Dr. William C. Storrick –Gettysburg’s “Local Historian”

William C. Storrick certainly holds an interesting, if not a unique position among the pantheon of notable Gettysburg residents present during the time of the great battle. Perhaps best-remembered today under the umbrella term of “local historian,” that term perhaps disserves his memory.


Dr. William C. Storrick

Born in 1856, William was seven years old when Gettysburg became doubly historic. On his 90th birthday, September 16th, 1946, Dr. Storrick recalled the date that he, as a youth, was fated to meet Abraham Lincoln. After his father read that the President was due to speak in town, he determined they would walk the two miles east into town, to the Square. “We’ll go,” he said.

Continuing his reflections, he observed

And there were the finest bands I ever heard playing. After a time someone said, “There, Mr. Lincoln comes. I was awed by the appearance of the great tall man and we and others shook hands with him. Mr. Lincoln went to the curb and mounted a horse and continued shaking hands with people there. As I remember the horse was of good size but Mr. Lincoln’s long legs made it appear small.

Father and son decided not to wait on the parade, but instead headed out to Cemetery Hill, locating “good places near the platform,” Storrick would write. “The Hon[orable] Edward Everett, the speaker for the day, was late and the program was held up waiting for him.” He later recalled

As Everett neared the end of his address I noticed Mr. Lincoln draw a paper from his pocket and put on a pair of glasses that I noticed particularly, because they were just like my grandmother’s glasses. The address by Mr. Lincoln didn’t make much of an impression on my seven-year-old mind. But there were lots of adults there, too, who did not think much of it.

Of course, William Storrick was far from the only witness to any of these events; Lincoln left and the community attempted, for a time, to find its way back from the shock of it all. When the war was ultimately won, and the meaning of Gettysburg’s place in that conflict initially assessed, the young man still found himself working on his father’s farm. Like many in this region, he became familiar with the soil; and made it his friend. If knowing orchards and land became his ‘first love,’ Mary Jane Brinkerhoff (of Brinkerhoff’s Ridge,) was a close second. She became his bride on March 17, 1879. Their union would last some sixty-five years.

William taught public school and would do so for thirty-four years. In spite of, or some say despite, his early experiences he maintained an active interest in his farm, adjacent to the Cavalry Battlefield site. Soon, children arrived – two sons, and two daughters. Future hands for the business – “The Storrick & Hartman Nursery,” as the advertisements ran. Expanded to over one hundred acres by 1900, it shortly attracted the attention of those who had a need to master horticulture. With the growing interest of the Gettysburg National Military Park Commission to accurately represent landscapes and crop fields, as indicated in Colonel Cope’s map, a specialist was required.  On May 10, 1909, therefore, William Storrick was placed in charge of the farms of East Cavalry Battlefield. At that time, “the Commission …had a concrete building erected on the Cavalry Field for” his use, most likely near the Brooke-Rawle flagpole.

Storrick’s skills being evident to the Commission, he was afterwards transferred to their Gettysburg headquarters. There, he was promoted to forester, and given charge of the 19 farms on U. S. land. In a later (1920) review of his work it was observed, “He has rendered long, expert, and loyal services and [he] is thoroughly posted in the history of the Gettysburg campaign.”

William Storrick appeared to be one of those people, almost like Eisenhower, who found themselves in just the right place at just the right time; to face a specific set of circumstances. Rising from the boy who had crossed paths with Lincoln on the steps of the Wills House to land manager, he now prepared to utilize his teaching skills on a national platform.

Touring for a fee on the battlefield had been a continuous free-market activity since the days of Lincoln’s visit. Some had done it much better than others. It was the intention of the War Department to constrain and professionalize this activity.

On Wednesday, February 23, 1916, Colonel Emmor B. Cope, with the assistance of teacher Storrick began a “school of instruction” for potential guides under the new regime.  As the Times reported the following day

The classes will be continued for some weeks, it is expected, and all the second- and third-class guides will be given an opportunity to profit by them.

The large relief maps are used to great advantage in this work, and guides who appeared on Wednesday were asked to point out places and describe certain incidents using the map for their work. The instructors told them of various matters of importance, and numerous questions were also submitted for their study.

Many authors and writers would later teach of the Battle of Gettysburg from an historical distance. Growing up, William was no doubt familiar with stories of thieving armies, as they swept their war-torn way through Pennsylvania during the summer of ’63.  Having lived the experience first-hand, an echo returned to him later. In May of 1914, his home along Baltimore Street was burgled (although nothing was taken.) Six years afterwards, however, he and Mary Jane experienced a far more disconcerting loss – that of their oldest son, Charles. After graduation from Gettysburg College in 1902, he took a remote position with a lumber firm in British Columbia; and there had drowned.

This loss perhaps heightened Storrick’s sense of perspective, both academic and personal. His son had been 39 years old. Time was passing, but William was still vital. As he once tended to fresh crops in the field, instructing and training new crops of incoming Licensed Battlefield Guides became yet another role to which Storrick was dedicated. Having been designated “Superintendent of Guides” in 1917, he held that responsibility until his retirement from government service on October 1, 1930. In this way, his singular knowledge and understanding was dispersed to countless thousands of visitors to Gettysburg National Military Park through the over 200 guides instructed during his Federal tenure.

Had that been the sole sum of William Storrick’s contributions to Gettysburg, it alone would stand as noteworthy. However, he was not yet done. Utilizing the copious notes amassed in his dual careers as both a schoolteacher and a guide instructor, William thereafter released a guidebook on the battle. Some eighty pages in length, it contained a great many images and battle details, with an account of Lincoln’s address.  Interestingly, it was unafflicted by any commercial advertisements. Almost immediately, though, the perfectionist in the author sensed opportunities for improvement.



Storrick’s “The Battle of Gettysburg,” 1st version

The second version of the book held over one hundred and fifty pages, containing more information there simply wasn’t space for in the first edition. The book was widely read and went through numerous reprints. It served as a staple for anyone seeking to get a basic sense of the battle, the battlefield, or the modern (1930’s) Military Park.


Battlefield Map, from Storrick’s “The Battle of Gettysburg.”

This achievement in letters brought Storrick a new level of attention, even as the 75th observance of the Battle of Gettysburg neared. It was reported that when he and Dr. Douglas S. Freeman met, following the latter’s winning the Pulitzer for his work on Lee in 1935, he dedicated William’s copy this way – “Inscribed for W.C. Storrick in appreciation of his matchless knowledge of Gettysburg. – Douglas Southall Freeman.”


Douglas Southall Freeman

William Storrick was certifiably now recognized as a historian. He joined forces with the local paper, The Gettysburg Times, to write enlightening articles on various Civil-War topics on occasion – Lewis Armistead, Johnny Clem, Adelbert Ames (a golfer!) and railroad engineer Herman Haupt, who had once taught civil engineering and mathematics at Pennsylvania College.

