The War on Boredom Vol. III

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A newspaper vendor with the Army of the Potomac. (Library of Congress)

“I receive the ‘Chronicle’ regularly”

Lately a lot of people have probably spent more time than usual scrolling through the news, tracking the latest updates on the spread or containment of COVID-19, the economy and the upcoming 2020 election.  Or maybe you  decided to crack open that good-looking novel that’s been sitting on the nightstand for the past three months. Confined to camping out at home, we all begin to yearn for news of what is going on outside of our home or conversely, a distraction that will altogether take our mind off current events.  Many have turned to reading, for those that haven’t, maybe this is an excellent opportunity to give it a try.

Going along with the theme carried through volumes I and II, your experience at home is reflective of at least one aspect of life in the Army during the American Civil War.  For generations a myth has persisted that the average Civil War soldier was illiterate.  As it turns out your odds of finding a soldier who did have the ability to read and write were higher than finding one who could not. Civil War armies were among the most literate to take the field worldwide, during the mid-nineteenth century.

A survey of Tennessee soldiers conducted after the war revealed that twenty-two percent of those questioned had attended an average of four years of formal schooling while no respondent stated that they had received no education at all.  Even the least literate state in the Union before the war, North Carolina would still boast a literacy rate of eighty-three percent among its military aged white male population.  As men from the north and south marched away to war, they took with them a healthy appetite for reading materials.  And when the armies settled into camps, reading became one of the most popular ways to pass the time.

The most popular reading material was already discussed in Volume II of this series, letters from home. Men yearned for a tangible connection to their loved ones and a sense of normalcy about their daily lives by way of word from home.  A close second to mail from home in terms of popularity were the newspapers that circulated camps throughout the country during the conflict.

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Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside peruses a newspaper in this 1864 image. (Library of Congress)

One lieutenant in the 50th Ohio Infantry wrote of receiving four daily newspapers in camp every day.  These papers were the same periodicals received daily in cities across the north and south.  Reading the same paper a loved one read daily could serve as another connection to home and a sense of normalcy amidst the tumult of conflict.  Generally, the paper would be one or two days old but relevant nonetheless.  In the case of the 50th Ohio, the officers of the regiment subscribed to the papers for the benefit of the men and they were passed from soldier to soldier until they were all but worn out.  The aforementioned lieutenant assured his brother back home that all of the papers were “right on politics that is – republican.”

A mirrored experience was unfolding in the camp of the 17th Mississippi Infantry camped near Leesburg, Virginia in January of 1862.  A soldier of the regiment wrote home that the men were spending their down time “reading the daily papers & discussing the war question in general.”  In some cases, pickets would exchange Union and Confederate newspapers with one another while serving on an outpost in order to bring a little variety to camp.

Union and Confederates exhanging papers LOC

Union and Confederate pickets swap newspapers. (Library of Congress)

The mechanisms of the Industrial Revolution also brought with it a new phenomenon to literature in the United States: The Dime Novel.  Think of the dime novel as today’s paperback book. Believed to be the first of its kind, Malaeska, The Indian Wife of the White Hunter was published in June 1860, just as the war was breaking out by Beadle and Adams Publishers of New York City. Malaeska cover LOC In the first six months of printing the company sold sixty-five thousand copies, no doubt more than a handful making their way into the hands of new soldiers.  Dime novels were, as the name suggests, inexpensive and they could be easily carried by men on the march.  Once a soldier was done with it, the book could be traded for another with a comrade who may be carrying a different title.

Reading these accessible works of fiction certainly served as a form of escapism for the men.  They could be transported away from the horror of war, the inconveniences of Army life and the doldrums of sitting around waiting for the next campaign.  Instead, they could enter a world different altogether, entering the world of the author and taking their minds off of everything unpleasant.

In all likelihood though, the book that would outrank any dime novel in terms of popularity in the ranks was the bible.  The American Bible Society, among other organizations, produced copies of the bible and supplied them to both sides of the conflict.  On more than a few occasions books of various type, including the bible caught bullets while being carried into battle in breast pockets or in knapsacks making them lifesaving keepsakes that would be passed down through generations.

In the case of those printed materials that saved a soldier’s life, these goods were most certainly considered “life-sustaining.”  However, even those that didn’t prove to be a physical shield on the battlefield were essential to the mental health of the soldiers.  Letters from home, newspapers, dime novels and the bible all served as weapons during the war on boredom.  We hope you are enjoying this series and will tune in next time for Volume IV of the War on Boredom.

Philip Brown
Park Ranger, Gettysburg NMP

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The War on Boredom: Volume II

“I write these few lines to you in good health, hoping they find you in the same condition.”

Correspondence and Care Packages in the Civil War

The recent outbreak of COVID-19 has affected almost every facet of everyday American life over the past two weeks.  It has altered our daily routines, our modes of transportation and how we communicate with one another.  The Center for Disease Control’s recommendations on social distancing has pushed face to face communication to a six-foot minimum distance if not halted it altogether.  The staff at Gettysburg National Military Park has taken all communications amongst one another to an all-digital format, in step with the majority of the nation and a growing portion of the world.

In front of Yorktown

Winslow Homer, In Front of Yorktown, ca. 1863–66. Oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery

In truth, every Civil War soldier went through this same transition upon enlistment.  All face to face ties were cut with his family and friends who did not enlist with him.  He would quickly find it challenging to carry on any semblance of a prior relationship with those he called his closest associates.

If you were to have an opportunity to sort through the personal belongings of a Civil War soldier, namely the contents of his haversack, knapsack or tent you would find the expected accoutrement of military life- rations, extra underclothing, blanket, ground cloth, musket.  Buried in amongst this overwhelming weight of gear would be an unexpected yet highly prized item, his only two-way link to the outside world- his writing kit.  Think of this as his nineteenth century smartphone or tablet.

A soldier’s writing kit could vary widely in contents and sophistication depending upon what was available at the time of purchase as well as personal preferences.  They could be as simple as a few envelopes, stamps, sheets of paper and a pencil or as complex as a pen holder, steel pen tips, ink, inkwell, stationary and decorative envelopes.  In some cases writing kits could be purchased complete or put together at the discretion of the soldier by buying each item separately.  In either case, the materials were most often procured from merchants following the army called “sutlers.”   

Mail Wagon

Mail wagons of the 2nd Corps, Army of the Potomac, 1864 (Library of Congress)

A letter from home could bring a sense of normalcy to a soldier’s life which had been turned upside down when he was wrenched, voluntarily or not, from his life back home. In some cases, businesses or entire estates were managed by way of letter writing.  In the case of Confederate soldiers, slaves were sold and purchased at the written request of men serving in ranks hundreds of miles from home. Entire romantic relationships unfolded through written communication. Letters could bring tidings of joy with the birth of a new little one, or in the case of Lieutenant Sidney Carter of the 14th South Carolina Infantry, the saddening news of his mother’s passing in 1862. 

Another form of mail that brought universal happiness to soldiers serving in the field was the receipt of a care package from home.  Most soldiers referred to this joyous occasion as receiving a “box” from home as care packages were mailed in the 1860s either in wooden boxes or barrels.  For many, these served as the life blood of survival for men.  They most often contained items that were specifically requested by the soldiers and were sent more often in the long boring times spent between the battles while regiments stayed in relatively static, unmoving camps where reliable mail could be had.

John Billings, the now famous author of Hardtack and Coffee, wrote that the minimum dimensions for a useful box from home were roughly ten inches wide and ten inches long with an inside depth of about six inches; however, he also stated that most boxes were quite a bit larger in size.  Billings also described how these boxes were almost universally packed as tightly as they could be with every available space filled with foodstuffs or small knit or woolen goods.

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The contents of packages sent from home are eagerly unpacked in this front page illustration from Harper’s Weekly (Library of Congress).

The contents of a box sent from home would vary depending on what a soldier asked for. Soldiers often requested supplemental warm clothing- hats, scarves, mittens and boots- to stave off the cold in the winter months.  They also frequently asked for ration supplements in the form of dried fruits and meats, butter, jams and preserves, anything that could break the monotony of Army fare.

