost so many, such as Elias Gage, to the sinister bullet of the sharpshooter weighed particularly heavily in their mind. For a relatively green unit to have been picked apart by unseen and unexpected foe at all hours of the day and night, rather than to have been martyred in the idealized “glorious charge” for the world to behold and admire, was utterly demoralizing. The Ironclads took their seventeen losses hard. Another soldier, writing a letter to his family, noted, “It is pretty tough. When will this cruel war end? Elias Gage was killed in Gettysburg battle.” No one, however, was impacted by loss quite like Joshua. After the death of his brother, he was now alone. An unmarried man with no children of his own, he now had no motivation to live to see the end of the war. During the corps’ return from Gettysburg, Joshua became ill with typhus. Only twenty days after Elias’s death, Joshua died in Washington DC. 

One can only imagine the grief that Elias’s family in New York experienced upon hearing of the deaths of both men within a month of each other. But Lodorsca had taken the death of her twenty-seven-year-old husband especially hard. She had only been twenty-one years old at the time of his death, but she never remarried. She collected a Widow’s Pension of $8 per month from July 3, 1863, with an additional $2 for each of her children, yet this money was not enough to sustain her family. Struggling for financial support, she took her daughters with her and temporarily moved in with her parents. She eventually saved enough money to establish her own household. Enticed by cheap land and the financial promises of the emerging west, she took her daughters and moved to Topeka, Kansas. Susan and Mary later married and established their own households. As she got older, Lodorsca joined Mary’s household, where she remained until her death on May 5, 1908.

Monument of the 136th New York on Taneytown Road. (Author Photo)

Like the contributions of the 136th itself, the monument which stands today to commemorate the 136th New York’s actions is often overlooked in the greater context of Gettysburg. Situated across the street from the infinitely more iconic National Cemetery (in which lie the remains of Elias Gage himself), along Taneytown Road, the monument depicts an infantryman’s equipment hanging from a war-torn tree trunk. It is simple, serene, and lacks any of the romance and martial stoicism portrayed by so many of the other regimental monuments, particularly those featuring images or sculptures of soldiers under fire.  It features a sculpted crescent moon, which was the symbol of the 11th Corps, and, in addition to a brief notation about the unit’s muster-in and muster-out dates, bears a simple inscription on the side reading, “Casualties; Killed 17, Wounded 89, Missing 3, Total 108;” a conspicuously uncarved block remains where it would otherwise indicate the number engaged. The relatively spartan, utterly unromanticized nature of the monument speaks volumes about how the regiment perceived and sought to represent its experiences at Gettysburg: The regiment dutifully performed the martial responsibilities expected of it, but was stripped away like the shredded, pock-marked bark of a firmly rooted tree under fire. For men who had waited so long to “see the elephant,” and to have sacrificed so much when they finally did, one might expect a more grandiose or elaborate monument. Yet, the almost haunting simplicity of the Ironclads’ monument speaks to the solemn, unsanitized, grim realities of the nature of Civil War combat.

It is unfortunate and ironic that the 136th New York’s monument and the men it commemorates are so frequently overlooked in favor of the cemetery atop the hill in whose shadow it lies, and for which Elias Gage and his comrades gave their lives in defense; had Cemetery Hill fallen during the fighting, the battle of Gettysburg may very well have had a vastly different outcome.  Yet, even in the shadows, the story of Elias Gage and his comrades–and their collective sacrifice at Gettysburg–speaks quietly and humbly to the legacy of the battle in which they gave their lives, and help give meaning and purpose to the deaths of the thousands of fellow Union comrades lying just yards from their monument, surrounding Elias himself, atop the iconic hill.

Gravesite of Pvt Elias Gage at the Gettysburg National Cemetery ( Ancestry.com)

Bibliography

Ancestry.com. 1860 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009.

Busey, Travis W., and John W. Busey. Essay. In Union Casualties at Gettysburg: A Comprehensive Record. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2011.

Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Veterans of the Army and Navy Who Served Mainly in the Civil War and the War with Spain, compiled 1861 – 1934, National Archives, Washington D. C.


Havens, Lewis Clayton. Historical Sketch of the 136th New York Infantry, 1862-1865. Dalton, NY s.n. 1934.

Hawks, Steve A. “136th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment.” The Civil War in the East, 2019. https://civilwarintheeast.com/us-regiments-batteries/new-york-infantry/136th-new-york/.

Hawks, Steve A. “Monument to the 136th New York Infantry Regiment at Gettysburg.” Stone Sentinels – Gettysburg. 2020.

McMahon, John T. John T. McMahon’s Diary of the 136th New York, 1861-1864. Shippensburg, PA, USA: White Mane Pub. Co. 1993.

Military, Compiled Service Records. Civil War. Carded Records, Volunteer Organizations. Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1890–1912. National Archives, Washington, D. C.

“136th Infantry Regiment” New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center. https://museum.dmna.ny.gov/unit-history/infantry-2/136th-infantry-regiment.

Staff. “Here Men Died for their Country: In the Footsteps of the 136th New York.” From the Fields of Gettysburg – The Blog of Gettysburg National Military Park. 2016.

Preserving Prosperity: The Sherfy Family

By Lauren Letizia

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.

The surname Sherfy has been a pillar of the Gettysburg community for generations. It conjures up images of small, neat orchards, perfect peaches, and a devastating battle that forever altered the land. However, the story of the Sherfy family and their farm is also one of steadfastness, strength under pressure, and American ingenuity.

“The Sherfys of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania” was an established line well before their peaches became famous. They were descended from Kaspar Scherffig, a German immigrant farmer who came to Uniontown, Maryland in 1751 at the age of 16. His son, Jacob, was born in 1769, moved to southern Gettysburg, married a woman named Catherine, and raised eleven children. Their first home was built slightly farther south and to the east of the Emmitsburg Road than the red building now associated with their family. That first home is now called the Rose Farm. Sadly, Jacob and Catherine faced personal tragedy and death years before the Battle of Gettysburg. Their eldest son, Daniel, was thrown from a frightened horse and dragged through a tree thicket. Jacob was unable to stop the horse before Daniel died. In 1842, Jacob Sherfy passed away at the age of 73, passing the plot of land north of the Rose Farm to his son, Joseph. Joseph constructed the now iconic red brick house, and turned it into a homestead for himself and his wife Mary. They planted a four-acre peach orchard about 200 yards south of the home and expanded the orchard northward around 1862. Their farm also included a cherry tree grove and fields filled with oats, corn, and wheat, as well as hogs and other farm animals. In addition to tending his land, Joseph was a Dunker preacher. The Dunker faith was established in Germany during the early 18th Century. They espoused pietism, which means religion of the heart, and was closely aligned with Anabaptists, a religion that was against secularization of society and the conducting of warfare. As a core value of the Dunker religion, Joseph most likely subscribed to the belief in non-violent living and was likely greatly disturbed by the oncoming conflict. He and Mary had six children born between 1843 and 1860. Mary’s mother, known as Grandma Haegen, was also living with the Sherfy family at the time of the battle.

The Sherfy’s famed Peach Orchard

As the Union and Confederate armies thundered into Gettysburg, Joseph and Mary decided to send their children to safety south to the John Trostle Farm, located behind Big and Little Round Tops. However, either due to fears of unchecked destruction to the farm in their absence or a sense of stubborn pride, Grandma Haegen refused their pleas to leave the home, so Joseph and Mary elected to stay with her. On the morning of July 2, the sharpshooters of Colonel Hiram Berdan, under the command of General Daniel Sickles, found General Richard H. Anderson’s Confederate soldiers positioned in the woods behind the Sherfy Farm. A brief skirmish commenced, causing a bullet to burrow through a fence post, rip through the folds of Grandma Haegen’s dress, and land on the ground nearby. Haegen allegedly picked up the bullet and said, “It’s time to go to Taneytown!”

With the old woman’s approval, the Sherfys finally fled their farm, which would prove to be fortuitous. General Sickles, convinced that (at worst) General Robert E. Lee would push southward around the Federal flank toward Washington D.C, or that the Union defensive line would be far better suited along a forward salient anchored in the Sherfy’s peach orchard than it would be behind that critical high ground), ordered over 6,000 troops from his III Corps to advance from their original position along Cemetery Ridge and protect the Emmitsburg Road. There, Sickles established numerous batteries of southward-facing artillery to reinforce his one- and-a-quarter mile long line of infantry. Dangerously exposed along the open high ground and separated from the main Union lines, Sickles’s men were besieged by heavy Confederate artillery fire for approximately two and a half hours. Some of the shells and shrapnel collapsed portions of the Sherfys’ roof. Later in the evening, around 6:30pm, the advancing tide of William Barksdale’s Confederates finally broke through the Union lines along the Emmitsburg Road and, in tragic irony, the land of the peaceful Dunkards witnessed a bloodbath. The buildings were poked with bullet holes and the home began to fill with wounded and dying soldiers who were seeking protection. After the battle, survivors dug trenches around the farm to bury the dead and about 30 dead horses littered the torn land. Infamously, the Sherfy’s red barn caught fire during the fighting with scores of Union soldiers inside. It is not known how the barn ignited, but the fire could have been set deliberately by the 18th Mississippi to rout out possible Union sharpshooters, or simply could have fallen victim to a fiery shell. Most of the soldiers trapped in the barn were wounded men from the 73rd New York and the 57th and 68th Pennsylvania regiments. Due to the severity of their injuries sustained in battle, they were too weak to escape the inferno and ultimately perished.

After the gruesome battle, Joseph and his son Raphael returned to Gettysburg on July 6. They were forced to confront the barren and charred state of their family’s property. Not only were their buildings peppered with bullet holes and their barn completely destroyed, but the burnt bodies of the victim soldiers were gruesomely intermingled with the charred debris. It is estimated that 150 soldiers who were killed on or around the Sherfy farm were ultimately buried on the land. On July 7, Mary and the other children returned to witness the devastation. Joseph submitted three claims to the federal government after 1881 for compensation. The claims amounted to $2,500; they were mostly denied due to the government’s statement that much of the damage was not caused by the Union Army. The Sherfys, determined to reclaim their lives, started to rebuild all they lost. Remarkably, they were able to harvest peaches from the 114 surviving trees and canned them for sale. Joseph and Mary planned to use the earnings to pay for the reconstruction of the family homestead. They were baffled when their peach products began to fly off the shelves. Realizing a unique marketing strategy, the Sherfys branded their peaches as those grown on the iconic battlefield. The family continued to live on the property until Joseph’s death from typhoid at the age of 70.