But the “local celebrity” never tired of repeating the incident that had launched his career. A March 17, 1938 story in the Gettysburg Weekly Gettysburgian announced “Old Resident Tells Story of Lincoln’s Visit Here,” opening with the line, “I shook hands with Lincoln.”

During that grand 75th Reunion year, Storrick’s unseen influence was well-nigh persuasive. His tour books could be found on the shelves of most every Gettysburg shop, and the groundwork he laid still heavily influenced the Guide Service. Perhaps as a result of this cumulative exposure, William was later asked to appear on the CBS Radio network program “We, The People” (airdate Tuesday, November 19th, 1940.) Travelling to the studios in New York and resting in the Pennsylvania Hotel later must surely have seemed a world away from the battlefield. But the battle that could not be won continued to step ever closer. Six days following news of the D-Day invasion, William’s wife of sixty-five years died in her sleep.

Folks in town began to realize that Time, too, would ultimately claim their special link with ‘Lincoln days,’ as some had called them. In recognition for all that Storrick had done through the venues of education and literature to convey the story of the battle and the struggle here, Gettysburg College awarded him an honorary doctorate on May 28th, 1945.

Fourteen months later, retrieving the Times from his porch one evening, he fell and fractured his hip. Following a hospital stay of 322 days, his hip was considered “healed,” yet Dr. Storrick was now considered an invalid, and directed to use a wheelchair. Still he persisted. The press marveled at his endurance. In a birthday notice from the Times, 1947, entitled, “William C. Storrick Marks His 91st Anniversary Today,” the author noted

Although his once accurate memory fails him occasionally now, Mr. Storrick still is able to vividly recall many historic dates and events of many years ago. Despite his advanced years he continues to read newspapers, books, and magazines without glasses. His hearing is considerably affected.

His hip affliction, coming so late in life, has not in the least dimmed his spirits and the well-liked old gentleman retains his keen sense of humor and [he] bears his ailment without complaint.

It was that last bit – that “bearing his ailment without complaint” bit – together, with his sense of humor, that had appeared in the columns of the paper before. Way back in 1935, when he was still (comparatively) young, a reporter had asked him, as a seventy-nine-year-old, his philosophy of life. His response?

Most older people live too much in the past. As for myself, I live to review the past, live in the present, and look forward to the future with courage and confidence.

At six o’clock in the morning of January 4, 1951, behind the thinning veil of an early winter’s day in Gettysburg, William Storrick died peacefully at the age of ninety-four.  Facing the future with courage, his work had made it possible for many to review the past.

In the years following “the Professor’s” death, whole new arenas of Civil-War and Gettysburg scholarship have appeared. Change is inherent in the order of all things over time. Historians have appeared and disappeared throughout the ages, from the ancient scribe Homer down to those of the present day. Readers of this blog may well be more familiar with names like Coddington, Bearss, Pfanz or Stewart; or others, – Frassanito, Sears, Reardon, or Hess. Yet in those early days, educator William C. Storrick first made understandable, to the general public, a wider, deeper, and more detailed interpretation of many of the important events that had transpired on these fields.

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In Small Books Forgotten

Politics. Warfare. Social disruption. All of these plagues, in some form or fashion, have ensnared an unhappy humanity for thousands of years. Written accounts, both primary and secondary, exist of these disparate events, and how they tended to affect various civilizations throughout recorded time.  Such is certainly the case with the American Civil War, where it is believed that nearly a hundred thousand books on the topic have to date been published.

Alas, all of them won’t be found in a single bibliographical listing. The largest single such compilation was published in 1970 in a 2-volume set. Civil War Books: A Critical Bibliography contained just over 6,000 volumes at the time. Later diversification of studies (e.g.,Civil War medicine, Abraham Lincoln, African-Americans, women, etc.,) has subsequently led to the creation of focused bibliographies supporting research in those areas.  It is estimated that this sort of specialization adds somewhere around one thousand, five hundred more titles monthly.  For those determined to keep up with “the latest Civil War book,” the race is on!

This brings me to my point. Even with the internet, the flame on your Kindle has already blown out.

Do not misunderstand: This is not an argument for illiteracy. It is an argument for an improved opportunity for historical literacy – that is, to give your knowledge some flavor. Don’t overlook the old or little books!

One familiar example should serve here. A commonly – encountered, yet rarely read book-case standard is Fletcher Pratt’s “Civil War In Pictures,” from 1955. Pratt’s book was a reflection of its time – a “general interest” text, just over two hundred and fifty pages, unsourced (no notes outside of the text).  It’s what I refer to as a medium format, roughly  five and a half inches by eight and a half. It’s the biggest of the “small books” we’ll look at.
Civil War in Pictures

I recall owning a copy almost since I could read. It is stuffed with many of the old line-drawings and articles that had appeared in Civil War –era papers, primarily Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated.

The book covers the entirety of the war, from Sumter to surrender. The focus is, as the title suggests, on the period illustrations, but, Pratt spends considerable time highlighting the difference between the reporting and the newspaper artists of the day. The author’s supporting text is, in the style of the era, painfully bereft of footnotes, yet it leaves a definite sense of the moment in his descriptions. Regarding the disaster of Chancellorsville, and how the news broke in Washington, Pratt observed (p. 105)

It was on May 6 that there began to come off the wires the news that made Lincoln stagger so that he had to be helped down the War Department steps: the dreadful news of the Battle of Chancellorsville. (Author’s emphasis)

Of course, new research (in new books, natch,) often presents new information, but that is not always cause for neglecting the old, especially if the fresh augments, without contravening, the familiar. In recent generations, scholars have renewed their look at the message of equality contained in Lincoln’s words.  Yet other facts of the moment were also at play. Concerning the coverage of the Gettysburg Address by Harper’s Weekly, Pratt wrote (p.157-158)

Harper’s did not give the event picture coverage; its Eastern artists seem to have been with the Army of the Potomac. Also, in spite of its salute to Lincoln for his speech, it was much more interested in the speech made by Henry Ward Beecher, who had been given an enormous reception on his return from England. The leading editorial of the Gettysburg dedication week is a long disquisition on his experiences there, including some twisting of the lion’s tail –

“It is to avoid a rupture with this working population that Lord Palmerston has refused to recognize the rebels. He doubtless honestly expects to see the United States destroyed; and calculates that, when that cheerful catastrophe occurs, he will crush out democracy in England.”  

Moving down the bookshelf, we encounter the booklet. These can be wonderful storehouses of long-forgotten truths (or half-truths, depending upon the author, and the argument in question.) For that is reliably the purpose of a pamphlet; to convince the reader of the righteousness of a particular cause. These appear in nearly all areas of human endeavor, but those dealing with political and military issues best fit our discussion here.

One that appears with some frequency on the political end of this collection was crafted by an attorney, Captain Samuel A. Ashe of North Carolina. In classic Lost Cause fashion, an aging Capt. Ashe produced a seventy-five page monograph entitled A Southern View of the Invasion of the Southern States And War Of 1861 – 1865. The work was clearly intended to “keep the flag flying” in the minds of a great many old Confederates –  as well as some newer ones, too young to have smelt powder during the war.

