By the early 1860s, Gettysburg was a town on the move. With a thriving wagon and carriage industry, a rich agricultural bounty, and multiple institutions of higher education, the town of 2,400 citizens was productive, cultured, and embracing the potentials of the future. In 1858, both the Gettysburg Railroad and the telegraph arrived in the community, connecting the crossroads town both financially and socially to surrounding municipalities and centers of commerce. Since its founding by James Gettys in 1786, the hamlet of Gettysburg had largely known good fortune and serenity – but that all changed in the summer of 1863.
Gettysburg National Military Park’s newest program, Long Remembered, focuses less on the strategy and tactics of the battle and more on the deeply personal and emotional aspects of survival and endurance both civilians and soldiers faced in these streets 148 years ago. What would you have done if you had lived in this community when 165,000 warring combatants descended into your streets, alleyways, and yards? Would you have fled? Sought shelter in your cellar? Fought the enemy as local elder John Burns had done? How would you have best protected your family? For as frightening as all these questions are in a modern context, they are all questions these townspeople asked themselves in the face of great confusion and devastation. Through Long Remembered, a park ranger guides you through the historic heart of this community to discuss the how these people lived, survived, and rebuilt their lives. The program will be offered Sunday evening, July 24 and August 7, starting at 6 p.m. and meets at the downtown Historic Gettysburg Train Station at 35 Carlisle Street (one block north of the town square).
The park’s first Long Remembered presentation was held on June 19 and led by Ranger Chuck Teague. Beginning at the train station, Ranger Chuck set the scene for the visitors by describing the creation of the community and its growing abundance in the wake of agricultural success and Industrial Revolution. Ultimately, the system of ten major roads leading into this town brought both prosperity and then devastation. Though citizens had long prospered due to their access to nearby markets thanks to these roads, it was these same routes which brought war to their community in 1863.
The Italianate style train station itself was a prominent witness to the battle. Not only were the streets around it barricaded, but it also served as one of numerous field hospitals during and after the fighting. Some Union prisoners of war being held captive there on July 3 reportedly cheered from its cupola as they witnessed Longstreet’s Assault being repulsed to the south that afternoon. In the weeks following the battle, hundreds of wounded were transported from this point to military hospitals in Washington and Philadelphia. Furthermore, throughout the subsequent decades, veterans of the battle disembarked from passenger cars here to traverse the fields on which they had fought years earlier.
On the evening of November 18, one prominent passenger in particular came to Gettysburg to pay his respects – President Abraham Lincoln. Asked only a few weeks earlier to deliver a “few appropriate remarks” at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, Lincoln travelled here despite his youngest son, Tad, being grievously ill. The president too was likely afflicted at this time with Varioloid, a form of smallpox, upon his visit to the battlefield. After leaving the train station, Lincoln and his entourage of aids and cabinet members walked up Carlisle Street toward the town square. Ranger Chuck’s group of sixty followed in their footsteps.
After discussing the history of the Diamond as well as the colorful tales of McClellan and Globe Taverns, our group continued to the David Wills House on the square. Wills was a prosperous attorney who acted as the local agent for Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin and helped spearhead the effort to create a final resting place for the Union dead of the battle. Built circa 1816, Wills also used the home as his law office. Serving in one of nine law firms in town, Wills’ office was conveniently located only about two blocks south of the county courthouse, built in 1859.
It will be in this brick structure where Lincoln put the finishing touches on the Gettysburg Address, despite the loud distraction of a carnival atmosphere outside his window. Following the Marine Band serenading Lincoln beneath his window, Lincoln was called by the crowd to give a speech. From the steps of the York Street door of the Wills House, the president said to the crowd:
I appear before you, fellow citizens, merely to thank you for this compliment. The inference is a very fair one that you would hear me for a little while at least were I to commence to make a speech. I do not appear before you for the purpose of doing so, and for several substantial reasons. The most substantial of these is that I have no speech to make. (Laughter.) In my position, it is somewhat important that I should not say any foolish things. (Voice in the crowd—If you can help it, Mr. Lincoln!) It very often happens that the only way to help it is to say nothing at all. (Laughter.) Believing that is my present condition this evening, I must beg you to excuse me from addressing you further.
Ranger Chuck also spoke about Ward Hill Lamon, the president’s bodyguard and Master of Ceremonies for the dedication of the cemetery. Even taller than Abraham Lincoln, Lamon often carried multiple pistols and knives under the flaps of his coat to protect Lincoln. Needless to say, Lamon did not accompany the president to Ford’s Theater the night of his assassination. Local sergeants Hugh Paxton Bingham and James Rebert also reportedly helped guard the president during his stay in town.
Standing on Baltimore Street, Ranger Teague alluded to the importance of local politics in the daily lives of Gettysburg citizens. Adams County was a swing district, with the Republicans winning the county in 1860 and the Democrats winning it in 1864. The three partisan town newspapers, The Adams Sentinel, The Star and Banner, and the Compiler, “kept the political agitation active” (Michael Dreese, The Hospital on Seminary Ridge at the Battle of Gettysburg, 30). The Compiler served as the Democratic Party newspaper and was owned by entrepreneur Henry Stahle. The town Democrats also owned a War of 1812 cannon nicknamed “Penelope,” which they fired during election season. But in 1855, their prized piece of artillery imploded. Retaining it as a trophy, however, Stahle embedded the gun in the sidewalk in front of his shop on 26 Baltimore Street, where Penelope still sits today.
At the Gettysburg Presbyterian Church on Baltimore Street, Ranger Chuck concluded by speaking about the patriotic ceremony that was held there following the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. There, Lincoln met resident John Burns, who had left the safety of his home to fight the Confederates west of town. Patriotic songs were sung and additional speeches were delivered. Here, Chuck addressed the themes of the Gettysburg Address as seen through Lincoln’s own personal actions. During his time in Illinois as a lawyer, Lincoln made acquaintance with a free African American named William Johnson, who eventually accompanied Lincoln to Washington and became a presidential valet. Johnson also accompanied Lincoln to Gettysburg but contracted smallpox (possibly from Lincoln himself) and died in January 1864. The president had his aide laid to rest in the Congressional National Cemetery and, like the other free blacks buried there, had inscribed on his tombstone: “William Johnson – Citizen.” And this was, in part, what this Civil War was all about – the right to determine citizenship, equality, and offering these freedoms to an ever-increasing number of Americans. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GDuntudzxXs
On a subsequent Long Remembered program, Ranger Jim Flook spoke about duty and family through the story of Sergeant Amos Humiston of the 154th NY State Volunteers. Falling back with the men of his regiment as they were being pushed through town, Humiston fought through the brickyard north of town and, somewhere near the railroad tracks by North Stratton Street, he was struck in the chest by a southern bullet. In the final moments of his life, he held a photo of his three children – Franklin, Fred, and Alice – and ultimately died with them in his thoughts. As we know through the tragedy of 9/11, thoughts of family and loved ones raced through the minds of victims as they made phone calls in the last minutes of their own lives. Naturally, Sgt. Humiston had no such luxury in bidding farewell to his children. A simple photo was his final goodbye.
The story of Gettysburg and the Civil War as a whole is a family story. It is the story of families torn apart by ideology and distance. It is a tale of survival and fortitude. And, we can be reminded of this simply by walking the streets where much of it happened. In doing so we hope that you, the visitor, will have a stronger appreciation and deeper connection to these people and their sacrifices on our behalf.
We hope that some of our readers can join us for another walk through history in downtown Gettysburg on July 24 or August 7. If you have questions, please call the park information desk at (717) 334-1124 ext. 8023.