Various Images (https://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2016/03/sherfy-farm.html)

The history of the Sherfy property is bloody, morbid, and macabre. The now deceptively picturesque landscape and red house, the tidy peach orchard, and quaint barn had once been transformed into a singed, ravaged, desolate tableau. The fate of the Sherfy property is one that many families’ homesteads around Gettysburg faced when the violence subsided. However, like some of their neighbors such as Lydia Leister and Nicholas Codori, the Sherfys did not let the bleak landscape and destruction discourage them from reaping future fortune. They immediately searched for innovative—and indeed, unlikely–ways to better their predicament and become self-sustaining once again. Their story exemplifies the power of determination, the benefits of flexibility, and the ingenuity of familial innovation. They made sweet (and financially fruitful) peach preserves out of war’s scorched orchards.

Above the Call of Duty: Josephine Rogers (Josephine Miller)

By: Lauren Letizia

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.

It is often said that in hard times we discover the true characters of our neighbors. While some become distant and aloof during times of terrible hardship or fear, others demonstrate courage, kindness, and selflessness. The latter phenomenon is exemplified in the story of Gettysburg civilian, Josephine Rogers, also known as Josephine Miller. A young woman at the time of the great battle, she risked her own life to help young soldiers in need of sustenance and shelter.  Interestingly, as she did so, she simultaneously defied traditional gender norms and fulfilled them in ways that proved not only celebratory, but were also memorialized by those who witnessed her selfless actions.

Josephine Rogers’s small farmhouse was located on the edge of the Emmitsburg Road, south of Gettysburg. It was owned by her relatives, Peter and Susan Rogers. There is some dispute as to Josephine’s familial relationship with Peter and Susan. Some accounts list her as a niece, while others state she was a granddaughter or adopted daughter. Josephine would eventually marry her neighbor, William J. Slyder on October 25, 1863, with whom she soon moved to Ohio.  But on the second day of fighting, the entire Rogers family was still occupying their small farmhouse. As the violence began to intensify in the vicinity of the Rogers home, Union General J.B. Carr, commanding a brigade of New Yorkers stationed closest to the home, requested that Josephine and the Rogers leave immediately. However, 18-year-old Josephine refused to flee, telling the general she had a batch of bread baking in the oven. She reassured him she would leave after the bread was finished. This decision is lyrically described Harvard University graduate, Edgar Foster Davis’s poem published in 1912:

The war cloud is gath’ring o’er Gettysburg vale,

Portending hoarse thundering and death-dealing hail;

The solid earth trembles, and the rent is the air,

With the rushing of squadrons, —the loud trumpets blare.

The clanking of arms, and the shouting of men,

And the neighing of steeds from each echoing glen;

But unheeding the din and unhindered by dread

Josephine Miller is baking her bread.

Around 1:00 pm on July 2, General Daniel Sickles ordered the 3rd Army Corps to leave its position on Cemetery Ridge and move into the valley along the Emmitsburg Road, seeking to thwart a supposed Confederate march to Washington D.C. and move his troops to what Sickles considered to be a less vulnerable position along the high ground immediately above the Emmitsburg Road. The men of the 1st Massachusetts began to move into the Rogers’s fields and towards the farmhouse. At approximately 2:00, the men started to smell the scent of fresh bread, and as they arrived in position, they saw Josephine removing the loaves from the oven. Noting the soldiers’ desperate hunger, Josephine quickly sliced the loaves and distributed them to the Union soldiers. Three hours later, the Confederates open fired on the newly stationed 3rd Corps, bombarding the 1st Massachusetts, and Josephine Rogers, with shells. Despite the increasingly perilous situation, Rogers kneaded, baked, and sliced more loaves of bread for the troops. The officers offered her compensation, but she vehemently refused. To show their thanks, as Josephine’s flour supply dwindled, some soldiers volunteered to steal more from General Sickles’s commissary stores. They also returned with a supply of raisins, currants, and a sheep. Josephine Rogers stayed in her home for two days, not only feeding the soldiers, but also caring for the dying and wounded.

On July 3, the infamous artillery duel between the two armies shook the foundations of Josephine’s farmhouse. The Confederate infantry began to advance against the Union line, with some southerners marching directly through the Rogers’s fields. Just as General Carr had found Josephine hard at work by her stove, the Confederates incredulously noted Josephine Rogers once again baking bread amidst the hailstorm of lead flying about her.

Over the course of the now iconic Pickett-Pettigrew charge, many Confederate soldiers died near Josephine’s home. When the smoke had cleared, the home still stood but was marked with bullets and scarred by artillery shells. Seventeen bodies were removed from the farmhouse and the cellar. Additionally, many wounded soldiers, both Union and Confederate, had crawled into Josephine’s home to seek a haven from the bloody storm. Josephine cared for and comforted them as best she could, no matter what color uniform they wore.

Josephine Rogers, with her iron stove and loaf of bread, in front of the 1st MA monument (1886)

Josephine Rogers’s actions at Gettysburg symbolize both the breaking and fulfilling of traditional 19th-century gender roles. By obstinately refusing the orders and protective offers of powerful men and remaining in her home in the midst of battle, she directly contradicted the image of the meek and passive housewife who depended on masculine aid in the face of danger, and did not hesitate to attend to the mangled bodies of strange men. However, in other critical ways, she also fulfilled the roles expected of a 19th-century woman: She remained in her home to carry out her domestic responsibilities of baking, nursing the men under her roof, and (in true “Republican motherhood” style) literally propping up men to perform their “proper” civic and martial duties. Though she did all of this in spite of the horror and bullets swirling around her, Josephine represented the pinnacle of 19th-century feminine duty to home and to country. For both her defiance of and dedication to such gender norms, she earned a permanent place in the hearts of the men she interacted with on those two famous July days.

As the Civil War drew to a gruesome finale in 1865 and the nation struggled to heal, many people never knew about the heroic and altruistic actions of Josephine Rogers. However, the surviving troops of the 1st Massachusetts could not forget her. After the war, she was named an honorary member of the 3rd Corps, the only woman to receive such an honor. On July 2, 1886, when General Carr’s brigade reunited in Gettysburg, they invited Josephine Rogers to attend. They sought out her current whereabouts and mailed an invitation to her new home in Dayton, Ohio. Josephine agreed to travel back to her old home to once more to see the men she had aided. During the reunion, the Massachusetts men dedicated a monument to their unit’s actions at Gettysburg across the road from the Rogers’s house. Josephine was granted a privileged seat on the official ceremonial stand at the dedication. During the ceremony, some of the veterans moved the legendary black stove that Josephine had so famously used to bake bread for the soldiers under fire from the farmhouse and set it in front of the new monument. Josephine posed for a photo next to the stove with a loaf of bread in her hand. Josephine’s beloved stove has been lost to history, and the Rogers house no longer stands, having been torn down in the 1880s. Now, only a small plaque bearing the family name and a square-shaped picket fence remain to mark the homestead. Few people know the name or story of Josephine Rogers, but her heroic deeds speak to us over the generations from the memoirs and histories of the soldiers whose lives she touched, whose bodies she healed, and whose hunger she unflinchingly risked her life to quell; the import of her actions to those soldiers is forever enshrined in the rolls and records of the 1st Massachusetts, in the dedication speeches for the monument that still stands across the road from her homestead, and in the photos of her proudly posing by her stove with the veteran Bay Staters who made sure she would not be forgotten by history. Blending traditional 19th-century gender roles with the pragmatism necessitated by war, Josephine’s unlikely actions speak to her patriotism, but also her humanity, which she refused to sacrifice to the horrors and affronts of war. 

For Cause, Country, Comrades, or Capital?: Examining A Common Cavalryman’s Civil War

By Ziv Carmi

This past Fall, the Special Collections & College Archives of Gettysburg College’s Musselman Library received, through the generous donation of Kerry Cotter of Easton, Maryland 21 letters penned by her ancestor, Private Eli S. Knowlton of the 3rd New York Cavalry. Over the course of the Fall semester, CWI Fellows Abigail Adam (’22) and Ziv Carmi (’23) transcribed these letters for future researchers and interpreted them through additional contextual information from census records, pension files, and secondary source reading.  The following is a post authored by Ziv offering his reflections on some of the main interpretive themes and take-aways he gathered from his transcription work with Knowlton’s letters.

While it may be clear today that the Civil War was fought over slavery, to many of the soldiers fighting for the North, neither emancipation nor racial equality was the primary motivator early in the war. Rather, most people believed that the war was to be waged for the sake of Union, and that ending slavery should—and indeed had to—take a back seat to restoring the nation. From the mere private to the commander of the Army of the Potomac, combatants vehemently voiced such sentiments time and again. Indeed, when the Civil War transformed from a war for Union to a war for emancipation, attitudes toward the latter were quite hostile. Due to the evolving aims of the war, many soldiers were forced to rethink, and ultimately adapted, their views on slavery and race. Indeed, the motivations of soldiers were incredibly complex and often dynamic. However, they could also be deeply personal and defy easy political classification or understanding. Such is true in the case of Eli Knowlton, a private with the 3rd New York Cavalry, who, through a series of letters with his parents, illuminates his personal exploits as a common cavalryman while giving us raw and curious insights into his own possibly evolving views on the war and his varied motivations for fighting.

Born circa 1842 or 1843, Knowlton, a resident of Monroe County, enlisted in August of 1862 for three years of service with the 3rd New York Cavalry. Spending much of the first few years of the war in North Carolina, the regiment was then transferred to Kautz’s Division of Cavalry in the Army of the James in April of 1864 to serve mainly around Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Suffolk, Virginia during the Petersburg Campaign. Private Knowlton was wounded on May 8, 1864, likely during action at Nottoway Bridge. He eventually returned to service and was discharged in May of 1865, having served a total of 2 years and 9 months with the federal military.

Standard of the 3rd New York Volunteer Cavalry (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons). According to the New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center, this enormous flag was 58 ½ inches hoist and 71 ¼ inches fly, featuring the Arms of the City of New York and a ribbon stating, “Presented by the City of New York.”