Invasion of the southern statesIn a segment entitled, The Modern Case of John Brown,” Ashe invited Dr. Lyon Gardiner Tyler (descendant of President John Tyler) to write “The parallel afforded by the cases of [Nicola]Sacco and [Bartolomeo] Vanzetti to that of John Brown is too striking not to be noticed by the historian.”

Background on this case for the modern reader:  The two were Italian immigrant anarchists, controversially convicted of murdering a guard and a paymaster at a Massachusetts shoe company robbery in 1920.  Anti-Italian and anti-immigrant bias, recanted testimony, coupled with a very short consideration time by the jury before the guilty verdict led to numerous appeals.  All were denied, and Sacco and Vanzetti were ultimately electrocuted in 1927, resulting in worldwide riots and protests. Even following the executions, investigations continued through the 1930’s and 1940’s. Finally, in 1977, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis officially proclaimed “all stain should be removed from their names.”  Now back to 1938, and the reprinted thoughts of Dr. Tyler, as found in Ashe’s booklet (p.39.)

The sober thought of the present hour in the North repudiates the madness of seventy years ago. In the language, however, of the song “John Brown’s soul marches on,” it marched right on through the bloody war of the sixties, and remarkable to say, has marched on in our day, carrying murder and riot into the bosom of Massachusetts. The lawless soul of John Brown entered into…Sacco and Vanzetti. Their cause was exactly the same as that of John Brown and his abolitionists. Sacco and Vanzetti desired anarchy and the abolitionist pronounced the Constitution “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.”

Of course, both time itself and Tyler too saw to the weakening of these arguments. Witness the following (p.40)– “Demonstrations of sympathy with Sacco and Vanzetti exceeded those bestowed upon John Brown in 1856, …although the case against Sacco and Vanzetti, being based on circumstantial evidence,(author’s emphasis) was nothing like as strong as that as the evidence against John Brown.”

Happily, a variety of pamphlets await the focus of the student; not all political. Two of my favorites in this realm complement each other in regards to a particular aspect of the Battle of Gettysburg, in this case over the same portion of the Second Days’ fight.


Sergeant J.S. McNeily, a newspaperman and member of the Twenty-First Mississippi, chose the approach of the battle’s fiftieth anniversary to author an article in the pages of the Mississippi Historical Society on “Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade at Gettysburg.”  Later, it would appear as a stand-alone booklet. Some thirty-four pages in length, it reflected the journalistic roots of its author, who had risen to work with a variety of newspapers in postwar Mississippi. Telling the whole story of the battle, McNeily overlooked none of the “glory,” real and imagined, of his famed fighters.

“The assertion is made [writes McNeily] that no other brigade, in that battle, if in any other, has made such a record in two hours of fighting – of assailing four separate positions, engaging regiments of three corps, four divisions, of Ward’s, DeTrobriand’s, Graham’s, Burling’s, Brewester’s, Carr’s, Willard’s, and Harrow’s brigades – besides capturing several guns of the Third corps, and two batteries, one of the Reserve artillery and one of the Fifth corps, and turning its back on none. “For the moment,” said General [Andrew] Humphreys, “I thought the day was lost.”

But such was not to be. Noting “the sad reflection of what might have been,” had all gone well that day, the author concluded, “[t]he 3rd of July as the “dies irae” [the day of wrath] upon the Confederacy. Yet, in summing up his thoughts on the Peach Orchard, McNeily noted,

Gettysburg had been written in the book of fate, as we read it. But the glory that Mississippians achieved in Peach Orchard hill will shine undimmed, through all time. And when the state erects a monument on the memorable field it will be placed there, surmounted by the effigy of Wm. (sic) Barksdale.

The Federals, of course, recalled both the desperate resistance on July 2, as well their subsequent “dies irae.” A goodly portion of the struggle at “The Peach Orchard” was recalled by Captain (later Major) John Bigelow, of the 9th Massachusetts Light Artillery in his sixty-two page booklet, properly entitled The Peach Orchard: Gettysburg July 2 1863; Explained By Official Reports And Maps. Published in 1910, just prior to the fiftieth anniversary of the battle, this “little book,” like others, has much to offer.

BIgelowWell-organized, and provided with five maps, Bigelow’s account is concise, primarily (and perhaps expectedly) through the viewpoint of the artillery service.  Broken into three parts, the first portion deals with an overview of the Second Day’s fight, and the role of the forces of the ‘Long Arm’ in their proper supporting role in the Third Corps debacle. The critical role of supporting infantry, either by its presence or absence, is noted; but not indulged. Relevant elements from various Official Records reports (noted as Rebellion Record) are cited. One of those marvelous tidbits of precision reading is to be found in this segment of the book. For many, there has always existed the “Who was right- Meade or Sickles?” question.  Should the Third Corps have been posted to the orchard? If so, it was bound to require artillery support. Take in General Hunt’s perspective – what he does, and does not say. (p. 36)

After the war, the writer, [Bigelow] sitting in a carriage at the Peach Orchard with Gen. Hunt, Chief of Artillery of the Army of the Potomac, asked him if, with guns placed where we were, he could not have swept clean the low land, in our front, where Gen. Meade had intended the 3rd Corps to have been. He replied: “I cannot afford to answer;(Author’s emphasis) but I will say, that, when this advanced position was lost, the opportunity passed away for acting on the offensive after the repulse of Pickett’s charge, on July 3rd.”

Take a moment to ponder the multiple meanings of that.

Skipping Part 2 for the moment, the final portion of the booklet, Part 3, “Experiences of a Light Battery at Gettysburg,” covers what one would expect from the commander of the 9th Massachusetts – a great, detailed story, worthy of that unit’s heroic fight. The Major recalled taking on the infantry of Semmes Georgia brigade,

…whom we saw forming around the Rose building, 600 yards in our front…Our case shot and shell broke beautifully. One struck beneath the horse of the officer, who had apparently ridden out to give the order to advance-and brought down both horse and rider, causing sufficient delay, apparently, to break up their formation. After the war I met one of Semme’s men, who told me that if I would visit his Georgia home, he would show me enough graves and one-armed and one-legged men to satisfy me for my lifetime.

Of course, for Bigelow’s battery, the worst was nearer; and it would not require a trip to Georgia. Mississippi was coming to them.  Holding their position in an ever-more untenable position, while Federal infantry “supports” fell back all around them, the isolated artillerists gained the Union command a precious 30 minutes.  Through a tremendous determination, yet ultimately almost overrun in the corner of Trostle’s fields, the experience of Cole, the driver on the 6th piece, is typical (p.59.)

The limber chest saved me. The cover was open, in retiring, and there were thirteen holes in it besides some in the chest. There seemed to be a body of enemy on our right front, (Barksdale’s Brigade) and at every discharge they were mowed down in swathes.