As the war progressed, reliable mail service became ever more challenging for the Confederate Army.  Eventually, soldiers would rely on friends within their company or regiment who were going home on a furlough, to take with them and bring back mail from home.  Samuel Watkins, author of Co. Aytch and veteran of the 1st Tennessee Infantry Regiment received both a letter and a box from home by way of a comrade who was the uncle of a woman he was in a romantic relationship with named Jennie.  She sent him a tobacco bag, a watch-chain made of horse hair, and a wool hood – presumably to ward off the cold air – knit by Jennie herself.  A careful reading of later Confederate letters reveals that soldiers would often cut a letter short, stating that the mail carrier (furloughed soldier) was leaving soon and they had to hand the mail off quickly.  The strains of war clearly put a strain on communication.

Over the next few weeks, the next time you are frustrated by having to send a text, make a phone call, drop someone an email or order yourself a “box” from your favorite online shopping center, think of the soldiers and the fact that you are sharing a common hardship with those that served in the American Civil War (albeit on a much more luxurious scale).


Ranger Philip Brown
Gettysburg National Military Park

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The War on Boredom Vol. I

There is an old saying about Army life that goes something like  “soldiering is 99% boredom, and 1% sheer terror.”  Finding the bona-fide original author of this phrase proves to be quite a challenge today though it can be found in writing from as recent as the Global War on Terror to as far back as the American Civil War.  To be sure, the sentiment extended into almost every soldier’s experience during the Civil War. 

While it would be easy to assume that the vast majority of a Civil War soldier’s time in the military was spent on the frontlines doing battle with the enemy, in fact, only a tiny fraction of his time was spent in combat.  Instead, most soldiers spent their time staving off an overwhelming sense of boredom as the men languished in camps for long periods of time between campaigns.  This, above all other aspects of the Civil war is something most Americans can relate to this week as many are at home keeping their distance from friends and family in hope of slowing the spread of the Coronavirus disease and in turn, doing their best to combat boredom.   

In this series of posts titled The War on Boredom, we will look at a variety of ways soldiers did their best to keep their hands busy and their minds off the reality of living in a time of great stress and consternation.

“Immense gambling is going on all over camp.”
Games of Chance and the American Civil War 

Each day during the summer at Gettysburg National Military Park, we host a program for children aged eight to twelve years old called Join the Army whereupon young recruits can get an idea of what Army life was like during the Civil War.  When we ask the young visitors what they think soldiers did to pass the time when they weren’t busy with some other chore, invariably a “recruit” shouts out “They Gambled!” 

Indeed gambling, for better or worse, has been the quintessential soldier pastime for generations of Americans in uniform.  After all, a deck cards or a set of dice can be easily stowed amongst other gear and the prospect of extending a monthly salary has always been enticing.  Civil War soldiers often engaged in a variety of games of chance, some still exist today while others are not as popular as they once were.

Three Zouaves of the 5th New York, “Pitch Quiots” in this painting by Winslow Homer. (Harvard University)

The most popular card game was likely a game called “Bluff” by the soldiers.  Today we call it poker.  A deck of playing cards in the 1860s was set up in much the same as a modern deck consisting of four suits, with thirteen cards per suit.  However, there were generally not numbers or letters denoting what the cards were, simply faces and sets of clubs, diamond, hearts and spades for the “numbered” cards.  Whereas today there are many variations on the game of poker, during the Civil War most soldiers played what we call “straight” poker whereupon players are unable to exchange any cards and must bet based on what they are dealt by the dealer.  The player dealt the best hand would win the pot of money after all the bets were placed.  The “best” hand would be determined by a hierarchical listing of hands ranging from pairs of the same type of card all the way up to a royal flush (an ace, king, queen, jack and ten of all the same suit).   

A popular dice game called chuck-a-luck was a bit more involved in that it required a game board and a set of dice. A typical chuck-a-luck board consists of six numbered squares, players put money on the number, betting that the banker, when he rolls three dice will roll one or two of those numbers.  The players are paid out according to odds set by the banker. If the banker rolls three of the same number, the player that bet on that number loses all the money they bet.   

Finally, the simplest means of gambling during the Civil War came in the form of raffles.  These games of chance were likely as simple as they sound.  Buy a ticket with a number on it, if that number is drawn on the day of the raffle, a prize is won.


Image courtesy C. Brown.

While all of this sounds like great fun and games, officers of both armies recognized a potential for moral decline in their ranks should gambling become addictive amongst the men.  For some officers, the desire to stop gambling was based on religious views, for others the desire was rooted more in keeping the peace in camp as fights would often break out over suspected cheaters. 

Some officers went so far as to ban gambling in its entirety from the unit.  This was the case for at least an entire brigade in the Third Army Corps during the Gettysburg Campaign as on June 20, 1863 Hobart Ward’s men were issued Special Order Number 2 which stated that “All gambling and playing at games of chance in this command will be strictly prohibited from this date.  Any violation of this order on the part of the enlisted men will be attended with severe punishment and all officers neglecting to enforce the same will be called to account for neglect of duty.”


Two soldiers caught betting are forced to repeat offense in this Alfred Waud illustration entitled, “General Patrick’s Punishment for Gamblers.” (Library of Congress)

In some cases, the soldiers regulated their gambling on their own. Samuel Hankins of the 2nd Mississippi remembered that just before a battle “there would be a searching of pockets for gambling goods, playing cards especially.  The thought of being killed with such in their pockets induced the soldiers to throw them away.  The road would soon be covered with playing cards, dice, dice boxes, etc.”  Evidently the men of his regiment were worried about the shame their family would have to endure should their bodies be found with gambling paraphernalia in their pockets.   

Nevertheless, when not concerned about their moral decline or imminent demise, gambling remained a staple of the war on boredom which unfolded in every camp of the American Civil War.   

 – Ranger Philip Brown
Gettysburg NMP

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“The hissing bullet has sung his requiem.” The Obituary for a New York Soldier.

The devastating news arrived in Dunkirk, New York on a warm July day- Private Thomas Holland, the  town’s former clothing merchant, a soldier in the 72nd New York Infantry, was dead, killed at Gettysburg. Like so many families affected by such a loss, the Holland family would never be the same.

Born in England to Irish parents David and Bridget Holland, Thomas was brought to America as an infant in the years prior to the Great Irish Potato Famine. Determined to give his growing family a proper life and decent living, David Holland moved his family to Dunkirk on the shores of Lake Erie where he opened a mercantile and clothing business. The family prospered with the addition of two daughters- Kate and Maggie- and another son, David, Jr. Thomas worked in his father’s business and by 1860, he managed the clothing part of the operation. The future seemed bright but then war came and Thomas determined to volunteer for the Army. On August 25, 1861, he joined one of the first companies raised that summer in Chautauqua County, destined to become Company E of the 72nd New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, one of the core regiments designated for General Daniel Sickles’ “Excelsior Brigade”.

Private Holland was an exemplary soldier. In April 1863, he was chosen with a detail of others to act as the Grand Guard during a visit to the Army of the Potomac by President Lincoln. “The President reviewed 4 Corps de Army,” Holland wrote his mother on April 8. “it was a Grand Sight to see 70,000 Infantry in column at present arms as he passed them. Our Army never was in better fighting condition.”  Did Holland echo this same sentiment as he and his comrades trod roads from Maryland into Adams County on a warm July 1, the distant thunder of cannon ahead a sure sign that trouble lay ahead?

It was long after nightfall when the Excelsior Brigade arrived on Cemetery Ridge south of Gettysburg and the soldiers broke ranks to catch a few hours of fitful sleep. Skirmish activity and occasional cannon fire throughout the next day kept them alert until the early afternoon when the brigade formed line of battle and moved forward to a high ridge crowned by the large peach orchard owned by Joseph Sherfy, whose house and farm buildings stood just across from the 72nd’s position near the Emmitsburg Road. For over an hour, Confederate artillery sent shells over the regiment. The men hugged the ground, taking advantage of what little cover was offered. The approach of Confederate infantry “opened the ball” and very soon the New Yorkers found themselves swept up in the chaos of battle among the young fruit trees, the line forced back in a determined but decimating retreat. Among the fallen was Private Holland, who died four days later in a Federal field hospital.