While we will never know his exact motivations for joining the Union army, it appears that financial necessity may have played a significant factor. The Knowlton family’s personal estate value was listed as $843 on the 1860 census, which is approximately $95,000 when adjusted for inflation (assuming that the average inflation rate since 1860 was about 3%). Between this personal estate value and the fact that Eli Knowlton’s basic language and frequent spelling and grammatical errors indicate a fairly low level of education, it can be assumed that the Knowlton family was reasonably poor. Indeed, Knowlton refers numerous times in his letters to the importance of the soldier’s salary to the financial assistance of the family back home in New York.  Knowlton writes frequently to his parents that he was planning to send or already sent money home. Privates in the Union Army were paid $13 per month, approximately $1,300 when adjusted for inflation (assuming that the average inflation rate since 1865 was about 3%) (American Battlefield Trust). While this salary may seem meager, it is clear that Knowlton saved as much of it as he could for his parents, indicating that they were in financial need. Given Knowlton’s comparatively late enlistment, it is possible that he remained at home to work on the farm and ensure the family’s financial independence. However, the acquisition of a soldier’s salary, in addition to bounty money, may ultimately have proven more lucrative than his farm work. Additionally, given that he wrote on multiple occasions about the purchase of a new family farm, he may have ultimately chosen to enlist to help his parents afford to buy the new piece of property.

Motivations of Union soldiers were often multifaceted, however, and one cannot discount the political sway that the idea of Union likely carried in Eli’s choice to enlist. As historian Chandra Manning writes, “the average white Northerner would have much preferred not to think about the issue of slavery at all;” however, the “ordinary white guy” who enlisted with the Union in the early stages of the war believed that allowing unchallenged secession as a reaction to an election would make a global spectacle of American self-government as a failed experiment, which would, in turn, impede the spread of democracy around the world (Manning 3). While the notion of America as an exceptional beacon of democracy might strike some as more of a 20th-century idea, Manning explains that many soldiers wrote about these sorts of ideas with significant emotion in letters to their parents, spouses, or siblings (Manning 2). Such was the case in the letters of a Massachusetts private, who wrote to his wife in 1862 that he felt “the liberty of the world is placed in our hands to defend, and if we are overcome then farewell to freedom” (McPherson 30). A Connecticut soldier echoed his words, writing in 1863, that if the “traitors be allowed to overthrow and break asunder ties most sacred… all the hope and confidence of the world in the capacity of men for self government will be lost… and perhaps be followed by a long night of tyranny” (McPherson 30).

Many Federal soldiers also believed that, in fighting to preserve the Union, they were defending and perpetuating the legacy of their Revolutionary-era forefathers who had risked their lives to secure for them what Lincoln would call “the last best hope of democratic government.” We can see these sacred beliefs reflected in the writings of scores of soldiers, including one Missourian, who wrote to his parents in 1861 that “we fight for the blessings bought by the blood and treasure of our Fathers,” as well as a lieutenant from Ohio, who wrote to his wife that “Our Fathers made this country, we, their children are to save it… without Union & peace our freedom is worthless…” (McPherson 28-29) Given the myriad ways that Unionist sentiments shaped the political notions and daily worldviews of most northern soldiers, it is difficult to fathom that Eli Knowlton escaped the powerful influence of Unionism when it came time to sign his enlistment papers. What is most curious is that Knowlton himself does not discuss the topic of Union more in his letters; rather, he focuses mostly on the day-to-day drudgeries of camp life or gloats about the exploits of recent raids and damages he and his comrades have incurred on Confederates and southern infrastructure. Such focus on the day-to-day is common amongst Civil War soldier letters, but the near absence of reflections on “the Cause” is not, making one wonder if the absence of such discussion might be a reflection on his personal political motivations to enlist.

Another reason Knowlton might have enlisted was out of personal pride and concern for his reputation. Monroe County was a region where men enlisted with great enthusiasm at the onset of the war. William Peck, a local historian, noted that Monroe County was one of the first in New York to mobilize in April 1861 (Peck 80). Peck also boasted that “few sections of the country responded more promptly than did Monroe County” and that “few sent more troops into the field in proportion to the population” (Peck, Landmarks of Monroe County, 93). While these claims are likely exaggerated, they reflect the pride that Monroe County held for its collective service in the war, even forty or fifty years after it ended, when these histories were written. This societal pride, and the fact that so many others enlisted and mobilized so early on in the war effort, might ultimately have placed so much societal pressure upon Knowlton that he felt compelled to enlist a year into the war. Knowlton may also have feared that if he did not join the army of his own accord, he might very well fall victim to the growing calls for a federal draft, which could rob him of his chance to earn a bounty and might soil his societal reputation.

Knowlton was clearly cognizant of and influenced by socio-cultural norms of the time regarding manhood and martial duty. He wrote his mother in August of 1863 that “Miller” (likely someone else from their town who had been serving with the army but had since gone AWOL) is a “Coward and A Pisspot” and that “if he had not been [he] wood not have never deserted” (August 13th, 1863 letter to Seneca and Polly Knowlton). However, Knowlton’s sentiments on martial masculinity and patriotic duty had clearly evolved throughout his first year of service, as he confessed to his mother in the same letter that he had told Miller that if he had known how difficult service would be, he himself would have “dug out,” but he has “changed his mind since,” indicating that his notions of duty had ultimately won out over his disgust and frustrations with the day-to-day life of soldiering. In a particularly biting rebuke of gossips back at home who dared to speak ill of him or his commitment to military service, Eli concluded, “you tell all them that Have So much to say about me That thay can kiss my US ass all of them” (August 13th, 1863 letter to Seneca and Polly Knowlton). While Knowlton’s initial regret over his enlistment is evident, his predominant focus is on his anger and frustration at people in his hometown claiming that he was a coward and wanted to desert. Indeed, the phrase “kiss my US ass” indicates that, even while writing about his discomfort on campaign, he was still proud of his service to the United States and sought to differentiate himself from the “cowards and pisspots” who had chosen to remain home. In such a county as Monroe in the 19th century, desertion and cowardice were prime indications of masculine weakness and poor character, not to mention possible disloyalty, and Knowlton wanted no such associations with his name.

Indeed, an examination of a local newspaper, The Brockport Republic, makes it clear that, to most in the county, any sort of anti-war sentiments were considered to be disloyal. For example, in October 1862, the newspaper discusses the state’s responses to Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, noting that the three Democratic politicians who condemned the proclamation (Horatio Seymour, the 1862 Democratic candidate for Governor, Fernando Wood, the incumbent mayor of New York City, and Gaylord Jay Clark, the Democratic ticket for Inspector of State Prisons) “have more sympathy with the rebels than with the federal authorities” (October 9, 1862 edition). While it is possible this rhetoric was unduly exaggerated due to 1862 being an election year, the Republic wrote similar criticisms of Seymour in later editions after he had been sworn in as governor, indicating that these sentiments were printed for more than short-term political purposes. Indeed, after Seymour criticized Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation for being an “unconstitutional attempt on the part of the President to carry on the war, not for the restoration of the Union but the abolishment of slavery,” the Republic defended Lincoln’s actions, noting that the President stated emancipation was done only for strategic purposes against the Confederacy and Lincoln was solely fighting to save the Union (February 9, 1863 edition).

Not only was Monroe County fiercely committed to the war effort, but an examination of the Brockport Republic reveals that the county was likely staunchly Republican, appearing to condemn slavery and its spread, although (initially) not wishing to entirely abolish it. For example, when discussing the Republican candidates who were nominated for the 1858 elections and their stances, the editor writes that four of them had been Democrats, but “when that party embraced slavery as its loyal child,” they “allied- as all true freemen must do- their interests with the genuine Democracy- the Republican Party” (October 2, 1857 edition). The newspaper then printed the platform of the Republican Party of New York, which stated that “it is a contradiction to call that man a Democrat who believes in the right of one man to enslave another” and “that slavery and official corruption and encroachment upon the purity of the ballot box are the great evils which threaten our institutions” (October 2, 1857 edition).

Furthermore, the Republican Party of New York resolved that New York would never allow slavery within its borders and condemned the Dred Scott decision (October 2, 1857 edition). Indeed, the newspaper also printed a condemnation of Illinois Democrats and other Free States that were “moving to introduce Slavery into their midst.” and praised the Convention of New York Republicans for their resolution regarding slavery within the state (October 2, 1857 edition). The column concluded by noting that Republicans put their principles “before the intelligent and free people” and if their readers think they are right, they should give them “that ardent, unwavering support, due from a freeman to any just, great, and [G-D]-like cause” (October 2, 1857 edition). This final sentence, which upholds opposition to slavery as a righteous cause, might allude to the anti-slavery sentiments of the county at large.

While the Knowltons’ neighbors appeared to oppose slavery, that did not necessarily mean the Knowlton family followed suit, nor that Eli Knowlton supported racial equality. In a January 16, 1863 letter, which Eli probably wrote shortly after hearing the news of the Emancipation Proclamation, Eli writes that “this Soldiering and fiteing for Nigars haint whott I thought I was a coming down hear for.” Indeed, his derisive and dismissive manner of discussing the Union’s shift to a war for emancipation implies that he likely did not particularly care for the idea of emancipation. He expanded upon this sentiment in his next letter from January 28. While discussing his war-weariness, Knowlton notes that “when [the government] fetch the white Boys of the North down on a levle and a little belo a d-d Southern nigar and make him fite beside them then I think the thing is pretty well played out” and later writes that he hoped that if he had “to go in to Battle with a nigar I will get tuck prisner and poraled [paroled]” (then noting that parole would be the quickest way to get out of fighting). Such vitriolic language makes clear that Eli felt personally debased by being forced to risk his life for black people and dreaded the possibility of having to fight alongside black troops as if they were his equal. The shocking fact that he openly admits that he would rather be taken prisoner than have to fight alongside black soldiers speaks volumes about his racial views and his refusal to embrace emancipation as a righteous and necessary war aim.

However, while Knowlton might have initially shared the racial attitudes of many of his peers who also expressed disgust over the Emancipation Proclamation, it is possible that those views changed and evolved throughout his time serving in the South.  Indeed, throughout the spring and summer of 1862, many Union soldiers serving on the Virginia Peninsula and around Richmond—very close to where Knowlton himself would serve from April 1864 onward—were profoundly changed by their first-hand experiences with slaves and slavery, on the march and in battle. Many of these soldiers encountered slaves for the first time after they had been “confiscated” by the military or had refugeed to contraband camps. As historian Glenn Brasher notes, during the Peninsula Campaign, a mutually beneficial relationship between fugitive slaves and soldiers developed. This relationship consisted of former enslaved people selling food to soldiers, doing manual labor such as digging trenches, working as servants for the officers, and even breaking the monotony soldiers felt by conversing and joking with them (Brasher 105). While, at this point, many soldiers still undoubtedly held bigoted notions of black people, there is no doubt that speaking directly with them and experiencing their humanity produced sympathy and even emancipationist sentiments in many soldiers.

