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 (

Bibliography 1860 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: 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.

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.

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.

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”.

Your Commencement Weekend Guide to Visiting Gettysburg

By Abigail Major ’19

Commencement weekend is nearing, which has inspired us to compile a list of Civil War activities and programs you can take part in during your visit. The following events and activities are suitable whether you are a Civil War buff, general history enthusiast, or are just curious about learning more about the Civil War.

On Campus

While you’re on campus, check out some of the many wayside exhibits along the campus walkways to get a better idea of the College’s role in the battle. During the battle, soldiers on both sides streamed through campus to get to—or away from—the action. Pennsylvania Hall, the venue for the Commencement ceremony, was used as a field hospital during the battle, treating some 700 soldiers.

Continue reading “Your Commencement Weekend Guide to Visiting Gettysburg”

Preservation or National Necessity? Gettysburg National Military Park During the World Wars

By Jonathan Tracey ’19

The great battle in 1863 was not the only time that soldiers occupied Gettysburg. As a National Military Park, the land was administered by the War Department for decades before becoming part of the National Park Service in 1933. As such, the department could use the land for whatever purpose was deemed necessary. During both World Wars the government made use of the historic landscape where Pickett’s Charge took place, and mandated the registration of monuments for potential removal as scrap metal for the war effort. The government saw the threats posed by 20th century warfare to outweigh the value of a preserved landscape.

A Renault tank cresting a dirt hill near the Bliss Farm in 1918. Courtesy of Eisenhower National Historic Site.

In 1917, the fields briefly hosted a mass mobilization camp, but that was short lived. The more major encampment came in 1918. The fields of Pickett’s Charge had become home to Camp Colt, a training camp for the newly formed Tank Corps. Soldiers under the command of Dwight D. Eisenhower ensured that the sounds of war again echoed through Gettysburg. Infantry carried out drill, and trucks with machine guns and 3 inch naval guns used the Round Tops for target practice. Once tanks arrived, drivers honed their skills on the battlefield, accidentally plowing through dirt as they maneuvered over historic landscapes, including the remnants of the Bliss family’s farm. After the war, the buildings were demolished, but the camp still left a physical mark on the landscape. Years later, William Redding, a farmer who had leased his farm from the government prior to the war, filed a complaint that, despite the fact the government had promised to return the land to the original condition, “sewers, water courses, trenches, and other excavations” remained in the fields.

In 1944, enemy soldiers again arrived in Gettysburg. Instead of invading Confederates, these new soldiers were German prisoners of war, mostly captured in North Africa. Chosen for the isolated location, local labor deficiencies, and remaining infrastructure, the former grounds of Camp Colt became home to an unnamed POW camp. Many Gettysburgians were angered by this, but not necessarily because of the use of the battlefield. Instead, their complaints primarily focused on fears of violent German escapees or anger that jobs vacated by their loved ones in the armed forces would be filled by the enemies the former workers had gone off to fight. These prisoners worked in businesses around Gettysburg, filling American soldiers’ vacant jobs by cutting wood, picking apples, and working in canning plants. Interestingly, many of the work crews also helped clear brush from the battlefield, helping to restore the historic landscape that their camp was intruding upon.

The tents that comprised the WWII prisoner of war camp on the fields of Pickett’s Charge in 1944. Courtesy of Gettysburg National Military Park.

During the Second World War, Gettysburg’s landscape also paid a price during the scrap drives. Fences, markers, and even parts of monuments were split into categories based off “importance.” These categories would determine at what pace they would be removed if the situation became so desperate that the government absolutely needed the metal. Luckily, the situation never became so desperate to call for the removal of monuments, but Gettysburg did sacrifice “750 spherical shells, 14 iron guns, 1 bronze gun, 8 bronze howitzers, 26 bronze siege guns, and 38 bronze guns.” These were of post-Civil War manufacture, and deemed expendable. Modern visitors can still see the places where the spherical shells were once placed, such as the concrete foundations next to Cushing’s Battery at the Angle.

Ultimately, Gettysburg sacrificed parts of the historic and commemorative landscape during the World Wars. Fields were occupied by soldiers, weapons were discharged towards the Round Tops, military vehicles drove over previously preserved fields, and commemorative objects were removed for scrap drives. Were these sacrifices worth it? Should the government have found different places for military camps and different sources of metal, or was the integrity of Gettysburg’s landscape worth partially sacrificing in order to achieve military success? Imagine if modern prisoners from the War on Terror were brought to live on the fields of Pickett’s Charge today. During the World Wars, Gettysburg and the historical community were willing to consent to sacrifices for the war effort, but it is far less likely that these sacrifices would be accepted today.