Excelsior Brigade Monument

The monument to the Excelsior Brigade in “Excelsior Field”. Bronze tablets around the base of the monument recognize each regiment of the brigade commanded at Gettysburg by Colonel William Brewster. (Heiser, Gettysburg National Military Park)

As one would expect, the news of Holland’s death stunned and shocked his family, especially the sisters with whom he was very close.  Though comforted by friends and neighbors, the Hollands were haunted by Thomas’s death so far from home, during a year where the bloodshed seemed endless. Then one day, a letter arrived at the Holland home addressed to Maggie. It was solemn effort by a family friend, a eulogy and memorial to the sacrifice that cut so deep:

Obituary Thomas Holland

The fratricidal war that unhappily prevails in our country has carried death and sorrow to almost every home throughout the length and breadth of this hitherto glorious and peaceful land. Almighty Ruler of the Universe, when shall this cruel war have an end? When shall the contending brothers, when shall the North, South, East and West learn that great and important lesson, that spiritual injunction, brotherly love? Shall it be when we are dead, steeped and saturated in our own blood, thrown side by side in common graves? Shall it be when our country is worthless and a prey to the enemies of liberty? Or shall we learn it too late; when we are summoned to that awful tribunal of justice where God renders their just dues to all mankind? Oh! We shall not judge! It rests with Him who “doeth all things well.”

Civil War is indeed upon us. And Oh! what a war! It has caused the death of as brave men as ever trod the tinted field of battle. It has caused parents sad and broken hearts. It has caused sisters and brothers to weep and mourn for the loved ones that in battle are slain. It has caused the untimely fate of many a young and promising man, whose name and fame might live in history, honored and revered by generations yet to come. Many a young and promising genius has fallen ere the years of maturity had set upon his calm and unfurrowed brow. It is true they fell in their country’s cause, nobly battling in her defence (sic.). And may God grant them eternal repose.

How painful it has been to us, when after the storm and smoke of battle had passed away, to hear the sad intelligence that many of our friends (page 2) and fellow citizens had fallen in bloody strife, never to rise again until God shall summon them to judgement. Names too numerous to mention. Names honorable and brave have passed away from us forever. Oh! how fondly we bear them in mind. How we clustered around their coffins to catch a single glance at the heroic dead. How we followed their remains as it moved mournfully and in slow, sad and pensive tread. How willingly one paid the last tribute of respect to the departed dead.

On the distant and bloody plains of Gettysburg, many of our friends and associates have fought their last fight. Many from our own midst have fallen. They all deserved to be held in greatful (sic.) remembrance for their many virtues, for their patriotism and unflinching devotion in the cause of their country. When their country was in danger, they sacrificed (sic.) everything to go forth and maintain the honor and dignity of this Republic Under that glorious ensign of liberty the strong and brave have fallen.

There was one among the many. One noble form. One cherished name dear to me. One friend beloved by me, ‘een as I, my brother love, that the hissing bullet has sung his requiem. The magnetic telegraph swift as the lightning flash, has brought to us the sad intelligence that Thomas Holland loved and honored by all who knew him, appreciated his gentlemanly traits, sterling worth and undoubted honesty, has passed away from us to receive, I trust, (page 3) a crown of everlasting and imperishable glory. He is no more. The strong and youthful man sleeps in the arms of death. God in His mercy has seen fit to call him from this wicked world to a land infinitely more bright and celestial. Young in years; possessed of a more than ordinary mind; endowed by God and nature with splendid faculties, he has passed from life to death. No deceit, no malice, no envy lurked within his breast. No, he was even animated by a noble and manly spirit. Open hearted generous and truthful in his intercourse with men; courteous as a gentleman; agreeable manners; polished and refined in society. If he had a fault, it was his own, and it rests with him. He bore no ill will to any living being. He sank to rest on friendly terms with all mankind. No man that even knew him can say, that he ever willingly done them an injury.

He received his mortal wounds at the battle of Gettysburg, July the second, and died from the affects (sic.) on July the ninth. He leaves a father and mother, two sisters and a brother, together with many other relatives and friends to mourn his premature death. He left our midst full of hope and bright anticipations for the future, but he returns to us in life no more. “He has fought his last fight and no sound can awake him to glory again.” Sorrow and dispair (sic.) reigns in his home over his untimely fate and irreparable loss. A father that fondly reared him; a mother that was most passionately attatched (sic.) to him; sisters that loved him more dearly than their life; a brother whose love for him was unbounded; must mourn for him that now in the land of spirits dwells. May they all meet, may they all be partakers of that glorious heritage, which God has promised to his faithful children.

Respectfully yours,
Patrick J. Murphy

Hopefully the Holland family found some comfort in Mr. Murphy’s heartfelt eulogy and though it probably did not ease all their pain, the document was kept as a reminder of the son and brother who never returned. Private Holland’s final resting place is unidentified though he is most likely buried at Gettysburg as an unknown, only this obituary and his name listed as a Gettysburg casualty to remind us of this one man’s worth. Doubtless other such eulogies found their way into a grieving family’s hands after Gettysburg; did they include the same sentiments as those expressed for Thomas Holland?

John Heiser
Historian, Gettysburg National Military Park

[Source: Holland letter and obituary in collection of L.L. Mitchell Camp 4, SUVCW, courtesy Mike Urell]

Posted in 72nd New York Infantry, Army of the Potomac, Romances of Gettysburg, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Daughters of Charity and the Battle of Gettysburg

Three days of heavy fighting during the Battle of Gettysburg resulted in more than 45,000 Union and Confederate casualties. From the time that the first shots were fired on July 1st, and for the next several weeks, the town of Gettysburg was flooded with wounded soldiers. Nearly all available public buildings in town, as well as private homes, were used as hospitals. While the buildings in the town of Gettysburg took on a new character as hospitals, the citizens of Gettysburg and surrounding towns took on new roles of their own; as caretakers of wounded soldiers. Among this group were the Daughters of Charity, an order of Catholic nuns headquartered in nearby Emmitsburg, Maryland.

More than 230 Daughters of Charity served as nurses during the American Civil War. These Sisters worked in hospitals both in the North and South, providing medical care for soldiers on both sides of the conflict. The Emmitsburg community of the Daughters of Charity provided nearly one-third of the Catholic nuns who nursed wounded soldiers during the Civil War. Founded in 1809 by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the Daughters of Charity’s presence in Emmitsburg included a convent, an orphanage, and a school for Catholic girls, St. Joseph’s Academy. As the Union and Confederate armies marched toward Gettysburg in late June, elements of the Union army moved through Emmitsburg, including the property owned by the nuns.  On the night of July 27, just as the Sisters were preparing for bed, they heard the gallop of horses’ hooves and rushed to their windows, where they saw elements of the Army of the Potomac’s Third Corps encamped near their convent. These turned out to be troops of General Regis De Trobriand’s brigade, whom Sister Marie Lousie Caufield described as being tired and “hungry as wolves.” The next day, the Sisters provided De Trobriand’s men with bread, butter, and coffee, a task which Sister Camilla O’Keefe said was a “pleasure for the Sisters to be able to satisfy the hunger of so many.” Sister Marie Louise Caufield and Sister Camilla O’Keefe likely provided some of these soldiers with one of the last meals they would ever eat, before they marched off to Gettysburg.

As fighting raged in Gettysburg from July 1-3, the Daughters of Charity could hear cannon fire in the distance, especially during Pickett’s Charge. When the guns fell silent and the battle had ended, Father Francis Burlando, the Chaplain of the Daughters of Charity’s Emmitsburg community, gathered a small group of Sisters to travel to Gettysburg to care for wounded soldiers. This party set out on July 5th, and as they made their way toward the town of Gettysburg, they travelled through the heart of the battlefield. Thus, they encountered the gory aftermath of battle firsthand. Father Burlando recalled:

What a frightful spectacle met our gaze! Houses burnt, dead bodies of both Armies strewn here and there, an immense number of slain horses, thousands of bayonets, sabres [sic], wagons, wheels, projectiles of all dimensions, blankets, caps, clothing of every color covered the woods and fields. We were compelled to drive very cautiously to avoid passing over the dead. Our terrified horses drew back or darted forward reeling from one side to the other. The farther we advanced the more harrowing was the scene; we could not restrain our tearsThe inhabitants were just emerging from the cellars to which they had fled for safety during the combat; terror was depicted on every countenance; all was confusion.”

