“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)

Interpreting the Abraham Bryan Farm

By : Cameron Sauers

CWI Fellow Cameron Sauers ’21 tells the story of the Abraham Bryan farm on the Gettysburg battlefield. Bryan, a free African American, owned a portion of the land that Johnston Pettigrew’s men would make their July 3rd assault on. After the war and Bryan’s death, Union and Confederate veterans would shake hands over the stone wall on Bryan’s property. Cameron explores the paradoxes of the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy” and reconciliation happening on the land of a free black man at one of the most famous Civil War battlefields.

Battlefields and Supermarkets: The Importance of Battlefield Preservation and the Case of Camp Letterman

By Savannah Labbe ‘19

Gettysburg National Military Park is an immense park, encompassing and preserving a large section of the battlefield. What many don’t realize, however, is that the battlefield was not confined only to the areas that have been preserved, but also to a much larger section of the greater Gettysburg area. Where now stands the Giant supermarket was once home to land that the Confederates retreated over and also, more importantly, to a large battlefield hospital, Camp Letterman.

Tents at Camp Letterman
Tents at Camp Letterman in August, 1863. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

After the Battle of Gettysburg, most of the wounded and the medical staff moved on with the army. However, some wounded couldn’t be moved due to the severity of their injuries. All these men were consolidated into the general hospital that became known as Camp Letterman, which housed around 21,000 badly wounded Union and Confederate soldiers. It was the largest field hospital of the Civil War with 500 tents and the capacity to house 21,000 wounded. About 1,200 soldiers died there, but that number could have been much higher if not for Major John Letterman’s advanced triage system. His system became the gold standard of medical practice during that time period. Since Camp Letterman treated both Union and Confederate soldiers, they were able to interact and help begin to heal the divide that was crippling the nation. For example, there was a picnic at Camp Letterman in which both Union and Confederate soldiers ate and played games together. Camp Letterman was also involved in the First World War, providing housing for soldiers in the wake of the Spanish flu epidemic. Continue reading “Battlefields and Supermarkets: The Importance of Battlefield Preservation and the Case of Camp Letterman”

Adams County in the Great War

2017 marks the hundred-year anniversary of the US joining the First World War. This post will be part of a series examining the Great War in scope and in memory.

By Jonathan Tracey ‘19 

The First World War has generally faded from American memory, and is generally considered to have not cost the United States much. Although the country did not experience the total destruction that Europe endured, even small towns such as Gettysburg paid a cost, and the sacrifices made one hundred years ago should not be forgotten. First off is a brief summary of Adams County in the war, sourced primarily from Paul Foulk and Percy Eichelberger’s “Adams County in the World War.” Foulk and Eichelberger were students of Gettysburg College (then Pennsylvania College) and returned from service in the war and wrote the book to chronicle the county’s involvement. Consisting primarily of statistics and lists of soldiers from each town in the county, the book concludes with accounts written by soldiers about their overseas experiences.

WWI Liberty Bonds
Many residents of Adams County supported the war effort by buying war bonds. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.


Adams County responded with great vigor to the news that the United States would be joining the war. The initial draft registration of men included only those between the ages of 21 and 31, but was eventually broadened to all men ages 18 to 45. By the end of the war, 6,376 county men were registered and divided into several “classes” based on exemptions such as dependents or certain occupations. Of these, 548 were called to service and only two delinquencies were reported. The small number of delinquencies indicates a general acceptance of being drafted among county inhabitants. Additionally, 330 past, current, or future students of Gettysburg College enlisted, ranging from the Class of 1873 all the way to the Class of 1923. Naturally, the vast majority came from the Class of 1914 to the Class of 1920.

Continue reading “Adams County in the Great War”

Real History vs Reel History: The Never-Ending Debate

By Laurel Wilson ’19

Movies based on history have been popular since the rise of film in the entertainment industry. Transporting audiences to a different place and time period is something that film has always had the ability to do and often does very well. Though many films that are based on historical subject matter are carefully researched and try to be as historically accurate as possible, many historians take issue with their historical inaccuracies. There are countless opinions out in the world about the importance and role of historical accuracy in film. Most of these opinions fall into one of two camps: those that argue films should try to be more historically accurate if they are portraying a specific event or time period and those that argue that films should be allowed to take creative liberties with historical accuracy.