In Bigelow’s “Narrative,” (Part 1 of the booklet,) fair highlight is given the role played by Lieutenant- Colonel Freeman McGilvery, following the wounding of Colonel George Randolph, Artillery Chief of the Third Corps.  McGilvery, commanding the First Volunteer Brigade Artillery Reserves, then assumed fire control of the batteries in the orchard and along the Trostle Lane area. His critical work there with the batteries prevented the Confederates from exploiting a large gap in mid-field, from about 6:30 to 7:15 or so.

At the time of the booklet’s release in 1910, Gettysburg National Military Park was overseen by the War Department, which was still expanding the park’s boundaries and road network. There was as yet no Hunt Avenue, nor anything dedicated to the memory of Lt.–Col. McGilvery.  Part 2 of Bigelow’s pamphlet, “An Appeal,” was the author’s attempt to challenge what he saw as an injustice to his chosen combat arm.  For on page thirty-eight, the following charge appears:

Notwithstanding that Gettysburg was the greatest artillery battle of the Civil War and nearly fifty years have passed since the battle was fought, while the Battlefield Commission have (sic) had many fine avenues built over the field, which they have named after Infantry or Cavalry Officers, yet in no instance have they so honored the Artillery branch of the service…Trostle’s Lane, misnamed “United States Avenue,” by the Commission, it is believed should be renamed


not because the artillery there performed other than its duty, …but because it is the only avenue one the field where the artillery exclusively fought, without the support of cavalry or infantry, and where no “Generals of Corps or Divisions” can set up claims for themselves…The new avenue, (emphasis in original) proposed by the Commission, should be named after Col. McGilvery, whose artillery, on July 2nd, alone occupied it and from it on July 3rd, with eight batteries, he swept the right of Pickett’s attack with destructive effect.

A few statements aimed at Union Army veterans willing to take up the cause were included as a portion of this “Appeal,” as well as a couple of letters from Commissioner Nicholson opposing the idea. In one, dated November 1, 1909, Nicholson memorably stated,

If the Commission were to undertake to change the names of Avenues and the locations of organizations as named and placed before they came on to the Field, never a map would be completed.

Major Bigelow never succeeded in getting the Commission to change the name of United States Avenue. They had their reasons, and so it remained. Yet today there is both a Hunt Avenue, as well as a designated McGilvery “Artillery” Avenue on the field. Perhaps his work, his little pamphlet, had some of its desired impact.


I trust you have found something of interest in our tour of some “little books.” In the study of ever-growing Civil War history, there is yet more out there, some in the big books, and some, in the little ones. So find a book (of any size,) unplug the computer; and pull up a chair!

Ranger Bert Barnett
Gettysburg National Military Park

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“A Young Officer of Great Promise:” The Fate of 2nd Lieutenant Gilbert Arnold Dickey of the 24th Michigan Infantry

When he awoke early on the morning of July 1, 1863, near the banks of Marsh Creek and several miles south of the town of Gettysburg, in south-central Pennsylvania, 2nd Lieutenant Gilbert Dickey’s first thoughts were most assuredly of his dear wife Rosetta. That day just happened to be their anniversary–their first anniversary–but instead of

Dickey Image 1

A Portrait Photograph of Gilbert A. Dickey, Wearing a Sergeant’s Uniform
[Courtesy of Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collection]

celebrating the happy occasion together, she was instead at home in far away Marshall, Michigan, some 530 miles from where he awoke that damp summer morning.  Surely on so special a day Gilbert longed to be with Rosetta rather than waking up from an uncomfortable roadside bivouac, drinking brackish coffee, and gearing up for what promised to be yet another hot day. Yet, thoughts of home and of Rosetta would soon be interrupted when orders arrived for Dickey and his men to make their way post-haste toward Gettysburg. Within an hour the young newlywed would be leading his men toward a developing fight, several miles to the north and west, his pulse quickening as the sounds of battle became less distant with each step.[1]

Gilbert Arnold Dickey was born on February 18, 1843, in Marshall, Michigan, one of ultimately seven children born to Charles and Mary Wakeman Dickey. His ancestry was Scotch-Irish and, until recently, his family were New Englanders; his mom and dad–born respectively in Massachusetts and New Hampshire–had emigrated to Michigan just seven years earlier, in 1836, settling in Marshall, which is near Battle Creek, and about 100 miles west of Detroit. Once he arrived, it was not long before Charles Dickey–Gilbert’s father–became a leading member of his adopted community. With a background in manufacturing and in business, Charles Dickey, in 1842, was elected sheriff of Calhoun County, a position he held for the next four years. Entering into politics, he served also as mayor of Marshall and, in 1848, won election to the Michigan State Senate. He was later elected to the Michigan House of Representatives where he served as Speak Pro Tempore and, in early 1861, he was appointed a U.S. Marshal by newly-inaugurated President Abraham Lincoln. Gilbert Dickey’s father was certainly an influential part of his life; sadly, though, he would lose his mother Mary at an early age. She died the day after Christmas in 1852 at age 40, when Gilbert was only nine years old.[2]

A bright and energetic young man, Gilbert Dickey at around age 14 enrolled as one of the very first students in the recently established Michigan State Agricultural College, which today is Michigan State University. One of only seven students in the college’s Class of ’61, Dickey was engaged in his studies at the college when civil war erupted that spring. Michiganders responded eagerly to the crisis with thousands of its sons marching off in answer to Lincoln’s call-to-arms. Caught up in the patriotic surge that swept the nation following news of Fort Sumter’s fall, Dickey and his classmates also sought to contribute something to the war effort.

Dickey Image 2

Photograph of the Michigan State Agricultural College Class of 1861; Gilbert Dickey is Standing, Center.
[Courtesy of Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collection]

They set about organizing a grand and patriotic Fourth of July Celebration to take place on the college grounds. Bells would be rung, music performed, fireworks set off, and several salutes fired. Prayers would be delivered and the Declaration of Independence would be read aloud. There would also be an oration, delivered, it was determined, by Gilbert Arnold Dickey. As it turned out, the event–this celebration of the United States while in the midst of its greatest trial–was a “magnificent affair,” attended, reportedly, by nearly 5,000 people. Perhaps inheriting the gift of oratory from his father–the one time Speaker Pro Tem of the Michigan House of Representatives–Gilbert Dickey shined. “The Oration was very creditable to Mr. Dickey,” reported the Lansing State Republican. “It was terse, logical and well written. The subject–Patriotism, was well treated and the duties which patriotism enjoins set in a clear light.”[3]

But no matter how stirring, words alone cannot win wars. The nation needed soldiers; it was one of those important duties “patriotism enjoins.”

Gilbert Dickey and his six classmates in the Michigan State Agricultural College were scheduled to graduate that fall, with commencement to take place in November. However, to help meet the exigencies of the day and likely at their urging, the college allowed these men special exemptions to depart early.[4] A company of engineers was being formed in nearby Battle Creek and it would appear Dickey and his classmates were eager to enlist.