Cumberland Landing, Va. Group of “contrabands” at Foller’s house. James F. Gibson. (Library of Congress)
Gibson’s picture was sold as a stenograph in the late 19th century (the Library of Congress does not give an exact date; however, it is clear that this dates to 1890 at the earliest). This description, printed on the back of the stenograph, captures Northern attitudes towards enslaved people who escaped their plantations to become “contraband” (courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Furthermore, it became obvious to Union soldiers that black workers were extraordinarily beneficial to the war machines of whichever army utilized them. Indeed, following the highly disappointing culmination of the Peninsula Campaign, several newspapers proclaimed their relief that the Union army had hired former slaves to assist the Union war effort in Richmond while the battle-weary Army of the Potomac could enjoy some much-needed rest (Brasher 220). Furthermore, these slaves and former slaves were beneficial to the logistical movements of the army as they knew the local terrain and could both reconnoiter and lead Union forces through hostile territory.

Conversely, the loss of enslaved workers greatly harmed the Confederate economy and war effort. Indeed, from the start of the war, many enslaved black people were conscripted to build fortifications and dig trenches for the South. Brasher notes that, following McClellan’s defeat on the Peninsula, many Northerners observed that this enslaved labor allowed Confederates to get more rest and be more physically prepared to fight than their Union counterparts; indeed, after the failure of the campaign, many wondered if it could have had a successful outcome had Confederates not used slave labor to fortify and defend themselves (Brasher 227). In other words, emancipation increasingly became a strategic goal rather than simply a moral or political one.

The treatment of the enslaved by their owners also appalled soldiers. The Philadelphia Inquirer, which, by the desire of its owner William Harding, was as objective in its reporting of military action as possible (despite the paper standing behind the Union), reported that “The negro cabins without exception are more like smoke-houses in the inside… As to the furniture, an old table and a broken chair or two, with an old shelf and a shake-down to sleep on” (Brasher 104). Indeed, the terrible living conditions of slaves shocked soldiers who saw them personally during their service. Later on in the campaign, General McClellan established his headquarters on the plantation “White House” that belonged to Robert E. Lee’s son. The slave quarters on this plantation were especially repulsive; Oliver Wilcox Norton, a Pennsylvania soldier who would later lead a US Colored Troops regiment, wrote that they were little more than “log huts with no windows but holes in the walls and only a mud floor;” New York officer Richard Tylden Auchmuty described them as “a village of pigsties;” and US Signal Corps officer Luther C. Furst noted that “the more [he saw] of slavery, the more [he thought] it should be abolished” (Brasher 157-158).

As a result of these myriad direct encounters with the enslaved, Brasher writes, “despite the racist sentiments of northern soldiers” and the “frequently cruel treatment of African Americans behind the lines,” the connection between enslaved people and soldiers was, for the most part, “increasingly positive” (Brasher 161).

While Knowlton personally remained fairly silent regarding race in his later letters, it is possible, if not likely, that he may have experienced a mini “racial reckoning” somewhat similar to what the Union soldiers fighting on the Peninsula and around Richmond experienced. While his service brought Knowlton to the South at a slightly later point, scores of other northern soldiers from numerous Union armies reported similar changes in their attitudes toward slavery. Undoubtedly also witnessing, firsthand, the brutality and horrors of slavery, as well as the ways in which slavery benefitted the enemy’s war effort, Knowlton may very well have softened his views on the peculiar institution over time, though such cannot be confirmed in his letters.

It is interesting, however that near the end of his service, in letters to his parents in which he writes about demoralized Confederate soldiers deserting (“the Rebs loos about a Regament of men Every day by Deserting to us”) and a Prisoner of War exchange, he never once mentions any incidents of enslaved people fleeing their owners to follow or assist the Union forces (Feb 24, 1865 letter to Seneca and Polly Knowlton). Given how common this was, it is not likely that Knowlton lacked interactions with escaped slaves, raising the question of why he did not mention them in his letters. Perhaps he thought it was something that his parents would not find interesting, or perhaps it was something he simply did not want to address if his racial attitudes actually remained more rigid than some of his peers.

A final and related curiosity of Knowlton’s service that his letters also speak to is the question of what, besides personal honor and a sense of masculine or patriotic duty, might have sustained Knowlton throughout his nearly three years of service. Historian James McPherson discusses the differing motivations behind why soldiers fought. Soldiers had initial motivations for enlistment, motivations to remain enlisted (sustaining motivations), and motivations to fight (combat motivations). While, for many Northerners, the sentiment of fighting for Union was an strong motivator, it might not have been a sustaining motivation following the terrible conditions they endured within the war, which Knowlton bemoaned on more than one occasion. Indeed, by the end of the war, Knowlton wished to leave the army as soon as possible. A couple of months before his discharge in May 1865, Knowlton wrote to his parents that “[the government] can not hold me onely [sic] a little over 5 months longer then they Can do as they Pleas[sic] for all of me for all the money that I ever saw yet wood[sic] be no temptation for [me] to stay [enlisted] Enny[sic] longer” (March 8, 1865 letter to Seneca and Polly Knowlton). This sentiment occurs throughout Knowlton’s later letters. In another one, he writes to his parents that he “shall never be the man for hard work that [he] would have been if [he] had not ever come in the army” and that “it will take some time for [him] to git straitened out after [he] comes home” (Jan 25, 1865 letter to Seneca and Polly Knowlton). Even with Union victory on the clear horizon, Knowlton couldn’t help but elaborate, time and again, on how he could not wait to be permanently beyond the army’s ownership of his life and labor, while simultaneously lamenting the immense toll that soldiering had taken on his body and mind. 

Such thoughts were not uncommon for even the most patriotic or devoted of Civil War soldiers, as men continuously juggled myriad and often conflicting ideas about the war, ranging from idealistic, faith-infused notions of righteous conflict, to utter depression and war-weariness, to outright disgust for the atrocities and immoralities of soldiering. Nevertheless, they found ways to navigate the realities of waging daily war within the increasingly malleable boundaries of their political and ideological frameworks through what historian Peter Carmichael has referred to as a “pragmatic approach” to soldiering in the Civil War. Knowlton clearly fought similar internal battles to help him navigate his way through nearly three years of a war that taxed his mind, body, and psyche.

Ultimately, the letters of Private Eli Knowlton prove fascinating both for what they can tell us about the genuine, sometimes conflicting—and sometimes even evolving–worldviews of the common Civil War soldier, and for the questions they leave unanswered regarding the complexity of the front-line experiences and changing inner world of a common cavalryman. Far from the sentimental and romanticized stories of the saber-wielding horsemen thundering across open fields in heroic charges, Knowlton’s letters invite us into the ambivalent, camp-weary, unpolished world of the average cavalryman whose struggles to survive and derive meaning from his soldiering years are far more uncommon to find in the public’s beloved portrayals of the cavalry at war, but were indeed far more common and illustrative of the Civil War as its combatants lived and understood it.

Works Referenced

American Battlefield Trust. “Military Pay.” Accessed April 15, 2021. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/military-pay

Ancestry.com. “1860 United States Federal Census.” Accessed April 12, 2021. https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/imageviewer/collections/7667/images/4236613_00287?pId=46799257

Brasher, Glenn David. The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom. University of North Carolina Press, 2012. JSTOR.

Knowlton, Eli S. Letters of Eli Knowlton, Gettysburg College Special Collections.

Manning, Chandra. “What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War.” Civil War Book Review, 9, Issue 3 (Summer 2007): 1-13. https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2623&context=cwbr

McPherson, James M. What They Fought For: 1861-1865. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.

New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center. “3rd Regiment Cavalry, NY Volunteers | Standard | Civil War.” https://museum.dmna.ny.gov/flags/cavalry/3rd-regiment-cavalry-ny-volunteers-standard-civil-war

Peck, William F. “The County in the Civil War.” In Landmarks of Monroe County, 93-102. Boston: The Boston History Company, 1895.

Peck, William F. History of Rochester and Monroe County, New York. New York: The Pioneer Publishing Company, 1908.

The Brockport Republic. February 19, 1863 edition. https://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/lccn/sn86053142/1863-02-19/ed-1/seq-2/#date1=01%2F01%2F1862&index=2&date2=12%2F31%2F1863&words=emancipation+proclamation&to_year2=1863&searchType=advanced&sequence=0&from_year2=1862&proxdistance=5&page=1&county=Monroe&rows=20&ortext=&proxtext=Emancipation+Proclamation&phrasetext=&andtext=&dateFilterType=range&SearchType2=prox5

The Brockport Republic. January 3, 1860 edition. https://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/lccn/sn86053142/1860-01-03/ed-1/seq-2/#date1=01%2F01%2F1850&index=4&date2=12%2F31%2F1865&words=Dred+Scott&to_year2=1865&searchType=advanced&sequence=0&from_year2=1850&proxdistance=5&page=1&county=Monroe&rows=20&ortext=&proxtext=Dred+Scott&phrasetext=&andtext=&dateFilterType=range&SearchType2=prox5

The Brockport Republic. July 21, 1859 edition. https://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/lccn/sn86053142/1859-07-21/ed-1/seq-2/#date1=01%2F01%2F1850&index=2&date2=12%2F31%2F1865&words=Dred+Scott&to_year2=1865&searchType=advanced&sequence=0&from_year2=1850&proxdistance=5&page=1&county=Monroe&rows=20&ortext=&proxtext=Dred+Scott&phrasetext=&andtext=&dateFilterType=range&SearchType2=prox5

The Brockport Republic. October 2, 1857 edition. https://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/lccn/sn86053142/1857-10-02/ed-1/seq-2/#date1=01%2F01%2F1850&index=1&date2=12%2F31%2F1865&words=Dred+Scott&to_year2=1865&searchType=advanced&sequence=0&from_year2=1850&proxdistance=5&page=1&county=Monroe&rows=20&ortext=&proxtext=Dred+Scott&phrasetext=&andtext=&dateFilterType=range&SearchType2=prox5

The Brockport Republic. October 9, 1862 edition. https://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/lccn/sn86053142/1862-10-09/ed-1/seq-2/#date1=01%2F01%2F1862&index=1&date2=12%2F31%2F1863&words=emancipation+proclamation&to_year2=1863&searchType=advanced&sequence=0&from_year2=1862&proxdistance=5&page=1&county=Monroe&rows=20&ortext=&proxtext=Emancipation+Proclamation&phrasetext=&andtext=&dateFilterType=range&SearchType2=prox5

Williams, Edgar. “A History of The Inquirer.” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 20, 2003. https://web.archive.org/web/20070219044935/http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/news/local/6135296.htm?1c

Ideology on Trial: A Common Cavalryman Goes to War

By Abigail Adam

This past Fall, the Special Collections & College Archives of Gettysburg College’s Musselman Library received, through the generous donation of Kerry Cotter of Easton, Maryland 21 letters penned by her ancestor, Private Eli S. Knowlton of the 3rd New York Cavalry. Over the course of the Fall semester, CWI Fellows Abigail Adam (’22) and Ziv Carmi (’23) transcribed these letters for future researchers and interpreted them through additional contextual information from census records, pension files, and secondary source reading.  The following is a post authored by Abby offering her reflections on some of the main interpretive themes and take-aways she gathered from her transcription work with Knowlton’s letters.