Historians will often argue, with good reason, that films that do not take historical accuracy seriously run the risk of giving audiences false impressions of historical events or even time periods as a whole. Films are often guilty of idealizing or romanticizing history at least to some degree, which can give the audience a false impression of the history behind the film. History is not black and white; there are often many different sides to a story and lots of gray areas, which can sometimes be difficult to convey in a film.

Photo credit: iceposters.com
Photo credit: iceposters.com

Continue reading “Real History vs Reel History: The Never-Ending Debate”

"A National Sin": Samuel Simon Schmucker, Founder of Gettysburg College, on the Peculiar Institution

By Meg Sutter ’16

Many music and art students at Gettysburg College would recognize the name Schmucker as their building, or affectionately their ‘home,’ on campus. Alumni might even remember Schmucker Hall as their library. However, if asked who founded Gettysburg College, most students and alumni would probably not know his name. Fortunately, our campus is celebrating Founders Day this week to remember those, including our founder Samuel Simon Schmucker, who helped make our college #Gettysburgreat.

Samuel Simon Schmucker was born in 1799 in Hagerstown, Maryland to German immigrants. His father, John George Schmucker, was a pastor in Hagerstown before moving to York where he continued his ministry. Samuel Simon Schmucker attended the York County Academy before going to the University of Pennsylvania and then the theological seminary at Princeton. In 1820 he was granted membership in the Lutheran Synod and, by the next year, was ordained as a minister by the Maryland and Virginia Synod. As part of the Synod he was elected to a committee in charge of planning a Lutheran theological seminary. Gettysburg was chosen as the location for the seminary, perhaps because there was a large population of German Lutherans in the Gettysburg area and in Adams County. Classes opened at the Lutheran Theological Seminary on September 5, 1826, but after a year, Dr. Schmucker came to the conclusion that many of his students were not prepared in the manner they should be to continue theological studies. He devised creating a preparatory school to solve the problem. On June 25, 1827, the Classical Preparatory School opened and shared the same building as the Seminary. Due to financial problems, Dr. Schmucker bought the property in 1829 and changed the name of the Classical School to the Gettysburg Gymnasium. As both schools grew, there became a need for the Gettysburg Gymnasium to once again reestablish itself. Dr. Schmucker drafted and proposed a bill to make the Gettysburg Gymnasium into a college “for the education of youth in the learned languages, the arts, sciences, and useful literature.” On November 7, 1832, Pennsylvania College was “opened for the reception of Students.”

Gettysburg Gymnasium
Gettysburg Gymnasium at Washington and Carlisle Streets, ca. 1882. Photograph courtesy of Gettysburg College Special Collections.

Continue reading “"A National Sin": Samuel Simon Schmucker, Founder of Gettysburg College, on the Peculiar Institution”

Challenging Lincoln: How Gettysburg’s Lincoln-centric Emancipation Narrative Has Overshadowed Local Black History

By Jeff Lauck ’18

When it comes to symbols of emancipation, President Abraham Lincoln is king. No other person is more associated with the abolition of slavery than “The Great Emancipator” himself. This holds true in Gettysburg just as much as it does throughout the country. Only last September, Gettysburg College erected a statue of Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation in the hope that it would “promote the discussion of race relations in America today.” Yet when it comes to commemorating and remembering the struggle for emancipation, Lincoln is far from the only face that we should look to in our historic town.