In September 1861, Edwin P. Howland set about raising and organizing a company of engineers, which he dubbed the “Battle Creek Engineer Corps,” but which was also Howland’s Independent Company, Michigan Volunteers. Howland was able to gather fifty-eight recruits, including Gilbert Dickey and five of his six classmates. Enlisting on September 16, 1861, Dickey set off for war. Howland’s engineer company departed for St. Louis, where it was mustered into Federal service on October 9. This was to be a three-years’ unit, with the men agreeing to serve “for three years or the course of the war,” whichever should come first. However, Howland’s experiment with his engineering company proved to be short-lived. Taking command of the Department of Missouri in late 1861, Major General Henry Halleck deemed that the “Battle Creek Engineering Corps” was an irregular unit, which did not meet Federal standards. Learning of Halleck’s decision, the soldiers of Howland’s company took a vote and decided to disband. Receiving pay for their short time in uniform, the Battle Creek engineers were mustered out of service on January 8, 1862, and returned home.[5]

Gilbert Dickey returned to his home in Marshall. Several of his classmates immediately decided to re-enlist into other regiments but he would take some time before doing so. There were other thoughts occupying his mind just then; one of them being Miss Rosetta Beecher. It is not known when they met or how long they knew one another but on July 1, 1862, the two were married. Thoughts of a family, however, were put on hold, for the call of duty still pulled strongly on Gilbert.

Already fifteen months in and the war still bloodily dragged on and on, much longer than many anticipated at its outset. Lincoln needed more men and throughout the spring and into the summer of 1862 he contemplated making another call for volunteers. His mind made up, Lincoln issued a statement to the Northern governors. It read, in part, “I have decided to call into the service an additional force of 300,000 men. I suggest and recommend that the troops should be chiefly on infantry. . . .I trust that they may be enrolled without delay, so as to bring this unnecessary and injurious civil war to a speedy and satisfactory conclusion.”[6] Quotas for volunteers were assigned to each state.  The date of this fateful directive written by President Lincoln in the White House was, coincidentally, July 1, 1862, the very same day, in faraway Marshall, Michigan, that Gilbert Dickey and Rosetta Beecher were married.

In response to Lincoln’s call, Republican Governor Austin Blair set about to meet Michigan’s quota of at least six new infantry regiments. Once more, through town and township, city and sparse settlement, the call for men sounded, and, in Marshall, Gilbert Dickey answered.  Several regiments were being raised and organized in Detroit and there Dickey traveled. On August 12, Dickey signed on to serve, enlisting into what would become Company E of Michigan’s Twenty-fourth Regiment of Volunteer Infantry. Dickey was soon made the regiment’s Commissary Sergeant, a post he held until January 27, 1863, when he was made the regiment’s sergeant-major. Trusting such important assignments to a man as young as Dickey (he wouldn’t turn 20 until February 1863) speaks volumes about his leadership, intelligence, skill, and ability, as well as to the trust his superior officers had in him.[7]

Its ten companies fully raised and organized, the 24th Michigan Infantry set off for the seat of war., but whereas most of Michigan’s regiments would serve in the war’s Western Theater, the 24th instead headed east, traveling to Washington, D.C. where it was to link up with the Army of the Potomac. Noting its arrival, Brigadier General John Gibbon, a no-nonsense professional soldier who commanded the Army of the Potomac’s famed “Iron Brigade of the West,” made a special request for the recently arrived Michiganders to join his veteran organization. Gibbon’s Brigade–the only all-western brigade in this largely eastern army, and consisting of the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin and 19th Indiana–had already become revered, earning its fitting sobriquet for their heroics in action Brawner’s Farm, South Mountain, and most recently at Antietam. Upon all of these fields, the Iron Brigade suffered appalling losses. Gibbon hoped to add the brand new 24th Michigan regiment to bolster his fearfully depleted command while at the same time maintaining its distinctive all-Western composition. In October , Gibbon’s request was approved and Sgt. Dickey and the men of the 24th Michigan now found itself apart of one of the hardest-hitting units in any army of this war. To the seasoned, veteran soldiers from Wisconsin and Indiana, these greenhorns from Michigan would have much to prove. And this the Michiganders did during the regiment’s first test in battle, which came at Fredericksburg in December 1862. After some initial unease while under artillery fire for the first time, the 24th Michigan, under its brave and highly competent commander Henry Morrow, charged a woodlot and cleared it of Confederate troops. Their actions at Fredericksburg, where the 24th would suffer its first battlefield fatalities, earned the respect of many of their comrades in Iron Brigade but if there was still any lingering doubt as to the fighting ability or prowess of these men from Michigan, they would forever be put to rest following the Battle of Gettysburg.

Disease, discharges, desertions, and the relatively few casualties sustained during the Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville Campaigns had reduced the number of men in the 24th by nearly fifty percent so that, on the eve of the Battle of Gettysburg, there were 496 officers and men in the regiment, roughly half the number that had departed Detroit just eleven months earlier in late August 1862. And now, on the morning of July 1, 1863, with the temperature rising and the morning dew quickly evaporating, these 496 men made their way north along the Emmitsburg Road, toward Gettysburg and the escalating sound of battle emanating off to the northwest. Within the advancing column was Gilbert Dickey, who, in March, had been promoted from the regiment’s sergeant-major to 2nd Lieutenant of Company G. Whether he rode along on horseback or marched on foot aside of his men is not known. But it was probably certain that on that Wednesday morning, July 1, 1863, Lt. Gilbert Dickey wished that he was rather at home with his wife Rosetta to celebrate their first wedding anniversary, instead of in far off south central Pennsylvania, advancing to the sounds of the guns.

Off to the northwest, Union Cavalrymen under the indomitable John Buford were being hard-pressed by advancing Confederate soldiers from Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, and North Carolina. The first shots of the Battle of Gettysburg had been fired several hours earlier, further to the west, but now the battle inched its way closer Gettysburg. Buford’s outnumbered horsemen were holding desperately atop the ridgelines immediately west of town, hoping to delay the thundering gray-and-butternut columns long enough for infantry to arrive. As Buford’s men gave ground stubbornly on either side of the Chambersburg Pike, that much-needed infantry support was just then hastening way up the Emmitsburg Road from the south.

The infantry advancing to Buford’s support was the First Corps, commanded by Major General John Reynolds. At the head of the First Corps marched its First Division, commanded by General James Wadsworth. Wadsworth had two brigades under his command; one, under Lysander Cutler, led the way toward the developing fight. The other, the famed and feared Iron Brigade, advanced behind Cutler’s men. General Solomon Meredith now commanded the Iron Brigade–Gibbon having by this time been promoted to divisional command in the army’s Second Corps. Colonel Henry Morrow, however, continued to lead the 24th Michigan as it made its way forward that Wednesday morning. 2nd Lt. Gilbert Dickey, in Company G of the 24th Michigan, was but one of the more than 12,000 First Corps soldiers making their way toward the fight.