View the Knowlton letters through the GettDigital Database

Like many Civil War soldiers, throughout his nearly two-and-a-half years of service in the Union army, Private Eli S. Knowlton of the 3rd New York Cavalry penned numerous letters to his family. Some of the letters from January of 1863 through December of 1864 still survive. Eyeing the yellow pages and faded ink, modern readers can imagine the scent of campfire smoke while Knowlton sweated in the North Carolina and Virginia heat. Many times, Knowlton’s military obligations left him exhausted by the time he picked up his pen. Other times, he complained that sitting in the shade and writing was the only thing to do amidst the monotony of camp life. He talked about daily life as a soldier and his battle experiences, and reacted to the news his family shared with him. He openly relayed his opinions about army life, his comrades, the Confederacy, and the war as a whole, and was not afraid to let his emotions direct his writing. Anger, homesickness, happiness, and disgust pepper his accounts. Through such candid writing, modern readers can examine, among other interesting features of Knowlton’s life, the motivation behind his initial enlistment in the army, his sustaining motivations for remaining on the front lines, and his own evolving views of the continuously evolving Union war effort.

Eli S. Knowlton was born around 1843 to Seneca and Polly Knowlton. The Knowltons owned a family farm in Clarkson, New York. Though Eli attended school when he was young, he later admitted to being a poor student. His lack of attention to formal education is also evident through the spelling in his letters: ‘Any’ became “enny”, ‘month’ became “munth”, and ‘guerillas’ became “Garilleyes,” to name just a few examples. Modern readers can imagine him sounding out particularly difficult words, carefully penning them exactly as they sounded. On August 13, 1862, Knowlton enlisted in Company M of the 3rd New York Cavalry. He would serve for two years and nine months. But why did he enlist, and why did he wait until sixteen months into the war to do so?

In his letters, Knowlton appears unenthusiastic about serving, demonstrating that he did not enlist for glory or adventure. He also makes numerous racist and disparaging comments about African Americans, forcefully declaring that he did not enlist for the abolitionist cause, and lamenting being forced to fight for the freedom of the slaves. On January 28, 1863, shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation (which made it legal for black men to join the army) went into effect, he wrote that he would rather be captured by the Confederates than serve alongside African Americans.  Such a declaration is revealing, considering how dishonorable and shameful many soldiers regarded allowing oneself to be captured by the enemy! Knowlton’s stance on race was certainly common amongst numerous Union soldiers, most of whom enlisted to restore the Union, and not out of any affection for African Americans or any strong inclinations toward emancipation or abolition. However, Knowlton’s home community was notoriously in favor of emancipation. Many community members were even abolitionists. As such, Knowlton’s views may have caused some tension within the regiment. Or, perhaps Knowlton knew his opinions were unpopular and thus saved them for his letters.

Interestingly, while Knowlton may have fancifully wished, in early 1863, to be captured by the Confederates rather than serve alongside black soldiers, his notions of martial masculinity, duty, and honor appear to have ultimately helped to sustain his commitment to remaining in the Union army as the months wore on. Knowlton wrote strongly about his disgust for army deserters. In one instance, he called a deserting man a “Coward” and a “pisspot,” and regularly disparaged the manhood and courage of those who left the front lines. 

However, as was true for many other soldiers, Knowlton’s views on matters such as duty and desertion were not necessarily one-dimensional, and at times, came into direct conflict with each other. Throughout his army career, Knowlton was perpetually homesick. On January 28, 1863, he wrote of his wish to enjoy cider and donuts in his parents’ new house—one of the countless references to his longing for home, family, and familial traditions. He followed this statement with a rather dejected message: “the old Saying is I cant allways be with you”. Sometimes, Knowlton would address parts of his letter to his younger brother, Randolph “Ran” Knowlton. Eli clearly missed Ran. He asked him to relay how the neighborhood “Gals” looked that spring, emphasizing that he wished he could be there, too. He also asked Ran to relay local adventures with friends. As he wrote, “tell me what for a time you had and all about it for as I Cant take a peace of that fun I wood like to hear how the rest of you take it”.  Such longings for home at one point caused him to toy with the idea of deserting the army. At the very least, he wished he could do it. On January 28, 1863, Knowlton wrote that some of his friends had “dug out” of the army, reflecting that “all I have to regret is that I had not dug to”. Nevertheless, Knowlton’s desire to leave simmered down as time went on. He became increasingly interested in seeing Union military success, as well as connecting his honor and masculinity to the success of his regiment.” Knowlton himself directly addressed this change in his attitude. He admitted that, in the past, he would have considered desertion. However, by August 13, 1863, he would not even entertain the idea. In a spirited flourish, Knowlton ended that same letter in which he called a deserter a “Coward” and a “pisspot” with the following crass, yet honest statement: “thay can kiss my US ass all of them.”

Another theme that runs throughout Knowlton’s letters—and a thread that sheds considerable light on why he may have chosen to enlist in the first place—is his continuous, open discussion of his finances and the money he routinely sent home to his family.  This trend suggests that he may have seen military service as an opportunity for steady employment, and may have finally chosen to enlist in the late summer of 1862 out of financial necessity, or perhaps fear of the draft, combined with community pressures to join up. One aspect of Knowlton’s life suggests that his enlistment was economically motivated. The 1860 census listed that the Knowlton property was worth $1,960. This value is the equivalent of $61,451.67 in 2020. In comparison, only 7% of homes in modern-day Clarkson, New York, fall between $50,000 and $99,000. The average home value is $150,100. Thus, the Knowltons were certainly not a wealthy family.

Eli Knowlton’s letters also had a large financial emphasis. On January 10,1863, Knowlton wrote that he sent $15 to his family and planned to send an additional $20 upon his next paycheck. This was a considerable amount, considering that he had received a total of $54.80 thus far. A few months later, Knowlton defended his inability to send more money to his parents. They presumably caught wind that John, a fellow soldier, was sending more money home than Knowlton was. Modern readers can imagine Knowlton tensing up as he defended himself through his writing. He was quick to explain that he was ill over the winter and thus needed to buy nutritious food. He also iterated that John gained his money from sources outside the military. If anything, Eli and John were paid the exact same amount. Eli, perhaps feeling guilty or under pressure, finished his tangent by promising to send more money upon his next paycheck. Such continuous, and sometimes quite passionate, references both to his own finances as well as to the economic viability of his parents and the family farm seem to suggest that economic stability may have loomed large as a motivating—and sustaining—factor for Knowlton’s army service.  Again, such motivation was hardly unique among Union soldiers, and often times it was a blend of reasons—economic, political, social, cultural, and ideological—that shaped men’s decisions to enlist, and helped, alongside commitment to comrades, to sustain them through the dark days of the war.

            Eli S. Knowlton’s letters provide fascinating insights into the daily life of a Union cavalryman during the Civil War. But, his surviving letters also highlight his humanity as a loving son and brother who cared deeply about his family. He was a complex man of numerous opinions, many of which shifted and changed throughout the war. Those opinions were complicated, sometimes contradictory, and could even cause conflict among his fellow soldiers. Soldiers such as Knowlton used the war to bolster their notions of pride, honor, duty, and masculinity, which, in turn, gave meaning to soldiers’ wartime experiences. Those experiences also changed many men as they navigated the horrors of war, interacted with new people of diverse backgrounds, and underwent challenges that were completely new to them. Many travelled farther than ever before and witnessed events so incredible that paper accounts could only hint at their impact. In fascinating and sometimes unexpected ways, these experiences both transformed the emotional and ideological worlds of soldiers such as Knowlton, while also reinforcing their commitment to the fight ahead.

Sources:

Ancestry.com. 1850 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.

Ancestry.com. New York, U.S., Grand Army of the Republic Records, 1866-1931 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2013.

https://civilwarintheeast.com/us-regiments-batteries/new-york-regiments-and-batteries/cavalry/3rd-new-york-cavalry/

http://dmna.ny.gov/historic/reghist/civil/cavalry/3rdCav/3rdCavMain.htm

https://www.niche.com/places-to-live/clarkson-monroe-ny/

https://www.officialdata.org/us/inflation/1860?amount=1960

The Eli S. Knowlton letters

“Keenly Alive” – Gates Fahnestock and the Children’s Experience of Gettysburg

By: Brandon Neely

“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.

At the corner of Gettysburg’s Baltimore and West streets stands a beautiful red brick structure. Three stories tall, the Fahnestock Building sits across from the Gettysburg Courthouse, a part of Gettysburg’s town center. Today, it is used for senior living, but since its construction sometime around 1810, it has played countless other roles. For Gates Fahnestock, born in 1853, the Fahnestock building became more than just a family home – during the Battle of Gettysburg, its use by Union and Confederate troops, living and dead, proved fundamental in the shaping of the young boy’s notions of war, and of humanity.

            Gates Fahnestock was the grandchild of Samuel Fahnestock, a businessman who moved to Gettysburg sometime before 1833. After purchasing a local tavern and setting up his new store within it, Samuel had become one of the town’s “most active and successful merchants.” From 1833 to 1863, Samuel and his three sons worked to make the “Samuel Fahnestock & Sons Store” the largest store in Gettysburg, and a central figure in the town’s business scene. When he passed away in 1861, the store passed down to his three sons, becoming the “Fahnestock Brothers Store.” The oldest of the “Fahnestock Brothers,” James Fahnestock, lived across the street with his five children, including ten-year-old Gates Fahnestock.