Upon reaching Gettysburg, Father Burlando established himself in the Gettysburg Hotel and sent the sisters out to the various hospital sites in town. The most notable of the places where the Daughters of Charity nursed was St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church on High Street.  Here, the Sisters cared for the men of the Third Division of the Army of the Potomac’s First Corps. The Sisters provided invaluable services at St. Francis Xavier. This hospital was understaffed, due to the high volume of wounded soldiers there, many of whom had been there since the church had been converted into a hospital on July 1st. The Sisters, as a result, were constantly at work, cleaning wounds and soothing dying soldiers. The Sisters who nursed at St. Francis Xavier became popular amongst the wounded soldiers for the selfless care which they provided. In recognition of the Daughters of Charity’s efforts in St. Francis Xavier, as well as at Gettysburg’s other hospitals, the Parish installed a plaque on the front of church as well as a stained-glass window depicting the Sisters at work as nurses.

Memorial tablet to the Daughters of Charity at the Catholic Church in Gettysburg (Lydia Strickling)

By July 6, there were eleven Sisters nursing in Gettysburg, at St. Francis Xavier and elsewhere. Those Sisters working in hospitals located in other churches enjoyed seeing the puzzled look on Commissary officials faces when they told the officials to send supplies to a church other than the Catholic Church. Gettysburg’s close proximity to Emmitsburg (about 10 miles) allowed the Daughters of Charity to send additional nurses to supplement Father Burlando’s initial group, as well as send the Sister- nurses in Gettysburg food and supplies as they cared for Gettysburg’s wounded. The Daughters of Charity encountered unpleasantness no matter the hospital they were stationed. They were tasked with cleaning wounds, some of which had become infested with maggots by the time of their cleaning, and combing lice out of the hair of wounded soldiers, amongst other duties. An unfortunate side-effect of this aspect of the Sisters’ services was that many of them brought lice and other vermin that hid in their clothing back to Emmitsburg when they finally returned there.  Not only did the Sisters provide medical care to wounded soldiers, but they also performed baptisms for dying soldiers who requested them. This included a group of about sixty Confederate prisoners, of whom Sister Camilla O’Keefe said “Their religion [had been] live as long as you could and enjoy life while it lasted” before they were baptized as Catholics.

One of the most remarkable stories to come out of the Daughters of Charity’s service as nurses in Gettysburg is that of Sisters Veronica and Serena Klemkiewicz. In addition to caring for wounded soldiers, they and other Sisters were responsible for searching the battlefield for soldiers still living amongst the dead soldiers who were not yet buried. On one occasion, Sisters Veronica and Serena, fellow Daughters of Charity as well as sisters in real life, encountered a man on Culp’s Hill whose face was covered in blood, crying out for water. When the Klemkiewicz sisters wiped the blood from the man’s face, they discovered, to their surprise, that this was their brother, Thaddeus. Thaddeus was a Private in the 1st Maryland Battalion (a Confederate regiment that would later become known as the 2nd Maryland) and had been badly wounded attacking the Union’s positions on Culp’s Hill. Sister Serena was able nurse her brother back to health and he survived the war. This impromptu family reunion was unlike most of the experiences had by the Daughters of Charity at Gettysburg, though they cared for these total strangers as though they were their own brothers.

Memorial Window in Catholic Church

The magnificent stained glass window in the Catholic Church in Gettysburg that commemorates the services of the Daughters of Charity after the battle of Gettysburg, (Lydia Strickling)

In the summer of 1863, when the Civil War arrived on the doorstep of the Daughters of Charity’s Emmitsburg community, its Sisters responded with courage and bravery. They cared for the most ghastly battlefield injuries and guided the mortally wounded from one world to the next. The Daughters of Charity were one of 12 orders of Catholic Nuns who served as nurses during the American Civil war, and their important work as nurses was instrumental in softening anti-Catholic public sentiment that was widespread in America in the mid-nineteenth century. This change in feeling was present in the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, when an old man traveled to the town to find his wounded son. He checked into the Gettysburg Hotel, and upon seeing the Daughters of Charity coming and going from the hotel, caring for wounded soldiers, he asked the hotel’s owner: “Good God, can those Sisters be the persons, whose religion we always run down[?]” The owner replied: “Yes… they are the very persons, who are run down by those, who know nothing of their charity.”

Lydia Strickling
Interpretive Ranger, Gettysburg National Military Park

Posted in Aftermath, Civilians, Historical Memory, Hospitals, Sisters of Charity | 5 Comments

Those Lost then Found at Culp’s Hill

In the aftermath of the battle of Gettysburg, thousands of dead Union and Confederate soldiers covered the fields and hills surrounding this small Pennsylvania town. Workmen, soldiers, and townspeople sweated through the July heat to bury the dead, often in shallow trench or mass graves. These hasty, improper burials were more for the necessity of the living than the respect for the dead. By the end of July, however, an idea was proposed that would not only aid the fight against the spread of illness and disease from the dead and the poor burials, but also provide a more honorable burial for those Union soldiers that had “given their last full measure of devotion.”  From late October 1863 through March 1864, over 3,500 Union soldiers were disinterred from the battlefield and reburied in the newly established Soldiers’ National Cemetery atop Cemetery Hill.

The process of removing the dead and working to identify them now months removed from their initial burial was supervised by Samuel Weaver. As work progressed on the Soldiers’ National Cemetery for Union soldiers, Confederate remains were left on the battlefield for nearly another decade. Between 1871 and 1873, Rufus Weaver oversaw the disinterment of over 3,300 Confederate soldiers to cemeteries in the south, most to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. Although his father, Samuel, had reburied Confederates upon the battlefield when they had been found during the creation of the National Cemetery, his records, when combined with those of Dr. John W.C. O’Neal, meant that many Confederates burials could still be located. The Hollywood Cemetery Memorial Association paid only a pittance of a few hundred dollars to Weaver, who was owed over $6,500 in labor and shipping fees. Ultimately, thousands of dead soldiers, both Union and Confederate, had been removed from the battlefield and reburied in cemeteries. Although the work of individuals such as the Weavers was carried out meticulously, there was no way for them to possibly find and remove every single soldier’s remains. This was especially true in the wooded terrain of Culp’s Hill.


Culp’s Hill, the anchor of the Federal right flank at Gettysburg, photographed a few weeks after the battle. (Library of Congress)

As late as 1899, large burial trenches were being found around Culp’s Hill and Spangler’s Spring as work to make the park more accessible continued. On September 19, 1899, the Gettysburg Compiler recorded “When digging a drain in the meadow near Spangler’s Spring last Thursday, battlefield workmen unearthed the bones of a Union soldier, about two feet below the surface of the ground. There were found also a U.S. plate (on account of which the body is supposed to have been that of a Union soldier), a knapsack, a cartridge belt and other articles.” Having been found near the meadow, it is possible that this soldier had served with the 2nd Massachusetts or 27th Indiana and been killed in their futile assault on the morning of July 3, 1863. Just a few days later, on September 23rd, a mass grave was discovered nearby. While widening and finishing the road now known as Geary Avenue near Spangler’s Spring, employees of the Farrell Brothers’ company unearthed the remains of seventeen Union soldiers. Somehow, they had been missed by the workmen carrying out re-internment of the Federal dead to the National Cemetery in 1863 and 1864.

ElliotMap Culp's Hill

Burial trenches at Culp’s Hill from the S.G. Elliott Map of the Gettysburg Battlefield,  published in 1864.  (Library of Congress:

The Gettysburg Compiler reported “it is likely that, after the bones are put together by an expert surgeon, they will finally rest in the National Cemetery.” Unfortunately, the Compiler was only partially correct. Calvin Hamilton, the Superintendent of the National Cemetery, wrote to the Quartermaster Department in Washington recording that “The remains were put into two boxes by the U.S. Battlefield Commission, whose workmen found them, and brought to this cemetery for reinterment.” However, he noted “As the remains were put indiscriminately into the boxes… it is now impossible [to] preserve the identity of any single body,” and recommended that they be buried within one grave rather than individually. Having been laid to rest together for 36 years and gathered by workmen into two boxes, it was no longer possible to separate the men.