And they would arrive none too soon. First to arrive was Cutler’s brigade, which Reynolds positioned astride the Chambersburg Pike, with three regiments stretching north to contend with Joe Davis’s advancing Confederate brigade and two regiments posted south of the Pike to deal with another approaching Confederate brigade, the hard-fighting Tennesseans and Alabamians under General James Archer.  Both Archer and Davis’s Brigades belonged to Harry Heth’s division; Heth had been instructed that morning to march toward Gettysburg to determine the size of a Union force reported to have been in the area. Still, he was to avoid battle. With the arrival of the Union First Corps, however, the battle only intensified. Heth’s ranks were slowed but still they had the advantage in that their lines far outflanked Cutler’s men on both sides of the Chambersburg Pike. After positioning Cutler’s men, Reynolds galloped southward to the eastern edge of an eighteen acre woodlot owned by local farmer John Herbst.  Through the trees, the First Corps commander could discern soldiers in gray and butternut advancing from the west. These were soldiers from Archer’s brigade who were just then threatening the left flank of Cutler’s brigade, positioned north of the woodlot. At this critical moment, however, additional help arrived.

Turning left off the Emmitsburg Road near the Nicholas Codori house and barn and advancing cross-lots to the northwest, the soldiers of Solomon Meredith’s Iron Brigade arrived on the field, its regiments entering the fray piecemeal. The 2nd Wisconsin, at the head of the column went in first and there, in John Herbst’s woodlot, they engaged in a savage fight with the 7th and 14th Tennessee of Archer’s Brigade. Musketry roared as the two sides came to blows. Among those struck down in this exchange of gunfire was First Corps commander John Reynolds. Urging the Badger State soldiers forward, Reynolds was struck in the back of the head and instantly killed.[8]

The rest of the Iron Brigade soon entered the fight. The 7th Wisconsin moved forward to support the bloodied 2nd still slugging it out in the woodlot, with the 19th Indiana advancing to the left of the 7th. To the left of the 19th Indiana came Colonel Henry Morrow’s 24th Michigan. (The remaining regiment of the Iron Brigade–the 6th Wisconsin–was held back as a reserve at the Lutheran Seminary).

map 1

The 24th moved forward at the double-quick, down the slope of Seminary Ridge then up and over the crest of McPherson’s Ridge, just to the south of Herbst’s Woods. They charged into the fight with unloaded muskets for there was no time to spare. As it turned out, the 24th had fortuitously arrived on the field squarely on Archer’s exposed right flank, even as their comrades in the Iron Brigade hit Archer’s men head-on. Soldiers of the 13th Alabama, on the right of Archer’s line, delivered several volleys into the hard-charging Michiganders, inflicting the regiment’s first losses of the day. Among the fallen was Abel Peck of Dickey’s Company G, who carried flag of the 24th, shot and instantly killed; he would be the first of seven men to fall that day bearing aloft the regiment’s flag.

Despite the losses, the onslaught of the Iron Brigade overwhelmed Archer’s line. Archer’s men raced rearward in full retreat, with the soldiers of the Iron Brigade on their heels, flush with victory. Down the western slope of McPherson’s Ridge, the men from

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The Monument of the 24th Michigan Infantry in Herbst/McPherson’s Woods

Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin, swept through the undergrowth that lined the banks of the swift-flowing Willoughby Run. Splashing across, the Iron Brigade continued its pursuit of Archer’s men until orders finally arrived to halt. Archer lost 1/3 of his command; he himself was among the captured. The first Confederate advance toward Gettysburg had been repulsed but the battle was still only getting started.

2nd Lieutenant Gilbert Dickey had made it through this initial encounter with Archer’s men. After receiving orders to halt, Dickey and the men of the 24th Michigan splashed back across Willoughby Run and labored up the creek’s steep eastern bank. There, atop this rise of ground in Herbst Woods, the Iron Brigade redeployed, facing west to meet any more Confederate challenges. On the right of the Iron Brigade’s new line was the 7th Wisconsin, followed by the 2nd Wisconsin. Forming up to the left of the 2nd was the 24th Michigan, with Lt. Dickey no doubt scrutinizing the ground. Finally, to the left of the Michigan men went the 19th Indiana, holding the brigade’s left flank.

There was a little bit of a respite now in the day’s action as the First Corps readied for another attack. Shells fired by Confederate artillery batteries to the west exploded amongst the treetops overhead while, to the front, a sometimes brisk skirmish fire continued unabated.  During this so-called “lull” in the fighting, however, Confederate officers made plans to renew the offensive against the First Corps.

A mile to the north of Herbst Woods and certainly out of view of the Michigan men who were now laying down in the woodlot another division of Confederate infantry, some 8,000 men under Robert Rodes, arrived on an open hilltop known as Oak Hill and squarely opposite the right flank of the First Corps, which had also been repositioned north of the Chambersburg Pike. Rodes’s superior–Richard Ewell–was there also, and although he too was told to avoid battle, the right flank of the First Corps was just too tempting a target to resist. Rodes launched a series of attacks from that hilltop, each repulsed with heavy loss. Meanwhile, atop Herr’s Ridge to the west, Harry Heth watched as Rodes’s lines were turned back. He readied his own division for a renewed attack, to strike the First Corps head-on while Rodes continued to hammer their right flank. In line of battle south of the Chambersburg Pike, Heth positioned the Virginians of John Brockenbrough’s Brigade. Next to Brockenbrough and continuing the line south went the 2,000 North Carolinians of Johnson Pettigrew’s Brigade, while the remaining soldiers of Archer’s Brigade formed up to the right of Pettigrew. Heth now had over 4,000 men in position. All he needed was the order to attack.

Confederate army commander Robert E. Lee had by now arrived on Herr’s Ridge, no doubt greatly perturbed that several of his subordinates had violated his instructions to avoid battle that morning. Heth pressed him with requests to renew his attack from the west. At first Lee rejected Heth’s pleas but, at around 2:30, and sensing an opportunity to inflict damage on a part of the Union army, he changed his mind and directed Heth forward. Heth’s line swept down Herr’s Ridge, across the Harmon Farm, and directly toward the Union soldiers positioned to their front on McPherson’s Ridge and in Herbst’s Woods. 2nd Lieutenant Gilbert Dickey watched through the trees as this massive gray wave approached. Advancing straight at him and the men from Michigan were the 840 men of the 26th North Carolina Infantry. All along the line, the men of the Iron Brigade braced for impact as the Confederate line got closer and closer with each passing moment, their piercing “rebel yell” heard even above the booming of cannons.