The fields near Emmitsburg Road as they appear today, having mostly recovered from military occupation. Photo by author, 2017.


“Camp Colt Damages.” Gettysburg Compiler, May 1, 1926.

Eisenhower, Dwight D. At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967.

Hartwig, D. Scott. “Scrap Drive 1942.”

Murray, Jennifer. On A Great Battlefield: The Making, Management, and Memory of Gettysburg National Military Park, 1933-2013. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2014).

Point/Counterpoint: The Gettysburg Battlefield Marathon


By Jeff Lauck ’18 and Matt LaRoche ’17

Jeff: On November 6, the small town of Gettysburg will be swarmed by runners during the first ever Gettysburg Battlefield Marathon. The event has provoked heated discussion from many in the Civil War community, bringing up many questions regarding the use of our most hallowed grounds for recreational use. In this post, Matt and I will engage in a back and forth conversation about the concerns and advantages of the race. I’d like to begin by noting that the views that we each express in this piece may not necessarily be our own and that we may merely be bringing them up to contribute to the conversation surrounding the marathon.

My first concern about the marathon is an obvious one. The Gettysburg battlefield was the site of unspeakable horror and suffering. Is it appropriate that this sacred space be used for “fun” activities like a marathon? Runners will cross areas whose names have been immortalized for pain, agony, and death: McPherson’s Ridge, Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, the Angle. Few would view a marathon through the hallowed ground at Arlington National Cemetery as appropriate. Indeed, the Gettysburg marathon itself avoids the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. However, the Gettysburg battlefield is likely still a final resting place for hundreds of soldiers, so in reality, a marathon running through the battlefield is itself a marathon running in a massive cemetery. The battlefield was preserved as a memorial to those who fell. It should not now be trampled on by hundreds of runners in a spectacle marathon.

Matt: Well, Jeff, your point about the space’s sacredness is certainly well taken. However, I think the underlying question here may be what kinds of history we choose to preserve and commemorate, and why. No one can deny the world is an old and embattled place. Recognizing this begs serious questions of our traditional efforts at memorializing loss and sacrifice. First, what metrics determine what sufferings are legitimately worth remembering? For example, people the world over clearly feel a duty to remember their soldiers, but what about the civilian dead? Wars almost always cost more civilian than combatant lives, but the public’s imagination almost always centers on soldiers. Indeed, the ongoing scholarly debate as to the specific ratio is a testament to not just how overwhelming the reality of civilian deaths is, but also how little we like to think about this particularly senseless aspect of human conflict. Bringing civilians into the mix robs war of what glory it had, as one man’s honorable sacrifice is undone by a child’s meaningless slaughter. It becomes a story few really want to hear, and a serious problem for historical interpretation. And yet this is a key part of war’s story. Continue reading “Point/Counterpoint: The Gettysburg Battlefield Marathon”

The Moment We’ve all Been Waiting For: Lee’s Gettysburg Headquarters Opens

By Savannah Rose ’17

On October 28, 2016, the doors of the Mary Thompson house located on Seminary Ridge in Gettysburg opened before a crowd of over one thousand Civil War Trust members and Civil War enthusiasts. In 2013, the Civil War Trust purchased a portion of land on Seminary Ridge, land covered with a motel, a brewery, a restaurant, and the Mary Thompson house, which some know as the headquarters of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Since purchasing the land the Civil War Trust, in partnership with other organizations, has worked to restore the Thompson property to its 1863 appearance by tearing down numerous contemporary buildings and restoring the house used by Lee during the Battle of Gettysburg. This past Friday, I walked my way up to Seminary Ridge, excited to see the finished project after watching the spot’s restoration for years.

Visitors wait in line to enter the newly restored Mary Thompson House. Visitors will now see the structure as Confederate General Robert E. Lee would have seen it when he arrived on July 1, 1863. Photo courtesy of the author.
Visitors wait in line to enter the newly restored Mary Thompson House. Visitors will now see the structure as Confederate General Robert E. Lee would have seen it when he arrived on July 1, 1863. Photo courtesy of the author.

When I got to the top of the ridge, braving the cold and the wind, I found the attendees surrounding a small stone house. The scene seem so different than it did just a few years ago when I entered the restaurant that once stood on the site. The crowd amassed near the house where the 26th North Carolina Regimental Band stood with a small podium, filling the air with Civil War music. Lee’s headquarters remained closed as more people began to arrive. Continue reading “The Moment We’ve all Been Waiting For: Lee’s Gettysburg Headquarters Opens”

A Pohanka Summer: My Internship at Gettysburg National Military Park

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.