As news spread of the discovery of the mass grave on Culp’s Hill, various veterans wrote to park officials and the local newspaper claiming to know the identities of the men who had been found. David Monat of the 29th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry wrote to Col. John P. Nicholson of the Gettysburg Battlefield Commission:

Seeing an article in the press of yesterday in reference to the finding of the dead bodies on Culp’s Hill at Gettysburg & which was supposed to be Union dead, I write and send a crude diagram…of my recollection of the place where we buried two separate lots of the Confederate dead on the morning of July 4. We also covered these bodies with our old blankets…. I do not know how the road runs where the bodies were found, but if it is any where near the spot I have designated, the other lot of bodies should be near by. There was one officer and 16 or 17 men in one lot and 13 men in the other.

Monat Map-Coco Collection 001

David Monat’s drawing of the location of burial trenches at Culp’s Hill. (Gregory Coco Collection, GNMP)

Monat’s sketch map placed the trench of men he helped bury near the intersection of Geary and Slocum Avenues, near the first monument for the 29th Pennsylvania. However, since these trenches were fairly obvious on the terrain and in a fairly clear location, it is likely that these dead had been removed to the South in the 1870s.

Additionally, Capt. Joseph Moore of the 147th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry shared his theory as to the identity of these men.  In a letter published in the Compiler, he wrote:

On our return up the hill, after crossing our breastworks on the crest, at a point near where the monument of the 28th P.V. stands, (back on level ground), probably 50 yards from our line of breastworks, I saw a deep ditch or long excavated series of graves dug, and a number of dead union soldiers laying ready for interment. They were covered with gray blankets. The ditch was about 50 feet long, and I think there were fully 17 dead bodies in the row. It occurred to me after reading this item, that these may be the same union soldiers, but it would be difficult to tell from which commands they were.

Moore placed this burial trench near the 28th Pennsylvania monument which is further north on Culp’s Hill. However, if he meant the specific breastworks of his regiment, the 147th Pennsylvania, when he wrote “our breastworks,” he may be describing a Union burial trench also near the 29th Pennsylvania monument. Although this conclusion is conjecture, this better fits the narrative of the first section of his letter, where he described collecting Confederate wounded and then heading back up the slope near that location. Unfortunately, the records of the Farrell Brothers finding the trench are not specific enough to note exactly where the soldiers had been found, meaning it is impossible to know for certain if the discovered trench was one described by Monat or Moore, or yet another one entirely. Although Monat had believed the grave to be that of Confederates, Calvin Hamilton had written that “The U.S. Plates, buttons, shoes, & etc. [found with the bodies] indicates beyond reasonable doubt that they were union soldiers.” It appears that the relics found with the bodies were abundant and uniform enough that Cemetery staff were confident in their identification as Union men. The abundance of Federal issue relics was also reported in the Compiler.

By the end of the September 1899, approval for proposed re-interment by the cemetery superintendent was received. These remains, buried in two boxes side by side, were then placed in the National Cemetery on September 30, under a headstone reading “19 Unknown Union Soldiers.” The number of bodies removed from the mass grave, however, varied from seventeen to eighteen depending on the source. Additionally, the Compiler article on the burial stated that a body found by workmen on Washington Street was added to the grave. Adding the additional soldier found during the drain construction near Spangler’s Meadow that may have also been buried in the same grave brings the total count of remains to nineteen.

These were not the final remains to be found in this area. In the early 1900’s, Samuel Robinson, a workman, found remains while working on the roads near Spangler’s Spring. He reported having found a portion of a skull, arm bone, and one leg with a U.S. belt plate, belt leather, parts of a cap box, loose percussion caps, and leather from a scabbard.

Robinson’s discovery was not the last. The most recent remains to be found on the battlefield was in March, 1996 in the famous Railroad Cut. But even after all these discoveries in the 156 years since the battle, there are doubtlessly more remains that still lie in the fields around Gettysburg. Although we cannot be sure how many soldiers still rest upon the battlefield today, they are a permanent reminder of the true cost of this battle and the American Civil War. This landscape will  remain, now and forever, hallowed.

-Jonathan Tracey
Seasonal Ranger, Gettysburg National Military Park




Posted in Aftermath, Battlefield Legends and Lore, Burials, Culp's HIll | Tagged | 2 Comments

Paul Heller: A Young Marine’s Story

On a beautiful spring day in South-Central Pennsylvania there is likely not a more serene, peaceful, and awe-inspiring place to take a walk than the Gettysburg National Cemetery.   As you stroll among the rows upon rows of the deceased, and if you take your time, the headstones speak to you, albeit in muted tones.  The voice we hear today comes to us by way of the inscriptions upon the stones, unfortunately the nature of the headstones strips away all but the most basic details of the person’s identity.  Outside of the Civil War section the stones generally read the person’s name, their date of birth, date of death and where applicable, their branch of service.  Beyond that, the details of the person’s life:  who their parents were, what their upbringing was like and where they served are not evident.  Yet, from the little information given, some stories come to life from a simple reading of the headstone.  For example, the headstone of Clairus Riggs bears the date of his death, June 6, 1944.  To the novice historian of the Second World War this date means something: D-Day.  Likewise, George Stembrosky, December 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was attacked.  This blog post is about one of those examples, a story that leaps from the headstone.  This is the story of a Marine who was killed in action October 8, 1942, a date that means little to all but the most well-read of military historians.  No, it is not the date of death that leaps from the stone- it is his date of birth.

The headstone reads:

Paul Heller

U.S. Marine Corps
World War II

May 9 1927
October 8 1942

This young Marine was only fifteen years old when he was killed in action during World War Two.

Paul Heller was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania on May 8, 1927 to parents Paul Sr. and Anna.  A grade school classmate of his described his upbringing as a little rough and tumble.  They said he had a hard time getting along with his peers and assumed that his home life may not have been the best.

In the winter of 1941-1942, when Heller would have likely been in the ninth grade the country was reeling from the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  This event would hurl the United States of America into the Second World War and would send hundreds of thousands of Americans into the armed forces.

Perhaps it was the desire to escape the reality of his home life, his inability to get along with his classmates or maybe it was a true sense of patriotism, we will never truly know

Paul Heller.jpg

A young Paul Heller at the time he joined the US Marine Corps. Photo courtesy of the USMC

what motivated Paul Heller, we do know that he apparently attempted to enlist locally in eastern Pennsylvania shortly after Pearl Harbor however, his age (at the time 14) was automatic cause for rejection by the recruiting office.

Undeterred, Heller took a more extreme step of leaving his home state altogether.  He needed to get away from those that knew him and how old he was.  At some point in early February 1942 he made his way to Savannah, Georgia.  Having learned his lesson the first time, Heller decided to lie about his age to the Marine Corps Recruiter, stating that he was born not in 1927 but in 1923, making him eighteen years of age. But how could he convince the recruiter of his lie?

It is unclear how exactly Heller got around this particular stumbling block on his journey into the service.  The signature on the parent/guardian consent form (which would serve to verify his age) reads “Betty Betrick, aunt” who is listed as living at 1205 Gervay Street Columbia, SC.  No record of this individual can be found to have lived in Columbia, SC.  Nevertheless, the officer who swore Heller into the United States Marine Corps on February 17, 1942 claimed that a woman named Betty Betrick verified, in person, that Heller was in fact eighteen years of age.  Therefore, it is safe to assume one of the following scenarios unfolded in the recruiting office.  Either the recruiter falsified the document himself claiming to have met Betty Betrick or Heller convinced someone to play the part of Betrick, walking into the recruiting office with the youth and signing him up for the Marines.  Whatever the case may be, Heller was in.

He followed in the footsteps of thousands of Marines before and after his time, taking a bus to Parris Island, South Carolina where he would undergo eight weeks of training before being hastily transferred to a unit bound for the Pacific theater of war.