Colonel Morrow of the 24th Michigan later remembered that the “enemy advanced in two lines of battle, their right extending beyond and overlapping our left.” He instructed his men “to withhold their fire until the enemy should come within short range of our guns.” They waited until the Confederates were within just 80 yards they opened a devastating fire. The North Carolinians were in the midst of crossing Willoughby Run and negotiating their way up through the briars and thickets that lined its banks when the Michiganders opened this heavy fire. Still, wrote Colonel Morrow, “Their advance was not checked, and they came on with rapid strides, yelling like demons.”[9]

In Herbst’s Woods, the Iron Brigade found itself isolated, outflanked, and outnumbered. The 26th North Carolina soon returned fire with the 24th Michigan at nearly a points’ blank range, by some estimates only 20 to 40 yards apart. Bullets tore through the ranks, with both the 26th North Carolina and the 24th Michigan suffering fearful losses. To the left of rapidly thinning ranks of the 24th Michigan, the 19th Indiana was being hammered on its front and on its exposed left flank by the oversized 11th North Carolina Infantry. There was little the Hoosiers could do. After stubbornly and desperately holding on as long as possible–maybe ten or fifteen minutes–the 19th Indiana was forced back. This, in turn, exposed the left flank of the 24th Michigan. To meet the new threat presented by the 11th North Carolina Colonel Morrow attempted to swing back, or “refuse,” the left of his regiment.

map 2

Holding the left of the 24th Michigan’s line were Company D and Gilbert Dickey’s Company G. When Colonel Morrow’s orders arrived to refuse their line in order to face the 11th North Carolina head-on, these two companies were already under a heavy fire making such a maneuver in the face of this fire a difficult thing to do. The attempt was made but, as Colonel Morrow later reported, during the execution of this movement, “the enemy advanced in such force as to compel me to fall back.” Orders were shouted and the 24th Michigan fell back, slowly, stubbornly, turning several times to fire into the surging gray lines.

Left behind, however, in that woodlot and atop the ridge overlooking Wiloughby Run was the lifeless body of 2nd Lieutenant Gilbert Arnold Dickey. The twenty-year old officer, a young man who, to Colonel Morrow held such “great promise,” was shot and killed while he attempted to turn his men to face south; he would be the first, but certainly not the last, commissioned officer in the 24th Michigan to die that day. Victorious North Carolinians, “yelling like demons,” raced past Dickey’s corpse as they continued to drive the ever-decreasing remnants of the 24th Michigan back through those trees in Herbst Woods, which was by now almost entirely enshrouded in thick, sulfurous smoke.


Heth’s second attack that day broke the Union line on McPherson’s Ridge. A follow-up assault launched by Dorsey Pender’s fresh Confederate division, coupled with the relentless attacks of Rodes’s Division to the north, would drive what remained of the Union First Corps from the fields west and north of Gettysburg, and back through the town itself, ultimately to the high ground known as Cemetery Hill where the Union forces rallied. There, the shattered remains of the Iron Brigade gathered. Casualties within the brigade were so severe that, for all intents and purposes, the organization would almost cease to exist. Of the total 1,885 men in the brigade, more than 1,200 became casualties at the Battle of Gettysburg, the vast majority of these losses occurring in and around John Herbst’s woodlot on July 1, 1863. In the 24th Michigan, 363 of the regiment’s 496 officers and men were killed, wounded, or captured, a staggering 73% casualty rate. Theirs was the sad distinction of losing the largest number of casualties of any regiment in the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg.

During the ensuing two days–on July 2 and 3, 1863–Robert E. Lee attempted but in the end failed to force the Army of the Potomac from the high ground south of Gettysburg–Little Round Top, Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge, and Culp’s Hill. After Lee’s army retreated from the blood-soaked fields around Gettysburg, the remains of the fallen were buried in hastily dug battlefield graves.  While the sights–and smells–were appalling all across the battlefield in the immediate aftermath of the battle, this was especially the case on the fields of the First Day’s fight. There the dead had remained unburied for days, decomposing in the July heat. First Corps artillery chief, Charles Wainwright, wrote that the First Corps dead “presented a ghastly sight, being swollen almost to the bursting of their clothes, and the faces perfectly black.”[10] Even so, burial parties did their best to identify the remains of the fallen. It was the least that could be done for those who had given their lives so that the nation could live. Among the identified remains were those of Lieutenant Gilbert Dickey, who was laid to rest near where he fell in Hersbt Woods.

Word of Gilbert Dickey’s death arrived in his hometown of Marshall, Michigan, soon after the battle, for, just one week later, the slain lieutenant’s father, Charles Dickey, arrived in Gettysburg with several others from the Detroit Board of Trade. Amongst the many graves that now marked Herbst Woods, a grief-stricken Charles Dickey discovered that of his son. Rather than arrange for the removal of his son’s remains for reburial at home in Michigan, however, Charles Dickey decided to let them rest where they were; there, where he fell, surrounded by others who died in defense of the Union. Later, Dickey’s body would be removed and reburied in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery.

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The Grave of Gilbert Dickey in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, with the incorrect inscription of “S. Cavalry.”

In a cruel twist of fate and sad coincidence, Rosetta Beecher Dickey lost her husband Gilbert on their First Wedding Anniversary. It is not known when the two had last seen one another but it must have been some months before, in either late April or early May 1863, when Gilbert likely received a furlough to visit home, for, whether he knew it or had yet to find out when he went into battle at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, Rosetta Dickey was two months pregnant. Gilbert was due to become a father sometime in early February 1864.

Rosetta Dickey applied for a pension in the fall of 1863, before she delivered her baby and thus, unfortunately, the pension records do not include the baby’s name or even its date of birth. She would, however, receive a pension of $15.00 a month. Rosetta Beecher Dickey never remarried and remained a Civil War soldier’s widow for the next fifty-eight years. She passed away in the summer of 1921 and was buried in the Riverside Cemetery in Kalamazoo, Michigan. More than 500 miles away from her final resting place lie the remains of her husband Gilbert, at Gravesite 7, Section A, in the Michigan Plot at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.


-Ranger John Hoptak
Gettysburg National Military Park



[1] Dickey, Rosetta Beecher, Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Veterans of the Army and Navy Who Served Mainly in the Civil War and the War With Spain, compiled 1861 – 1934; roll WC13071-Dickey-Gilbert-A Department of Veterans Affairs, Record Group 15; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

[2] American biographical history of eminent and self-made men … Michigan volume. Barnard, F. A., Western Biographical Publishing Company (Cincinnati, Ohio) Cincinnati: Western biographical publishing co., 1878, pages 455-456.

[3] Lansing State Republican, Wednesday, June 12, 1861, page 3; Lansing State Republican, Wednesday, July 10, 1861, page 3.

[4] https://onthebanks.msu.edu/Object/162-565-3078/class-of-1861-portrait/, accessed March 30, 2020.

[5] http://www.migenweb.org/michiganinthewar/engineers/howland.htm, accessed March 27, 2020.

[6] The Papers and Writings of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 2: 1860-1865, printed by CreateSpace, North Charleston, SC;, page 163.

[7] For a regimental history of the 24th Michigan, see Curtis, O.B. History of the Twenty-fourth Michigan of the Iron Brigade, Known as the Detroit and Wayne County Regiment, Detroit, MI: Winn & Hammond, 1891.

