Saturday, July 20, 2013

Gettysburg 150th - In The Wake Of The Storm

It becomes my duty forward to you the painful intelligence of the death of your son, John F. Morse, a member of my company.  He died in the Regimental Hospital at daylight Friday morning...We buried him Sunday morning at 10 o’clock on an eminence in front of our camp...Your affliction is a heavy one, but it will be somewhat of a consolation to know that his whole company share with you, your grief, and while you have lost a son, they have lost a comrade, noble, generous, and loved-one whose place now made vacant will not be easily filled, he whose kind deeds, and cheerful prompt discharge of every duty assigned him, has left an example well worthy the emulation of every one. 1

Imagine how many letters like the one above were sent after every major battle and minor skirmish of the Civil War.  Further, the largest reaper of the Civil War soldier was disease, only adding to the vast pile of letters to be delivered on the home front.  By the summer of July 1863, these letters had become quite common in the post office of nearly every small town and hamlet of the United and Confederate States of America.  With the end of hostilities at Gettysburg and the campaign itself, the story of the tragic event was only just transitioning.  Surely the majority of those soldiers still "fit for duty" had long moved on and were preparing for the next military confrontation, but there were still over twenty thousand soldiers left in the vicinity of Gettysburg in the wake of the storm.  For a town of approximately 2,400 citizens, overwhelming would be an understatement.  What we refer to as the end of a Civil War battle is really only the beginning of a profound story that merits as much (if not more) attention as the fighting itself.  

Nearly every commercial property and private residence in and around Gettysburg was transformed into some sort of carnal house.  There were aide-stations, field hospitals, recovery rooms, supply stations, coffin shops, embalming tents and lastly, cemeteries, spread over much of the blighted landscape.  The inexorable pungents wrought the air of pestilence and death.  On top of the wounded and dying men left behind, the town was imploded with an influx of sight-seers, benevolent groups and those who had come in search of a loved one.  The aftermath story is indeed as complex as the battle itself and covers an even greater time frame.  Even in its complexity, it is a story that truly draws on the depths of human emotion, easily evoking empathy and pulling us closer.  Very much like a vehicular accident that one might pass on a daily commute; we don't necessarily want to see the scene, but we can't help but take a glance and absorb.  There are literally thousands of perspectives on what for many became the crux of their lifetime of experiences.    

Spangler Farm
One of the thousands of stories comes from the George Spangler Family.  George and his wife Elizabeth had a thriving subsistence farm of over 160 acres by the time of the battle, only about two miles south of town.  They had four children from ages fourteen to twenty-one.  Despite the numerous reports of the advancing armies and a possible collision nearby, George and his family decided to wait it out.  On July 1 their lives changed forever. 2  

As the two armies clashed north and west of Gettysburg, both armies began scouting out locations for field hospitals and the numerous other logistical sites required for their sizable commands.  The boundaries of the Spangler Farm rest directly between the Taneytown Road and the Baltimore Pike.  These two significant roads were main avenues of advance for a large portion of the Army of the Potomac, placing the property directly in the cross-hairs.  As the fighting rumbled along on July 1, the Second Division of the Eleventh Corps commandeered the property for use as the divisional hospital.  The Spangler family took refuge in a room on the second floor where they remained for the duration of the fighting.  As the hospital stewards, surgeons and other personnel moved in, much of the Spangler's tangible property was quickly confiscated.  Anything that could be of use to the medical staff was affected, from bed sheets to cook-ware. 3

The Spangler's barn rapidly became inundated with the incoming wounded soldiers who started flowing regularly towards the property on the afternoon and evening of July 1.  The threshing floor became the triage station, while the basement became the staging area for the four operating tables in full execution under the eaves of the lower floor of the barn.  The Second Division's Surgeon-in Chief Daniel Brinton said he "was not absent from the hospital more than once and then but for an hour or two.  Very hard work it was, too, and little sleep fell to our share."  The "four operating tables were going night and day," carrying out their excruciating business with the speed of a fast-food drive-through window.  Fingers, legs, arms, feet and anything else that could be sawed off were done so with little thought except for getting the deed done as quickly as possible and getting the next victim onto the table. 4