             For young Gates, the busy-ness of the business provided plenty of excitement and activity. As he remembered later in life, “A boy of that age is an active creature – not thinking of hazard or danger as in later years.” From the second floor of his home, he and his brothers watched as the people of Gettysburg went about their lives. Recollecting his early life, Gates described that he spent his early childhood “not appreciating or understanding the great problem of life and the nation as in later years – but [I] was keenly alive to activity about [me] and usually [wanted] to have a part in it.” On June 26th, 1863, this activity came to life when Confederate cavalry rode through the town center, firing pistols and looting supplies. As for Gates and his brothers, “they enjoyed it as they would a wild west show.”

            For the ten-year-old boy, the coming battle was an exciting form of entertainment. The adrenaline-inducing galloping of horses and bullets shot into the sky soon transformed into an awesome spectacle of martial grandeur when Union troops set up camp on Seminary Ridge, west of town. Just 24 hours before the battle would officially begin, Gates and other children of the town were curiously strolling through Union encampments. The panorama of thousands of men, costumed in blue uniforms with flashing sabers and bayonets, preparing busily for battle, provided a fascinating and glorious sight to Pennsylvania children who had, for two years, heard rumors of battle along the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, but had not yet witnessed the harsh realities of war.

            This is not to say that Gates or others had not been affected by the war, however. In June 1863, goods from the Fahnestock store were stolen from railcars en route to Philadelphia. Additionally, not all of the prelude to the battle had been fun and games: While the Confederate cavalry gave Gates and his brothers their very own wild west show, they had also raided the Fahnestock Brothers Store. Fortunately for Gates and his brothers, several members of the family, including the youngest son, Edward, were enlisted in a nearby infantry regiment. It was one of these family members – a cousin of Gates’s father – who warned Gates and the other children to run home on the morning of July 1st as fighting began west of town. Gates and his brothers returned to their home, but did not want to miss out on the thrill of a real battle in their own backyard; they climbed onto the roof of their home and sat next to the chimney, watching shells fly over the home. In a poignant juxtaposition of childhood innocence and martial grimness, as the boys were eagerly soaking in the panorama of war, Union Major General Oliver Otis Howard also stood atop the Fahnestock Brothers Store, solemnly surveying the battle as it moved through the town.  The boys were “having a good time” when Gates’s uncle discovered his missing children on the roof, and brought them inside the house.

            As Union troops were pushed back to Cemetery Hill, around a dozen of them entered the Fahnestock home to hide from advancing Confederate soldiers. In his recollections, Gates youthfully describes these men like participants in a game of hide-and-seek: “Some to closets, under beds, cellar room, potato bin – one went and covered himself with potatoes – some to attic among boxes with stored winter clothing.” The excitement of battle for the brothers continued into the night, as the famed “Louisiana Tigers” camped on the sidewalk in front of the family home. Fascinated by the battle which had been brought to his family’s doorstep, Gates and his brothers eavesdropped on the conversations of the Confederates outside.

            In the following two days of battle, the harsh realities of war truly set in as the Fahnestocks hid in their cellar for safety after a stray bullet smashed into the home above their heads. They buried a few prize belongings and wondered what they would do if the house caught fire or was intentionally destroyed. When the battle was over, Gates and his family did what they could to aid the wounded men left on the battlefield and filling any available building in town. It was this experience – the intense suffering and fear experienced by wounded men – which ultimately transformed Gates’s notions of war and, almost overnight, seemingly matured him by years. His awe at flying shells and booming musketry was replaced by horror at the sights, sounds, and smells of Civil War hospitals, but also by an impressive moral courage and a burning yearning to help mitigate the suffering: “There was so much to excite the interest and sympathy of the boys and it was nearly overpowering, but after seeing the first amputations, at which [I] nearly fainted, there came a remarkable self-control and the interest in the wounded and an inspiring desire to do something to help them,” Gates reflected.

            Gates’s and his family’s desire to help the wounded would transform the Fahnestock Brothers Store from a booming business into a supply hub for the U.S. Sanitary Commission. In addition, delegation members from the Sanitary Commission and the Christian Commission arrived to aid in the humanitarian crisis left in the wake of the battle – including Ohio Governor David Tod, who stayed with the Fahnestocks. The exhilaration of the first few days of battle faded quickly for Gates, and a curiosity for battle turned into abhorrence: “The horrors of war new to the boy brought bitter abhorrence of war in itself and as a medium for settling differences – a deep reverence for the soldiers who sacrificed life. We never could, never will be reconciled to the thought that individuals or nations can by standing on opposite lines and shooting each other to the death rightly decide any questions,” he declared some 71 years later, in 1934.

The Fahnestock Brothers Store, July 9 1863. (Courtesy of the United States Military History Institute)

By August, 1863, the Sanitary Commission had returned the home to the Fahnestock family, and the Fahnestocks began to rebuild their lives and livelihoods. When President Lincoln arrived in November to deliver the Gettysburg address, Gates was too young to fully understand the meaning of his speech or the eloquence of his words. Rather, he remembered, “It was the face I saw – sad – deep lined – earnestly thoughtful. That thoughtful look back of the eyes. It was the spirit of the man I seemed to see.” Undoubtedly, Gates’s sensitivity to Lincoln’s emotions had been awakened by the death and destruction that consumed his home and his community.

            Ultimately, Gates would leave the Gettysburg community behind, becoming a successful businessman in Philadelphia and Brooklyn. Not only did he carry on his family’s legacy of generating wealth, but he also became known for his philanthropic devotion. By the time of his death in 1936, the 83-year-old Gates was an active member of his church and a number of charitable organizations.

            Gates Fahnestock was witness to a number of incredible transformations in his lifetime. As a boy, he witnessed his childhood hometown erupt into a vicious and iconic battlefield. His home became a front-row seat to wild cavalry rides and artillery demonstrations, then a port of refuge for hiding Union soldiers, then a life-saving shelter for his own family. The family store was used as a gathering place for Union commanders, then a storehouse for the supplies needed to treat those commanders’ wounded and dying men. Cemetery Hill, once a pastoral neighborhood feature, became the point upon which the fate of the nation seemed to depend during those three days in July, and later, the point upon which the meaning of the nation was articulated. But, the most significant transformation was within Gates himself: Over three days, Gates went from an innocent, curious boy endlessly entertained and thrilled by the romantic aesthetic of battle to a young man disgusted by war and its inhuman consequences—a young man, in many ways, well-beyond his years whose mission in life was now driven by a passion for aiding others and restoring humanity to a war-torn nation.

            Gates’s individual story provides a window into the myriad transformations that affected Gettysburg during and after the battle. The town he called home was permanently altered by the events which occurred on its soil, both during those three July days and for months afterward. The nearly mythical stories of battle and bravery that occurred in this small Pennsylvania town do not capture the full weight of what the people of Gettysburg witnessed. Gates’s story isn’t just important because he was witness to the battle, it is important because he was changed by it. As we seek today to understand the legacies of Gettysburg, Gates’s story provides an instructive example of the battle’s transformative power upon the worldviews and perceptions of those who witnessed it and who would carry its conflicting memories with them for the rest of their lives.

Gates Fahnestock’s grave in Philadelphia.Courtesy of Ellen Johnson (Find A Grave)

Basil Biggs and America’s “Unfinished Work”

By: Brandon Neely

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.

For over 150 years, Americans have worked to more fully understand and properly memorialize the Battle of Gettysburg. The most enduring of these attempts – “a few appropriate remarks” in the form of the Gettysburg Address – has been etched in the hearts and minds of all Americans. Other ways of remembering the battle, however, have yet to be fully recognized. While it was the 16th president who uttered the most famous speech in American history, it was a black Gettysburgian – Basil Biggs – who set the stage for that speech and dedicated his life’s purpose to the nation’s “unfinished work”.

            Born free in Maryland on August 10th, 1819, Basil Biggs was quickly introduced to difficult labor. His mother passed away when he was only four years old, leaving him $400 to secure an education. This money, however, disappeared before he could receive any schooling, leaving him to “work with his hands.” Ultimately ending up in Baltimore, the industrious Basil found work as a teamster – the person who drove a team of horses to pull a wagon. This job paid well and he quickly developed his skills with wagons and cargo, both of which played central roles throughout his life. It was in Baltimore that he also met his wife, Mary Jackson, whom he married in 1843. Together they owned $300 of real estate and began a family.

            After fifteen years of marriage, Basil and Mary Biggs decided to move further north to provide their children with a formal education. In Maryland, black children were not allowed to attend public schooling, regardless of their free or enslaved status. Thus, the Biggs family moved to Gettysburg in 1858 with their four children: Hanna, Eliza, Calvin and William. By time of the 1860 census, the Biggs family had added their fifth child, Mary. During his early years in Gettysburg, Basil worked as a tenant farmer for John Crawford, near Marsh Creek.

            Basil continued his farm work until he and his family made the difficult choice to evacuate from Gettysburg in late June of 1863 in response to rumors of Confederate kidnappings—common throughout the war—began to proliferate through the region. Although the family ultimately was safe from the battle, their home was not. Used as a field hospital by Confederate soldiers, the home was littered with abandoned items. Upon returning, the Biggs family must have been dismayed to see so much of their hard-earned property destroyed or stolen. In a claim to the federal government, Basil’s losses in livestock and property amount to $1,506, including his children’s beds and much of the family’s food. Because this destruction was perpetrated by Confederates, Basil did not receive any reimbursement.

            With much of his property destroyed, and the landscape littered with bodies and debris, Basil returned to his work as a teamster: Beginning on October 27th 1863, Basil dug up the decomposing bodies of fallen soldiers and transported them to the National Cemetery for reburial. He was probably chosen for this task because of his ability to cart nine bodies in his wagon at a time. To assist him in the traumatizing work, Basil hired nearly a dozen other black men from the area.

            This process was not finished by the time President Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address on November 19th 1863. In fact, it was not formally completed until March 18th 1864 – eight months after the battle. The final resting place which the president eloquently sanctified through his words would not have existed if not for the work of Basil Biggs and other members of the black community in Gettysburg. Thus, despite – and perhaps, ironically, because of – his illiteracy and lack of formal education, Basil was able to play a critical role in shaping the historical landscape of Gettysburg and its meaning, preserving the memory of those who fell upon it.