[8] For an excellent account of the actions of the Iron Brigade on July 1, 1863, see Hartwig, D. Scott, “I Have Never Seen the Like Before,” in This Has Been A Terrible Ordeal: The Gettysburg Campaign and First Day of Battle, Papers of the Tenth Gettysburg National Military Park Seminar, 2005; pages 155-196.

[9] Colonel Morrow’s Report on the Battle of Gettysburg, in OFFICIAL RECORDS: Series 1, vol 27, Part 1 (Gettysburg Campaign) No. 33. pp. 267-273

[10] Quoted in Hartwig, “I Have Never Seen the Like Before,” 188.

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The War on Boredom Vol. IV

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Sutlers in Winter Camp by Edwin Forbes. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

As more and more localities across the nation turn to “stay at home” orders in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, yet another facet of our daily lives is feeling the impact of the first global pandemic of the twenty-first century.  Almost every state in the country is now requiring everyone to stay at home with the exception of those going out to get food and medical care.  While some businesses are certainly struggling to keep their heads above water and their checkbooks balanced, online retail sales have surged in the United States over the past three weeks as many Americans have been forced to purchase many “non-essential” items over the web rather than in-person.  For some, this can be incredibly frustrating as product selection may be limited, wait times for your product to arrive increase, and in some cases, shoppers are forced to pay higher prices of online retailers, knowing that the same product could be picked up on any given day at the local shopping mall at a lower price.

Nearly three million Civil War soldiers went through a similar experience shortly after leaving home.  While the government would supply clothing (if sparse at times), equipment for fighting and camping, food (as long as it was available), and an initial set of eating utensils and tin ware, everything else the soldier desired would become his responsibility for procurement.  Think of everything else you would want in camp-, snacks, desserts, any form of entertainment.  Furthermore, consider the fact that clothing and equipment would only be replaced at the will of the government. If a pair of shoes wore out, a soldier lost a fork or knife, or did not have enough warm clothing was on hand when cold weather arrived, he would have to procure all of these items on his own time with his own money.  There were generally two strategies for getting these things, one of which we have already discussed- getting a box from home.  The other is the topic of this blog post- the sutler.

When a visitor to Gettysburg National Military Park hears the term “sutler” for the first time, the Park Ranger is often met with a quizzical facial expression in response.  The word has its origins in the dutch language and has a loose translation as “one who does dirty work.”  No doubt, the original intention was for this term to be derogatory in nature though it appears that by the time of the Civil War, at least in the United States, much of the derogatory nature had worn off.  The sutler of the Civil War was a traveling merchant who followed both Confederate and Union armies selling their wares to the soldiers in need of extras in camp.  While the sutlers of the Civil War were certainly enterprising if not speculative profiteers of the war, many soldiers would depend on them to keep life as normal as possible in camp.  At any given time they could buy dried fruit, fresh fruit, dried meat, pickles, cakes and crackers to augment their rations.  In terms of personal hygiene, they could buy toothbrushes, perfumes and hair treatments.  To entertain themselves in camp there were often candles, playing cards, newspapers and tobacco products.  Indeed, when a sutler’s wagon arrived in camp it would have been quite the sight to see as they would be loaded down with enough of these items to hopefully supply a regiment for an extended period of time.

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A sutler sets up shop outside the Union defenses of Petersburg, VA 1864. Library of Congress.

The scene of a sutlers shop would often prove to be the proverbial “water cooler” of a Civil War regiment – a place men would gather to discuss the wares that were for sale, the quality of the goods and the prices the sutler was charging.  Sutlers traveled in their own wagons and during the warm months would operate out of a tent.  During the winter if an Army was halted in place they would often set up small huts or shacks to operate out of in much the same fashion that his soldier customers were living throughout the winter.

“Sutlering,” the term used as a verb, could be at times, quite regulated under formal army codes.  For instance, in 1864 the United States War Department dictated under article twenty-nine that no sutler would be permitted to sell liquor.  The article also mandated what times a sutler could have their shop open in camp ensuring that they were closed by 9:00 PM every night and were not allowed to be open while church services were being held.  Furthermore, sutlers were often assigned to individual units so as to not concentrate all of the sutlers in one place and to make their wares available to a larger segment of the Army.  Their assignment became important when it came to the method in which payment was made to them.

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Soldier’s line up outside a sutler tent, Petersburg, VA, 1864. Library of Congress.

There were a number of ways sutlers would take payment from their soldier customers.  The simplest was cash payment; however, money would sometimes be in a shorter supply than the need for goods.  The sutlers, not wanting to lose business simply because cash was not present reverted to using either a credit system or by producing their own form of currency sometimes referred to as chits.  A line of credit taken by a soldier from a sutler would essentially put a lien on the soldiers pay which could legally be collected by the sutler directly from the unit’s paymaster when pay day came around.  Rather than keeping a simple paper tabulation of what a solider owed to the sutler, it seems as though a formalized system took hold in the Union army to prevent fraud on both the part of the soldier and the sutler.  Under this system, a soldier would request from his company commander a Paymaster Order, signed by the officer, which guaranteed that the soldier was owed a certain amount of money in the future, from the government.  This note would be given to the sutler and exchanged for what many called “chits.”  A chit was a form of currency issued by the sutler often in small paste board pieces but sometimes in metal stamped coins.  The sutler kept the order and the soldier kept the chits, spending them at his leisure as goods were needed.  When payday arrived the sutler could then take the paymaster order and collect his money directly from the source rather than have to track down each soldier and collect what he was due.

As mentioned earlier this payment system worked in conjunction with the sutlers being assigned to individual units.  Because the sutler was assigned to an individual unit then he knew that he would be able to get in touch with a paymaster to collect his debts.  If he were not assigned to a unit and any soldier from any unit shopped at his tent, then there was no guarantee that he would be able to collect from all of the paymasters of the soldiers that had done business with him in the intervening time between paydays.

The unintended consequence that came from the system was that soldiers felt as though they were bound to an individual merchant which had a monopoly on his money and could set their prices at whatever they chose as the competition was all but eliminated.  Indeed, we see soldiers sometimes calling sutlers “skinners” and the area they may be set up was sometimes called “robbers row.”   Sometimes tempers ran high towards the sutlers, resulting in thievery or wholesale ransacking of an entire sutlers shop if the soldiers became unruly.  Nevertheless, the sutlering business boomed from the start of the war to its conclusion.

As the world’s response to COVID-19 continues to evolve, more and more Americans will find themselves at home doing more and more of their shopping from a limited number of companies who are able to keep their doors open and their goods flowing out to customers.  For some soldiers during the Civil War, the goods they purchased at the sutlers were certainly vital to the continuation of life, for others, spending time window shopping, discussing the wares with their comrades or buying a little treat for themselves served as a way to take their mind off the reality of serving in the ranks of America’s deadliest military conflict.  We hope you have enjoyed Volume IV of The War on Boredom.

Ranger Philip Brown
Gettysburg National Military Park

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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.

Minolta DSC

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: https://www.loc.gov/item/99447500/)

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