On April 8, 1942 he was assigned to Company K, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment of the 1st Marine Division, which was already at sea sailing for the Pacific Theater of the war.  He departed the United States on May 17, 1942.

Heller caught up with the 1st Marine Division in New Zealand just as it was girding for war.  The coming campaign would be the first of many for the 1st Marine Division in America’s struggle to beat back the Japanese Empire, which consumed much of the south Pacific.  Their first target would be the Solomon Islands.  Evidently, the reality of war, including the possibility of his death weighed heavily upon Paul Heller’s mind.  By the third week of July, Heller made what would become a momentous decision.  He changed the beneficiary of his life insurance policy from Miss Betrick to his father, Paul Heller Sr.

The baptism by fire for the 5th Marine Regiment in the Second World War would come on August 7, 1942 when they wade ashore on the island of Guadalcanal in what would be considered one of the first American amphibious assaults of the war.  Initial Japanese resistance was light and the Marines of the 5th Regiment, Paul Heller included quickly took control of a Japanese Airfield which they named Henderson Field in memory of an American pilot who was killed in the Battle of Midway.


Marines of the 1st Division make there way through the dense jungles of Guadalcanal, August 1942 (LOC)

The resulting combat would pitch American and Japanese forces against one another as control for the Solomon Islands and its valuable airfield hung in the balance.   By the end of September the American beachhead which had been established in August was gradually expanding.  On October 7, 1942 elements of the 5th Marine Regiment were ordered to cross the Matanaiku River, expanding American holdings to the Japanese held side of the river.  Heller and the rest of his company were tapped for the assignment of crossing the river.  On October 8th American and Japanese forces grappled for control of the ground surrounding the river.  At some point in the melee, Paul Heller was killed in action along with a handful of other Marines that day.  Heller’s body was interred in grave five, row twenty-five of the 1st Marine Division Cemetery established on Guadalcanal.

Immediately following his death the Marine Corps began the process of notifying Heller’s family of his untimely passing.  This process was made more complex by his falsified documents.  The Marine Corps first attempted to contact Betty Betrick, the “aunt” that Heller used to sign his consent form and enlist.  On November 17, 1942 a telegram was sent to Miss Betty Betrick of 1205 Gervay Street, Columbia SC.   Again, it is unclear today if Betty Betrick was wholly created by Heller and the Marine Corps recruiter or if she was an actual person, unrelated or related to Paul Heller.  Nevertheless, due to the fact that Heller made his father the beneficiary on his life insurance policy, the Marine Corps was destined to get in touch with Paul Heller Sr. to inform him of his son’s death.  In fact, on the same day that Betty Betrick was informed, the standard telegram was sent to Paul Heller Sr. and Anna Heller (the two were separated at this point and so, were informed individually).

Of these three individuals the only person whose reaction exists in the historical record is that of his mother, Anna Heller.  By December 5th Mrs. Heller was in touch with the Allentown Chapter of the American Red Cross seeking assistance in securing the details of her son’s death and the interment of her son’s remains.  Evidently, she was not satisfied with the response the Marine Corps gave to the Red Cross concerning her inquiry because by December 16th she contacted her congressman, Charles Gerlach in search of more information.  In the letter to the Commandant of the Marine Corps Gerlach states that Mrs. Heller “has contacted me and demands to know under what conditions he lost his life and more intimate details.  I realize this is impossible but she is very much exercised over what she terms the cold-blooded announcement she received and insists that I do something about it and get her more information.”

This brief window into the mindset of Anna Heller paints the picture of an understandably distraught mother in the wake of her son’s death.  Given the fact that Paul listed his “aunt” as next of kin and his father as the beneficiary of his life insurance policy, is it possible that Anna Heller was unaware that her fifteen year old son had enlisted in the Marines and fought in the Pacific?  Was the notification sent to her house of his death the first indication she had of his service at all?  The paper trail left behind by Paul Heller does not give us a complete window into the ins and outs of the family in the fall and winter of 1942.

When the family was notified of his death, the Marine Corps indicated that the burial on Guadalcanal was intended to only be temporary and that final disposition of his remains would take place at the cessation of hostilities.  On May 7, 1948 the body of Paul Heller arrived back in the United States of America whereupon he was laid to rest in Section Two of The Gettysburg National Cemetery.

When you pass through the gates of a National Cemetery established amidst the American Civil War, it would be easy to assume that the youngest service person buried within the grounds would be a young drummer boy struck down in July 1863.  However, the youngest known casualty of war buried at Gettysburg is in fact Paul Heller, the young marine killed in action at the age of fifteen.  His legacy today, one of duty and sacrifice stands as a testament to what people, young and old are willing to do for their country.  On this Memorial Day we hope you will take a moment throughout your busy holiday weekend to reflect on the people, and their stories that fill our National Cemeteries.


Philip Brown
Park Guide
Gettysburg National Military Park

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A Winter Wonderland for Short-eared Owls

gett-302028629Last winter birders and wildlife photographers flocked to the fields of Pickett’s Charge to view and photograph short-eared owls. It was great to see civil war history buffs mingle with natural history buffs as both enjoyed viewing these charismatic birds. The most unique thing about this species is that, unlike other owls, they are active during daylight making photography and observation relatively easy. They are most active before dusk, but they may be seen even before that.


All plant and wild life are legally protected in our nation’s National Parks, and we take extra special care to protect rare species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the short-eared owls as Migratory Birds of Conservation Concern and in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania they are classified as Endangered.

For their winter habitat these owls prefer open grassy areas in close proximity to woods. They look for clumps of tall grass to hide in when they are not foraging. Last winter the area around the Virginia Monument was perfect for their needs. It was also perfect for the needs of photographers. Easy parking, easy access and dramatic backdrops. Everyone wanted to take that perfect photo of a short-eared owl perched on a worm fence or taking flight with a cannon or a monument in the background. Unfortunately, some photographers went too far in their quest for that perfect shot. We saw many cases of people walking through the fields trying to flush out the owls and causing them to take flight. We also had at least one case where an individual was broadcasting owl calls aimed at getting the owls to come out and investigate. Human activities such as approaching, flushing, making or playing calls constitute wildlife harassment. Simply put, any activity that causes an owl to change its behavior is harassment and is therefore illegal.

gett-302028529You may wonder what harm is done when a person walks through a field to flush an owl. It seems pretty harmless, right? Not to the owl. By the time the owls arrive in their wintering grounds they have traveled many, many miles. They are low in energy reserves and must find and acclimate to a new location. Even after they have been here for a while their survival is not certain. The winter environment is harsh and prey may be scarce. Energy conservation is of the utmost importance to their survival. Each time an owl is disturbed, it takes flight to escape the perceived threat, and expends a lot of energy. Furthermore, following a disturbance the owl may wait a long time to assure the danger has passed, thus losing time it could have spent foraging. Just like humans, short and long term stress brings negative health impacts to the owls.


In the winter of 2017-18 incidents of owl harassment became so numerous that park management decided to close the area used by the owls for concealment. Many photographers were dismayed by this action but it was necessary to protect the owls. At the time of this blog writing there have been only very sporadic sightings on the battlefield. If sightings become more frequent and consistent the park will post informational signs asking the public to maintain their distance and not harass the owls. The signs will have a 24-hour/7 days a week phone number that can be called to report owl harassment to Law Enforcement Rangers. It is our hope that these signs will suffice and that we will not have to close down the area chosen by the owls.


Please help us to keep owl areas open by obeying the posted signs and immediately reporting owl harassment to 717-334-8101. Let’s work together so that owls and humans can have a positive winter experience here at Gettysburg National Military Park.


Written by Dafna Reiner, Park Biologist, Gettysburg National Military Park, January 2019

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“My Dear Carl” A Father Writes his Children after Gettysburg.

Hundreds of thousands of letters were sent home by soldiers to loved ones during the Civil War, most with several common themes: hardships, the weather, the writer’s health, a brief description of a battle, the boredom and routine of drill, and the longing for home. The majority of letters were meant for adults to read, not the youngest whose father or older brother was serving in the Army, so when letters written to children surface, they are quite special.