Unlike many Gettysburg residents, Basil Biggs managed to generate additional wealth in the aftermath of the battle. In 1863, he inherited the 8-acre farm of John Fisher, a local black resident, just south of the famous “High-Water Mark”. In 1865, Basil purchased 30 more acres from Peter Frey along the Taneytown Road. He moved his family to a building on this second plot of land, and rented out a tenant house on the first. With this income, Basil was one of the wealthiest black citizens of Gettysburg.

Basil Biggs At His Home (Courtesy: National Park Service)

Basil Bigg’s contributions to the community did not end with the war, however. With the burial of white soldiers who died at Gettysburg completed, he turned his attention to Gettysburg’s black veterans. Informally banned from burial alongside white soldiers in the National Cemetery, deceased soldiers from the United States Colored Troops lacked a final resting place. Basil became a prominent member of the Sons of Good Will, a local organization dedicated to honoring these heroes. The group purchased a half-acre of land in which to inter black veterans, probably with significant financial aid from Basil. This Good Will Cemetery was established in 1867.

            Shortly after, while chopping down trees on his property in 1868, Basil was approached by artist and early battlefield preservationist, John Bachelder. While Basil planned on selling his newly harvested wood as rails, Bachelder persuaded him to leave the trees standing, as they were part of the Copse of Trees, of “Pickett’s Charge” fame on Cemetery Ridge. Bachelder explained that, “If he allowed them to stand to mark the spot he would eventually get ten times as much for them.” True to his word, Biggs made $1,350 by selling seven acres of land to the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association in 1881. This sale exemplifies Basil’s lifelong foresight into how to secure economic prosperity – even amidst personally challenging, chaotic times – as well as his deep appreciation of the historical meaning that his town would forever hold.

            Basil Biggs’s role in the formation and preservation of these many, now famous local landmarks illuminates his pivotal contributions to shaping Gettysburg’s national memory, as well as his personal devotion to the nation’s unfinished work. Such devotion is also readily apparent in his local civil rights activism. During the election of 1870, Basil Biggs worked alongside white allies as a poll worker. After receiving word that white citizens were being transported to voting locations, but not poor black citizens, Basil once again returned to his work as a teamster. Joining with Dave Henke, a white ally, Basil drove a wagon of black voters to the polls, ensuring that they could make their voices heard.

            Basil Biggs continued to purchase land and serve his community until his retirement from farming in 1894. He moved to the center of Gettysburg and sold his land and home to the federal government; the former Biggs property now comprises some of the most heavily visited land within Gettysburg National Military Park. He lived in the borough for 12 years before his death by heart attack in 1906. Fittingly, he was buried alongside those same black Gettysburgians whose lives he had fought to improve in the much-expanded Good Will Cemetery. Eventually renamed the Lincoln Cemetery, Basil Biggs’s final resting place—in large part the product of his personal devotion to uplifting the local black community—the formerly known Good Will Cemetery today continues to be known by its identification with the 16th president.

Basil and Mary Biggs. (Courtesy: Public Broadcasting Service)

            While Basil Biggs filled countless important roles in his life, it is his position at the head of a wagon which connects them all. After his inheritance was consumed, Basil created his own wealth as a teamster in Maryland, true to the enterprising ideals celebrated by black and white Americans alike. One can imagine Basil fatefully driving his wagon north to Gettysburg to provide his children with the education he could not attain, in the hopes of giving them a life and civic voice he likely never imagined he would have. In 1863, it was Basil’s wagon that carted the bodies of men who died in a war that determined the fate of over four million black men, women, and children held in bondage. Only seven years later, in 1870, Basil’s wagon brought black citizens to the voting booth, ensuring that their voices were heard in the government which had only recently recognized their freedom.

            Even still, Basil Biggs was far more than a man who simply drove a wagon, or the man who buried Gettysburg’s dead – he both embodied and actively shaped the meaning of the Civil War for black and white Americans alike. The Frey-Biggs farm stands quietly in the shadow of a nearby hill, atop which Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the importance of honoring those who died during the Battle of Gettysburg. The silent gravestones lining that hillside, the quiet plot of land tucked behind Gettysburg’s main thoroughfares now known as Lincoln Cemetery, and the faded records of local black voters tucked away in local archives, all speak to the critical work of Basil Biggs and his dedication to the nation’s “unfinished work”.

Surviving, Persevering, and Profiteering: The Story of Lydia Leister at Gettysburg

By: Jessica Roshon

“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.

When the Civil War arrived on the literal doorstep of widow, Lydia Leister in July of 1863, it transformed her small plot of land into one of the most famous postage stamps on the Gettysburg battlefield, but also into a blighted homestead. Lydia was forced to flee her house during the battle to seek safety elsewhere, but it is the story of how Lydia chose to respond to the destruction she encountered upon returning to her homestead that sets her apart from so many.

            Lydia was born in Carroll County, Maryland and was of German descent. She married her husband, James Leister, also of Carroll County, sometime before 1830 and eventually they settled down on a farm built by James’s father in Silver Run, Maryland. Together, they had six children: James Leister, Jr., Eliza, Amos, Daniel, Hannah, and Matilda. In 1850, the couple moved to the Gettysburg area where they remained until James passed away on December 11, 1859. Fortunately, Lydia was able to sustain herself financially with money her father, John Study, left to her in his will. She ultimately bought a farm of nine acres for $900.00 on the Taneytown Road, in Cumberland Township, on March 30, 1861. The land was first owned by a man named Thomas Nolan, who had sold it to Henry Bishop, Jr. around 1840. Bishop then sold his ten acres of land, one and a half story log cabin, and several outbuildings to Lydia Leister. These buildings would famously become the site of General Gordon Meade’s headquarters in the years to come.

            On the afternoon of July 1, 1863, a man arrived on horseback and informed 54-year-old Lydia and her two children then present at the home, Hannah and Matilda, that they needed to evacuate, since fighting was drawing closer to the area. Although the other children are unaccounted for during the time of the battle, it is known that Amos Leister, born October 22, 1840, had enlisted in the Union Army and marched in the 165th PA from October 16, 1862 to July 28, 1862, then later reenlisted in 1865. James Leister, Jr. was also in the service of the Union Army. In any case, upon receiving the warning, Lydia packed a chip basket full of clothes and followed an officer on the Taneytown Road to George Spangler’s nearby farm, where other civilians had gathered to seek shelter. They remained there for a time until the area fell under artillery fire, so the small group of civilians proceeded to a new safe haven on the Baltimore Road where they remained for several days, waiting out the fighting. Once the battle concluded, Lydia and her family returned to their home to find the house and the surrounding farmland ravaged by shellfire.

A Photograph of the Headquarters of General Meade, Commander of the Union Army” by Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan, July 1863. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) via Metropolitan New York Library Council and Empire State Digital Network)

            During the battle, the Leister farm had sat slightly to the rear of the Union line, somewhat sheltered behind a gentle slope and along a major Union thoroughfare, making it an ideal location to set up the base of communications which eventually became General George Meade’s headquarters after the first day’s battle. The house and barn also served as a temporary field hospital. On the other hand, its strategic position also made it the recipient of massive amounts of artillery fire. One shell fell straight through the whitewashed main house, demolishing the front porch and blowing a bedstead to smithereens. Both during and after the fighting, soldiers scavenged much of the house’s siding for grave markers and firewood. All the fence rails on the property collapsed and burned. Additionally, the barn and outbuildings also suffered severe damage. Lydia’s crops and yard also fell victim to scavenging soldiers and artillery shells alike: Frantic horses had trampled all her wheat, soldiers had impressed most of her meat and flour, shot and shell had destroyed her peach and apple trees, and the rotting corpses of fallen horses contaminated her spring. Despite these seemingly insurmountable losses, her age, and her widowhood, Lydia Leister ultimately managed to take them in stride and was able not only to recoup her losses, but ironically make a profit off of the battle’s destruction as well.

In the weeks following the battle, Lydia replaced the siding on the barn and house and had the well re-dug. In order to acquire some of the money necessary to finance these repairs, she began selling the bones of dead horses on her property after the meat rotted off them one year later. Although the remains of horses were used for a variety of products, the main usage for bones was to harvest a substance called collagen and use it to make an adhesive. This process must have been extremely appalling and gruesome work for Lydia and her daughters; however their willingness to defy traditional 19th-century gender norms provides an illustrative example of how war-time necessity could, in many instances, stretch and shift the boundaries between masculine and feminine spheres. By 1868, Lydia’s work had clearly paid off, as she expanded her property with the acquisition of nine additional acres on the northern side of the original property from Peter Frey for $900.00. She also put on a two-story addition to the east gable of the house and expanded the barn in 1874. She remained on the farm until 1888, when her failing health caused her to move in with her daughter, Hannah, in the borough of Gettysburg itself. In May of that same year, the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association purchased the Leister farm for $3000.00, eventually turning the property over to the National Park Service in 1933. Even though six decades had passed since the battle, Lydia still strove to transform the legacy of the destruction and bloodshed wrought on her farmstead into lucrative outcomes. Lydia herself passed away on December 29, 1893 on her 84th birthday.

The Leister Farm as photographed by Alexander Gardner on July 6, 1863. (Library of Congress)

Lydia Leister’s story highlights her industriousness, determination, and remarkable ability to turn the war’s destructive forces into engines for personal opportunity. She did not receive any assistance from the government to repair her property, so she earned every penny by herself. Lydia even engaged in a subtle form of war profiteering, with the sale both of the horse bones and of her now famous property, in order to attain this money and achieve long-term financial stability in the wake of the battle. Despite the necessity of these actions, German stereotypes common throughout the 19th century tainted, if not obscured the full significance behind the nature and meaning of Lydia’s profiteering. One particular encounter between an early tourist of the battlefield and Lydia plainly showcases such impressions: “This poor woman’s entire interest in the great battle was, I found, centered in her own losses,” the man disgustedly remarked. “That the country lost or gained she did not know nor care, never having once thought of that side of the question.” The man also made a point to comment on Lydia’s very plain, “Dutch”-like appearance and thick accent, implying that Lydia’s German heritage was largely to blame for her selfish, harsh demeanor and seeming politically ignorance. However, Lydia’s struggles highlight how the harsh realities of war at the doorstep, by necessity, often re-focused civilians’ gaze squarely on the pragmatism of family survival, whereas civilians out of harm’s way, politicians, and even those soldiers on the front lines often placed discussions of the politics of war, martial order, camaraderie, and the political outcomes of military campaigns at the fore. As a result, individuals such as this tourist were inclined to misunderstand, mischaracterize, or misinterpret Lydia’s post-battle endeavors and concerns as unseemly, selfish, ignorant, or even backward. Truth be told, Lydia Leister was none of these, as it was her grit, determination, and creative opportunism in the face of incredible hardship that allowed her and her family to look to the future with great optimism.