By Savannah Rose ’17

Over the past eleven weeks, I have been interning with the Division of Interpretation at Gettysburg National Military Park. Throughout the summer, I have acted as a front line interpreter for the park, giving programs in numerous areas around the Gettysburg Battlefield. In addition to the knowledge I’ve gained about interpretation, I have learned more about my life goals as well, pushing me to pursue a career in the National Park Service. My experience at Gettysburg has given me an unforgettable summer with numerous new friends, lessons, and knowledge that I can utilize for the remainder of my life.

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The author’s program at the Soldiers National Cemetery began near this spot at the Rostrum. Photo courtesy of the author.

Continue reading “A Pohanka Summer: My Internship at Gettysburg National Military Park”

Special Collections Roadshow — Episode Ten: Union Uniform

By Meg Sutter ’16 and Megan McNish ’16

Stay tuned for Part Two!

Special Collections Roadshow was created by the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College in the Spring of 2014. It normally showcases various artifacts from Special Collections at Gettysburg College. For our tenth episode, we went on the road to the Gettysburg National Military Park. Thank you so much to the park staff, specifically Andrew Newman for letting us film an episode on an enlisted man’s uniform in their facility! #FindYourPark #GettysburgNMP

What I Saw of the Rally: A Few Observations from the Confederate Flag Protests

By Jeff Lauck ’18

The normally quiet town of Gettysburg was once more disrupted by battle when two groups of protesters went head-to-head over the memory of the Confederate flag. Since the tumult and confusion of that fateful Saturday two weeks ago, many have weighed in on the day’s events with varying degrees of accuracy and distorted perceptions of reality. The following is my account.

I first heard about the pro-flag rally a couple months ago when the Gettysburg chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans received a permit to protest on the Gettysburg National Military Park grounds. I did not think much of it, mostly because my spring break was scheduled to begin the day before the rally. About a week later, I learned that there would be a counter protest against the Confederate flag. This seemed a worthy reason to push back my spring break plans by one day.

We gathered near the Lincoln statue outside Stevens Hall, inspired by the statue’s intent to serve as a forum for discussion on our nation’s continued problems with race relations. There were about 20 of us, holding signs with slogans like “Heritage of Hate” and “The Battle is Over! Surrender the Flag!” Dr. Scott Hancock, a professor of history and Africana studies at Gettysburg College, reminded us that the “flaggers” were exercising their freedom of speech, just as we would be. When speaking about the flag, he encouraged us to say that we supported a more holistic interpretation of the flag, one that included the centrality of slavery to the Confederacy and the flag’s use by many white supremacist groups since the end of the war. After taking a photo in front of the Lincoln statue, we marched over a mile up to the Eternal Light Peace Memorial where the flag rally was to be held.

After gathering at the Lincoln statue, we marched up to the Peace Light, getting honks of approval from cars that drove by. Photograph by the author.

Continue reading “What I Saw of the Rally: A Few Observations from the Confederate Flag Protests”

“We Can Never Forget What They Did Here”: What Draws People to Gettysburg?

By Jen Simone ’18

“I am so sick of hearing about the Civil War every single day.”
“I didn’t expect there to be so many history nerds at this school.”
“I don’t get why so many tourists come to a little place like Gettysburg.”

I hear constant complaints from fellow Gettysburg College students about how tired they get of hearing about the Civil War. What did they expect coming to Gettysburg College, situated in one of the most visited historic towns in America? More importantly, what is so wrong with hearing about the Civil War so often? I decided that I wanted to investigate—why are so many people drawn to this small town in rural Pennsylvania? What draws millions of people to take time out of their busy lives to explore this special place? I’m hoping that my findings will convince college students that it is worth exploring this history-rich town and maybe for once, get them to stop to read the interpretative markers while they’re out jogging on the battlefield instead of simply passing by.

What draws people again and again to this battlefield? Photograph by author.
What draws people again and again to this battlefield? Photograph by author.

I conducted my whole investigation by walking up to random people I met in town and asking them all the same simple question: “Why are you here?” I expected to get very similar answers throughout all of my interviews and was ready to keep a tally of people visiting because they are either history buffs or because they have never been to Gettysburg before and just thought they should visit and see what all of the hype is about. I was shocked, however, for no two responses I received were the same. Continue reading ““We Can Never Forget What They Did Here”: What Draws People to Gettysburg?”