Three examples of letters written by a father to his children are housed at the Mercer County Historical Society in Mercer, Pennsylvania. It was in Mercer where Company A, 139th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry was raised in the summer of 1862, commanded by a town attorney-turned-soldier, Abraham H. Snyder.

A.H. Snyder, 139th PA

Major Abram H. Snyder, 139th Pennsylvania Infantry, 1864. (courtesy of

Abraham H. Snyder had a prominent law practice in Mercer, a town of 2,200 residents. The Snyders enjoyed the community and a warm home where they raised three children- Robert (the eldest), Jane and Carl, the youngest of the three. As difficult as it was to leave his growing family, Snyder was duty bound and in the call for volunteers over the summer of 1862, recruited a company of men in Mercer, which became Company A of the 139th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Snyder was favored by the men in his company, who subsequently elected him their captain. Captain Snyder wrote home quite consistently and in mid-July 1863, as the regiment camped in northern Virginia, he took the opportunity to write each of his children an individual letter. The tone and narrative of each was different, dependent upon the age of the child and what they could understand, but all three carried the same theme of his children being good while briefly describing his life as a soldier.

Late on the evening of July 21, 1863, Snyder wrote to the eldest son, Robert:

“It is night. Many of the soldiers have laid themselves down to sleep. I shall myself soon retire for the night. But before doing so I will write you a short letter. I think mother wrote to me recently that you and sister were going to school this summer. I hope you will improve your time well, and thus become a good and intelligent boy.

“It is much easier and more pleasant to go to school than to be a soldier. Soldiers have to carry their clothes, rations, Gums etc., and on those long warm summer days they often get very tired. In times of battle and sometimes (page 2) on marches they get very little rest or sleep for days together. Then their food is not so good or so well prepared as yours is at home when you are going to school. Every way, therefore, you are more comfortable than the men in the Army.”

Early the next morning, Snyder addressed another letter to his daughter Jane:

“Nothing gives me more pleasure than to think of home. I often think of you and long for the time when this war shall be over, when peace shall prevail in our country and I shall again enjoy the comforts of home. In the meantime I am always glad to hear that my dear children are good and kind to their mother in my absence. It is a great comfort to me to know that such is the case. I hope it will always be so. I think the war will be over in another year and if I live I shall be happy to be with you again.”

Of the three, his special letter directed to the youngest is the most descriptive. The captain took great pains to fully describe what he was observing the moment he was placing pen to paper; a wonderful description of how his soldiers lived, worked and risked their lives to serve the Union, which also gives readers today a valuable insight into the daily life and diet of a soldier in 1863:

In Camp, Loudon County
Virginia, July 22nd, 1863

My Dear Carl,

It is six o’clock. The sun is up and shining beautifully. Most of the soldiers are either preparing or eating their breakfast. You would think they had rather a poor breakfast if you were here. They have Coffee and Sugar, Hard Bread, like that I sent you by Mr. Adams last winter, which they call Hardtack, and meat- generally salt pork, sometimes fresh beef. On marches and when not regularly encamped these things form the principal part of the food for the men. In Camp, where we stay for some time at one place, they get in addition to this Beans, Rice and sometimes Potatoes & soft or loaf bread, etc. The Government furnishes rations for the men. They get about enough for 3 days at one time which thy carry in their haversacks. When General Hooker was in command they often had to carry enough for 8 days, which filled their haversacks and knapsacks too. The officers have to buy their rations themselves. Sometimes they get bread and other things but sometimes they have to live just about as the men do. The Commissaries of the different Brigades follow the Army to supply them with rations and they sell such things as they have to the officers. Cattle are driven along and butchered from time to time as needed. Sometimes men get hungry for fresh meat and kill chickens, pigs, sheep, etc. wherever they find them. Still there are not many that do this. Sometimes too they offer to buy things and if people refuse to sell to them they rally and take what they want. This kind of conduct however is reprehensible as it sometimes subjects innocent people to great inconvenience and loss. We have no tables here, but set our breakfast on the ground on a Gum blanket &  sit down beside it to eat. You would think it funny to see 10000 soldiers eating this way.

But soldiers have not only their rations to carry. They also carry their guns, their clothes and their ammunition, which altogether makes quite a heavy load. You will see from this that the men in the army often have a good deal of hard labor to perform.

War is itself a terrible calamity and should always be avoided if it can be consistently with the great principles of Justice and right. The present war has had its origin in the attempt of the people of the South (or rather the politicians of some of the Southern States) to subvert and destroy our government by establishing another pretended government within our own. They made war upon the Federal government and we are here in arms to defend ourselves and our country against this usurpation. It has been said all the South wants is to be left alone. But circumstances clearly show that if these traitors had the power they would rest satisfied with nothing short of the subjugation of the Northern States. General Lee has already several times attempted the invasion of Pennsylvania. You have probably heard of the battles at Gettysburg in the beginning of this month. I was present on the 2d. It was a great battle. Many men were killed and wounded. The rebels were driven back to Virginia again. They left thousands of their wounded and dead behind them. I hope that this war may soon be over and that we may never have another.

I hope you are well and still a good boy and that you will continue to be kind and obedient to your mother. And that we all may be spared by our kind Heavenly Father and permitted to see each other again.

Your Father
A.H. Snyder

Captain Snyder commanded his company through the difficult campaigns in northern Virginia through the fall of 1863. More often than not, he was the acting major or lt. colonel of the regiment due to the absence of other officers. Promoted to the rank of major in January 1863, Snyder proved to be as efficient in his role on the field and staff of the 139th Pennsylvania Infantry as he had been as a company commander. In April 1864 while the regiment was in winter quarters near Brandy Station, Virginia, Major Snyder sat with fellow officers of the regiment’s field and staff for the portrait below.

F&S, 139th Pennsylvania

The field and staff of the 139th Pennsylvania Infantry, April 1864. Major Abraham Snyder is seated at right with his hat on his lap, next to Colonel Frederick Collier, commanding officer of the 139th. (Library of Congress)

One week after this photograph was taken, Major Snyder was dead,  killed in the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5, 1864. Despite his most sincere wishes, Snyder never saw his children again. Fortunately, Robert, Jane and Carl were not too young to understand the importance of the letters their father sent them the previous summer and carefully preserved all three for the rest of us to discover Major Snyder’s outstanding description of the life of a soldier during the Civil War as well as the hopes and dreams of a father so far from home.

John S. Heiser
Historian, Gettysburg National Military Park


Posted in Army of the Potomac, Soldier Life | 4 Comments

A Hard Road to Travel: Two Perspectives on the March to Gettysburg, Part 3

Dawn, July 5, 1863. The gloom of the day is accentuated by dense, gray clouds and intermittent rain showers. The sharp report of stray rifle shots echo across the battlefield as the last of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia leave their final line before dawn. Only a small rear guard of skirmishers remain to cover the tail of the gray column as it heads westward. Mud. Rain. Misery. Throughout the previous day and night, baggage trains and wagons loaded with wounded soldiers rolled over the rutted roads in a long, painful column. Fence rails piled high and set alight at crossroads helped guide the way for Lee’s exhausted veterans; tired and worn but still defiant and dangerous.  Closely following were infantrymen of the Sixth Corps and despite the heavy showers that drenched the column with stinging rain and roads so deeply rutted and muddy that made walking a straight line doubly difficult, the men forged on to Fairfield, pushed back the rear guard and made their way into the mountain passes. Even at this early stage of the pursuit, it may have already too late to catch Lee. The head of the Confederate column was already entering western Maryland and within two days would be concentrated near Hagerstown.