Titans for a Battlefield: Horatio Ames and his Colossal Cannon

By: Abigail Adam

One of the most awe-inducing and terrifying components of Civil War combat was artillery fire. The haze of cannon smoke, the sudden blasts, and the weapon’s raw capacity for destruction have captured the minds of artists, filmmakers, and reenactors for decades. Cannons were sources of brutal, unbridled battle strength. Solid shots crippled enemy guns and wagons. Explosive shells blasted agonizing shrapnel into enemy soldiers. One innovative ironmaster was particularly fascinated by cannons. However, the typical 4,000-pound cannon and 10-pound shot did not satisfy Mr. Horatio Ames. He pushed his ironworks to be bigger and bolder than ever before, ultimately producing a massive 19,500-pound cannon that could fire 125-pound shells over five miles. Though the Union won the Civil War before the government purchased his cannon, Ames’s devotion to the project demonstrated the war-induced fervor for creative and unprecedented advances in munitions; manufacturers’ firm beliefs in their ability to ensure Union victory; and businessmen’s ambitious eye for personal profiteering off patriotic enterprise.

Horatio Ames was born in 1805 to Oliver and Susanna Ames. Oliver owned a shovel-manufacturing business in North Easton, Massachusetts. Between the century’s ongoing railroad construction and the California Gold Rush, the business was highly fruitful. In 1834, Horatio built his own furnace in nearby Salisbury, Connecticut, with fellow investors, John Edd and Leonard Kinsley. Ames’s co-investors withdrew over time, and the ironmaster found himself to be the proprietor of the newly renamed Ames Iron Works. Ames was an imposing figure, standing at six feet and six inches tall and weighing approximately 300 pounds. He had an unbridled passion for his work, often engaging in physical labor alongside his men while dressed in his signature black coat and top hat. His respect for blue-collar work was likely engrained throughout his youth. When Horatio turned eleven, his father employed him as a factory worker. With time, he was promoted to the rank of salesman. It is unclear why the wealthy Oliver Ames would choose such an unconventional path for his son. Perhaps he thought that physical labor would instill a good work ethic and valuable real-world experience. At any rate, Horatio rarely balked at performing manual labor. Ames Iron Works specialized in the production of train wheels. It also manufactured crowbars, railroad axles, wagon axles, railroad car wheels, and iron crankshafts. By 1850, the ironworks boasted over two hundred employees and one of the largest steam hammers in the United States. Over time, the complex grew so large that it became known as Amesville. Though Ames generated products as the market demanded, his true passion was innovation. He was a dreamer with a creative mind, a true human product of the Industrial Revolution. The outbreak of the Civil War provided Ames with precisely the opportunity he craved.

Ames Iron Works, year unknown. This photograph was taken from the Falls Village side of the Housatonic River. The complex lies on the river’s Salisbury side.

Once the war broke out, Ames wasted no time in switching his efforts over to cannon manufacturing. The company produced and sold artillery that shot fifty-pound balls, which was considerably larger than the average ten-pound ball. Nonetheless, Ames was not satisfied. As soon as 1861, he started to lay out plans to produce massive wrought iron cannons. The company’s steam hammer, puddling works, and labor force of several hundred men would allow such a bold, expensive, and risky idea to become reality. In 1863, confident that his prowess in munitions manufacturing would be intrinsically important to battlefield victories, Ames personally petitioned Abraham Lincoln for an official government commission.  His bold request to the president was likely inspired by his older brother’s increasing participation in national politics, as Oakes Ames was elected Congressman of Massachusetts’ 2nd District in 1862. The Ames family also donated considerably to Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign. The family secured another anchor in national politics via the Pacific Railroad Act, which the President signed in 1862. The Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad had difficulties attracting investors. Members of the Ames family invested nonetheless, making the clan one of three major investment groups. In light of these three connections, Horatio Ames was well-equipped to contact the president directly. After Horatio penned a proposal, Lincoln responded on September 28, 1863. As the president wrote,

“If you will, on or before the first day of March, 1864, within the state of Connecticut, or at any point nearer this city, produce guns, each of a capacity to carry a missile of at least 100 pounds weight, and notify me thereof, I will cause some person or persons to examine and test said guns; and if, upon such examinations and test, it shall be in the opinion of such person or persons, that said guns, are or any of them, are on the whole better guns, than any of like caliber heretofore, or now in use in the United States, I will on the account of the United States, accept said guns … it being understood that I have no public money at my control, with which I could make such payment absolutely.”[1]

Lincoln agreed that he would try to purchase the cannons if his conditions were met. However, he never made a definitive promise. Nevertheless, Ames plunged into the project head-first. Before March 1864, the ironmaster successfully produced a multitude of his 19,500-pound cannons. He and several Washington officials tested them in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The first test used a 120-pound shot, which was 20 pounds above the minimum. Clearly, Ames was confident in his product. Packed with 25 pounds of gunpowder, the cannon fired with a colossal boom. The shot remained in the air for 39 seconds and travelled 5.43 miles, just shy of the 5.5-mile requirement. Ames did not give up. He instructed for the next cannon to be packed with an additional 5 pounds of powder. The final shot flew over 6 miles, far surpassing the minimum requirement.  Cheering and celebration followed. It appeared that the ironmaster’s hard work had paid off.

Horatio Ames (second to the left) and his 19,500-pound cannon. He stands in his signature top hat and coat.

Unfortunately, Ames learned that a promise to try is not a promise to succeed. The tests in Bridgeport were some of the few times the cannon was actually used, as securing funding for its purchase was easier said than done. Not all within the government agreed that the guns were a worthy investment. After all, they were unlike any battlefield equipment previously used by the Union Army. They were strikingly heavy, bulky, and never-before tested within a battlefield setting. Government officials were so divided over whether or not to purchase the guns that by the time a resolution was reached, the Civil War had ended. Additionally, the ambitious project had required Ames to borrow a significant amount of money. As the cannons’ purchase was continually delayed, his debts grew more and more pressing. Eventually, Horatio had no choice but to sell Ames Iron Works to his brother, Oliver. Thus, once the government eventually paid $215,000 for 13 of Horatio’s cannons, the money was directed to the new ironmaster. Sadly, Horatio Ames was never able to enjoy the fruits of his ambition.

            It is impossible to know how Ames’s cannons would have impacted the Civil War if they were used during the conflict. Perhaps the 125-pound shells would have devastated Confederate lines in key engagements. On the other hand, the 19,500-pound cannons could have simply been too cumbersome for effective use. After all, they were a far cry from typical Napoleon or parrot guns, which hovered around 1,000 pounds. And of course, Ames’s cannons would have weighed even more once they were hooked up to their limber and caisson. While hefty, these additions were essential as they made cannons mobile and added storage for powder and ammunition. Furthermore, the average cannon shot weighed around 10 pounds. It was far easier to move multiple of these lighter shots than even just one of Ames’s 125-pound shots. Lastly, moving a typical gun required a minimum of twelve horses. One team of six horses would pull the cannon itself while the others would pull the caisson. If these horses pulled approximately 1,000 pounds per team, then individual horses pulled around 167 pounds each. With this in mind, an astonishing estimated 1,168 horses would be needed to adequately pull just one of Ames’s cannons. Unless the guns travelled via train or ship, it is hard to imagine how they would have been feasible for battlefield use. On the other hand, they might have been valuable for anchored, strategic positions in forts or along coastal fortifications. Perhaps it was this uncertainty over the cannons’ actual usefulness that lay at the root of the initial conflict over their purchase; while Lincoln clearly believed in their utility, other officials were not as sure.

            Horatio Ames ultimately died in 1871, less than a decade after the Civil War ended. His physical health likely suffered from the mental anguish caused by his debt, his fall from the company, and witnessing Oliver reap the benefits of his own hard physical and financial labor. In the words of historian Ed Kirby, “Horatio died a broken man.”[2] Though Ames’s risky wager ultimately caused him financial ruin, the undertaking of such a project demonstrated his innovation, determination, work ethic, and foresight into how patriotic purpose, combined with industrial production, could potentially lead to great personal fortune. Not only did he succeed in garnering Abraham Lincoln’s support, but he also made several capable guns that fit the president’s needs. Ultimately, historians can only speculate on how Ames’s cannons may have actually impacted the war’s length and outcome. However, it is the fascinating backstory of these uniquely colossal cannons’ creation and the mastermind behind them that sheds the greatest light on their ultimate significance both in Horatio Ames’s personal civil war, and within our national history.


[1] Abraham Lincoln to Horatio Ames, September 28, 1863, in The Making of the Iron Industrial Age (Sharon: Sharon Historical Society, 2019), 86.

[2] Ed Kirby, The Making of the Iron Industrial Age (Sharon: Sharon Historical Society, 2019), 198.

Sources:

Gordon, Robert and Michael Raber. Industrial Heritage in Northwest Connecticut: A Guide to History and Archaeology. New Haven: The Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2000.

Kirby, Ed. Echoes of Iron: In Connecticut’s Northwest Corner. Sharon: Sharon Historical Society, 1998.

Kirby, Ed. The Making of the Iron Industrial Age: An Historical Chronology: The Iron Men and Women of the Sharon Industrial Age, the Salisbury Iron District and Their Connections to the Transcontinental Railroad. Sharon: Sharon Historical Society, 2019.

Newell, Clayton R. and Charles R. Shrader, “The Artillery,” in Of Duty Well and Faithfully Done: A History of the Regular Army in the Civil War, 265-283. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1df4h5t.20 JSTOR.

Pool, J. Lawrence. America’s Valley Forges and Valley Furnaces, edited by Angeline J. Pool. Dalton: The Studley Press Inc., 1982.

https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/10-facts-civil-war-artillery

https://www.civilwarencyclopedia.org/abolition-ameatk