Abraham Lincoln has been forever linked to Gettysburg thanks to his famed “Gettysburg Address.” Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The borough has a long and rich history of both slavery and liberation. The first African Americans to arrive in Gettysburg did so as slaves to Alexander Dobbin, the Presbyterian minister who founded a classical school in the soon-to-be-incorporated town. The Dobbin House, today a colonial tavern and eatery, was built in 1776 by Dobbin’s slaves. James Gettys, the borough’s founder and namesake, also owned a slave named Sydney O’Brien. For reasons unknown, Gettys freed O’Brien and gave her a house in the southwest corner of the town, close to the Dobbin family home. Thus was born Gettysburg’s free African American community. Continue reading “Challenging Lincoln: How Gettysburg’s Lincoln-centric Emancipation Narrative Has Overshadowed Local Black History”

Joshua Chamberlain on Mars: Chambermania and Beyond!

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to observe one fact about Mars: it has a lot of rocks. While each is typically given a name based on protocols of scientific classification, many are known by informal, often humorous names like “Grandma” and “Space Ghost.” And now on Mars, there’s a rock for fans of Civil War history—“Chamberlain,” named of course for Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is now on Mars.

Aileen Yingst, the NASA scientist who named the rock, is a resident of Brunswick, Maine—the southern Maine town where JLC notably spent most of his adult life. And to this day, his presence there is inescapable. In Brunswick’s old town center, one can find pictures honoring him in numerous nearby restaurants, including one explicitly named for him. A local ice cream store reminds visitors to recycle their dishes because “Joshua Chamberlain would.” A bronze statue of him stands in a highly visible location close to the gates of the local Bowdoin College—the institution which Chamberlain attended as a student, taught at as a professor, and later served as president. Continue reading “Joshua Chamberlain on Mars: Chambermania and Beyond!”

I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts

By Kevin Lavery ’16

I had no plans of writing a blog post this week. I said my piece on ghost tours last year. This Halloween, it was the next generation’s turn to share their opinions on the matter. Jules and Jen both did a spectacular job on the subject, and I commend them even though our perspectives differ. But when I learned that my stance had come under fire from another blog, I eagerly leapt from the comfort of my editing armchair and returned to the front lines to compose this piece.

Gettysburg skyline from the roof of the Appleford Inn on All Hallow's Eve Eve.
Gettysburg skyline from the roof of the Appleford Inn on All Hallow’s Eve Eve. Photograph by the author.

In a post earlier this week, The Sundance Kid of the History Bandits wrote a piece arguing that I “missed the point” of ghost tours. He argues that they are an expression of folklore that should be considered an equally important part of the town’s historical landscape. I didn’t miss the point. I rejected it.

Now, I should clarify that I’m not rejecting folklore as a valid form of making sense of suffering. I firmly believe that it is a core component of Gettysburg’s heritage. I am only rejecting ghost tours as an authentic expression of folklore. It is true that spiritualism has long predated the emergence of the ghost tours industry. But I believe it is problematic to confound folklore with the stories told by ghost tours. Continue reading “I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts”

GettysBOOrg, PA: Complicating the Ghost Tour Debate

By Jen Simone ’18

Whether you believe ghosts exist or not, I think most visitors would agree that if they did in fact exist, there would be a whole community of them living in Gettysburg.  Upon entering the stores downtown and looking at the merchandise, it becomes very clear that store owners feed this fascination.  Any visitor is bound to see the typical “got ghosts? Gettysburg does” t-shirt or similar merchandise elsewhere in town.  The Gettysburg Tour Center even features a selection of books ranging from The Big Book of Pennsylvania Ghost Stories to I Met a Ghost at Gettysburg.  Just a few aisles over, next to the “Heritage Not Hate” mugs, there are mouse pads, shot glasses, and even snow globes with “Gettysburg Ghosts” printed all over them.

Some of Gettysburg's public art, found near Steinwehr Avenue. Photograph by the author.
Some of Gettysburg’s public art, found near Steinwehr Avenue. Photograph by the author.

While many historians ardently oppose the ghost tour industry for its inaccurate portrayal of historical events and trivialization of atrocities, paranormal tourism remains ubiquitous in Gettysburg. What explains this industry’s success?  I decided to go out into town and ask employees and visitors why they believe it is so successful, for they, not the historians, are the ones fueling it. Continue reading “GettysBOOrg, PA: Complicating the Ghost Tour Debate”