While Lee made good his rapid withdrawal, the Army of the Potomac was slow to pursue. Footsore and weary from the weeks of marching, slim rations, and worn equipment, the 7th Maine finally made their camp on a farm on the western side of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, only a few miles from Greencastle.  The day’s duties finally complete, Lt. Colonel Selden Connor warily made an honest attempt to describe the whirlwind of events he had witnessed over the previous weeks:

Head Qtrs 7th Me Vols.
Camp near Waynesboro Pa
July 10th, 1863

My dear father:

            I have tried to write you several times lately, but ineffectively. I forget when I wrote you last- I think it was at Bristow Station. By making long and rapid marches our corps arrived just in season to turn the battle of Gettysburg in our favor. We started from Manchester, Md at 12 o’clock on the night of the first and arrived on the field at Gettysburg before dark the next day (second) a distance of thirtytwo miles. When we reached the ground the enemy had succeeded in turning our left (page 2) flank and everybody seemed to be a little uneasy. When Gen. Sedgewick arrived with the first division of our corps he made a straight course for the heavy firing and “pitched in” driving the enemy and holding our original position on the left. Our brigade guarded the right-flank of the army and the Vermont brigade the left. We were not heavily engaged but had smart skirmishing in which I had six men wounded, three mortally. The “7th” was lucky once; but -as is- was I lost more than all the rest of the brigade together. On the fifth our brigade was detached from the corps and with a brigade of Cavalry and a battery followed the rebs on this road, through (page 3) Fairfield and the mountains. We have been here a day or two; yesterday the New York and Pennsylvania militia to the number of 8000 or 111000 under Gen. Smith our old general, reached here from Harrisburg so that we now have quite a force here. Waynesboro is a nice little town in the center of the wheat growing country, the Cumberland Valley. The people are very hospitable and glad to see the Union soldiers after what they have suffered from the rebs. It would do you good to travel in this country; such farms I never saw before. I have not seen a paper for three weeks. We hear that Vicksburg has really fallen and that Gen. Dix is threatening Richmond. Port Hudson must follow Vicksburg (page 4) and if we annihilate Lee’s Army as we hope to, I think the bottom will be pretty well “Knocked out”. It is understood that the mass of Lee’s army is at Hagerstown, three miles from us and that his line extends to the Potomac. We have a force on the other side of the river to prevent his crossing so the probabilities are that Lee will get back with but a small portion of his army. My health is first rate, only it hurts my feelings to go among the patriotic young ladies here with my old ragged clothes! Clean shirts are unknown in our brigade now. Our men need shoes and clothing badly, but they (carry on) as long as there is a prospect of whipping the rebel army again and ending the war. I should like to hear from home, but our mail hasn’t reached us for a long time. Hoping that all at home are well I am as ever,

Your affectionate son,
Selden Connor

Falling Waters 1863

The Army of Northern Virginia crosses the Potomac River at Falling Waters, July 13-14, 1863, as  sketched by northern artist Edwin Forbes. (Library of Congress)

Connor’s hope for the near annihilation of Lee never materialized. The Army of Northern Virginia successfully crossed the swollen Potomac River overnight of July 13-14, the engineers cutting loose the pontoon bridges soon after dawn. Though the Gettysburg Campaign was technically over, there was still business at hand in northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac was soon to follow its nemesis back to its old static line along the Rappahannock River.

After crossing over the Potomac River at Williamsport on July 13-14, Rodes’ Division marched southward to Martinsburg, then to the village of Darkesville where the men had a chance to draw rations and get a few hours rest before moving again, this time through northern Virginia and eventually to camps south of the Rappahannock River near Orange Court House.  By the time Lee’s soldiers had the chance to pitch what few tents they had near the court house, the men were physically drained and supplies of fresh uniforms, rations and medical supplies were virtually non-existent. Shortages were once again the daily routine. Some time between his daily duties,  Lt. John Gay penned a letter home, hopeful yet wary of what lay ahead for he and his comrades:

Orange C.H. Va.
Augt 2 1863

My Dear Wife,

            About one year ago we encamped at this same place. We were then on our way to Md. Now we are returning from there. Then our ranks were full; now they are thinned by casualties, sickness, etc in our late expedition. Then we were hopeful, cheerfull & sanguine- eagerly in pursuit of a retreating foe. Now the tables are turned, and we are retreating before an enemy pursuing; yes, foot sore, (many of us are bare footed) raged & dirty and worn out from heat and fatigue we are slowly retreating before Meades army. I don’t know the opinion of our Genls. They (page 2) make a stand here or may fall still father back. It is with them to decide. The men are defiant and most of them seem anxious to meet the enemy again, confidently expecting to gain a great victory. God grant that such may be the case, if we are compelled to fight them again soon, for the series of reverses that we have lately met with has indeed been a little disheartening. We must retrieve our character, and Oh! I fear it will be at a fearful cost. We are having some terribly hot weather. Yesterday we marched sixteen miles without a breath of air stirring and the sun broiling hot. I was completely exhausted when we got here, and verily believe I could not have gone two miles farther (page 3) had my life depended on it. I hope, though, we will not have much more hard marching to do this summer. My general health has improved lately. Joseph Ware was taken sick at Darktown and sent to the rear. I have heard nothing from him since. I am afraid he got worse after he left us. Our boys are all quite well. Mr James E. Evans preached for us last night and again this morning and the Rev. Mr. Jewett from the Geo(rgia) Conference preached the 11 o’clock sermon. The have come to spend two months with this army for the purpose of preaching to the Geo(rgia) soldiers during that time. I have had no letter from you lately. Write very soon. I am anxious to hear from you. Yours, J.T.G.

(page 4) It is strange that nothing can be heard from Joe Lennard (note- a family friend serving in the west.) Those Vixburg prisoners have all been paroled and could have certainly gotten a letter home before this.

I have got on a clean shirt to day and you have no idea how proud I am; but I don’t know when the next will come from. I have been almost tempted to hire a negro to wash for me to day (Sunday). Tell Mrs. Cartright that Billy Evans says he is thinking a little hard of her for not writing. You may also say to Mrs. G. that if she don’t do better I shall think hard of her too. Love & a kiss to Mary, Peggy & your Ma. Remember me kindly to all the negroes. Yours etc. J.T.G.

Despite the terrible losses in Pennsylvania and continued shortages, Gay and his fellow soldiers remained defiant and confident,  blithely unaware of the fateful condition of the Confederacy on the heels of disaster that was the Gettysburg Campaign. Yet confidence was not a trait owned solely by Lee’s soldiers. Men in the Army of the Potomac were also confident of success and few would let the cost of Gettysburg pass without a stubborn determination to see the war through to its bitter end.

Selden Connor

Selden Connor while serving as the governor of Maine. (State Archives of Maine; Wikipedia)

The following spring, Colonel Connor marched with the Army into the Wilderness of Virginia though not in command of his old 7th Maine. Promoted to full colonel in January 1864, he took command of the 19th Maine Infantry in Hancock’s Second Corps. Cast into the inferno that was the Battle of the Wilderness, Connor was in temporary command of the brigade on May 6 when seriously wounded by a Confederate ball that broke his thigh bone. Though his condition was considered grave, Connor’s strong stamina and immediate care saved his life. It was soon after his transfer to a Washington hospital when reports reached Maine that Connor had died, reports that he later wrote were “gravely exaggerated;” but the severe wound would prevent his return to the Army. Awarded a brigadier general’s star on June 11, 1864, he convalesced at home in Maine until mustered out of service in 1866. Unfortunately, he re-injured his broken leg that same month and would be confined to his home for an additional two years before he could work again.

Connor went onto a serve in a number of government positions, was a three-term governor of Maine, a Federal pension agent, and president of Northern Banking Company. General Connor died in 1917 and is buried in Augusta.

Fort Stedman, Petersburg

A stereoview of the interior of Fort Stedman, photographed several weeks after the battle. (Library of Congress)

1st Lieutenant John Gay did not survive the war. On March 25, 1865, Rodes’ old division took part in the surprise attack on Fort Stedman in the Petersburg siege line.  At 4:30 that morning, the 4th Georgia, in Brigadier General Philip Cook’s Brigade, stormed through the outer defenses and into the fort itself where the battle continued unabated for nearly two hours. Union infantry supported by artillery counterattacked and drove the southerners back to the Confederate defenses, across the no man’s land cris-crossed by Union fire. Felled while running the gauntlet, Lt. Gay stumbled into the Confederate lines. He was transported to a Richmond hospital, captured when the city was abandoned a week later. Despite the efforts of Confederate doctors and Union surgeons, Lt. Gay succumbed to his injuries on April 28, 1865, one of last casualties of the war from Georgia. The “fearful cost” of life he had predicted in his August 1863 letter had unfortunately included his own.

John Heiser
Historian, Gettysburg National Military Park

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