Soon there were so many wounded that the house and outbuildings were simply overflowing.  As the prolific situation became exacerbated by the gargantuan struggle that boomed on for two more days, the wounded soldiers were spread out over the surrounding fields.  Many laid down upon the once bountifully yielded crops of Mr. Spangler's long hours and hard-working hands.  This would produce a harsh toll later for these soldiers exposed to the natural elements, some might consider it nature's retribution.  The wounded were coming in by the hundreds and the Second Division hospital became the Eleventh Corps hospital.  While they came in droves, the Union Artillery Reserve trampled onto the northern portion of the property with 114 cannons, limbers and caissons, nearly 2,400 men and 1,500 horses, destroying everything in their path. These reserves were called into action at the critical juncture on July 2 in places now forever famous; The Peach Orchard, Cemetery Ridge and Cemetery Hill. 5

At the northern most point of George and Elizabeth's farm is an eminence known as Powers Hill.  The Army of the Potomac transformed the once peaceful hillside into a tactically brilliant artillery platform that on the morning of July 3, spewed a death-storm of shell and shrapnel onto the Confederate forces attacking Culps Hill.  The position proved pivotal and the Confederate attempt was repulsed after seven hours of vicious carnage.  Later that day, the Spangler Farm was caught in the hailstorm of Confederate iron during the famous artillery barrage which heralded the legendary Confederate assault by Pickett, Pettigrew and Trimble.  The overshoots, intended for the Union line on Cemetery Ridge, started falling among the helpless soldiers
Looking inside the wagon shed...this is where Confederate
soldiers were kept, isolated from the Federal wounded
laying in and around the barn.  
There I had a fine view of the bursting shells coming in our direction.  There were at one time six explosions of shells in one moment....The danger was becoming so great that every man was removed excepting myself and an old German...The surgeon who had been in shortly before looking at my wound ran for his life...As he passed the door he called...'get out of there as soon as you can,'... knowing that I could not move.  He soon sent two men to carry me away...They placed me in the lower part of the barn, in a building called a wagon shed.  This place was occupied mostly by wounded Rebels. The wagon shed eventually housed approximately one hundred Confederate soldiers over the course of the hospital's existence.  Another more humorous story comes from a letter written by Private Emory Sweetland of the 154th New York on July 26 to his parents.  "The other day we had some wounded Rebs in the cellar of the barn and, the door being open, a stray pig walked in.  One of the Rebs entered a complaint to the Doctors waiting boy that we allowed hogs to roam about among their wounded.  The boy asked him if the hog recognized any acquaintances among the Rebs!" 6  

Later that evening, one of the more famous officers to pass through the hospital was brought in for care from the day's late battlefield.  Brigadier General Lewis Addison Armistead was wounded twice after crossing the stone wall with his band of courageous men at the climax of the July 3 assault.  His wounds by all accounts were not mortal in nature and he received care in the Spangler's summer kitchen. Numerous other well-known soldiers were brought to the farm as well.  Colonel Eliakim Sherrill of the 126th New York in the Second Corps, who led Willard's Brigade during the repulse of Pickett's Charge, was brought to the farm where he later died.  Major General Francis Barlow and Frederick Stowe (Harriet-Beecher Stowe's son) also spent time recuperating on the spoiled property. Private George Nixon of the 73rd Ohio died at the Spangler Farm of wounds received while skirmishing along the base of Cemetery Hill.  He was the great-grandfather of President Richard Nixon. 7

As the glorious Fourth of July dawned in 1863, most Union soldiers hadn't even the slightest glint of elation in their systems.  Indeed a stark pathos pervaded the landscape which provided the wearied Union soldiers with a hollowed sense of victory at Gettysburg.  Eleventh Corps commander, Major General Oliver Otis Howard, visited the hospital on July 4 saying, "I saw long rows of men lying under the eaves of the building, the water pouring down upon their bodies in streams.  Most of the operating-tables were places in the open...partially protected against the rain...There stood the surgeons, their sleeves rolled up...their bare arms as well as their linen aprons smeared with blood...around them pools of blood and amputated arms or legs in heaps...a surgeon, having been long at work...put down his knife, exclaiming that his hand had grown unsteady, and that this was too much for human endurance, hysterical tears streaming down his face."  The belief among soldiers that a good rain always followed a bloody battle held true at Gettysburg.  Surgeon Brinton remembered that "a heavy rain came...and as we had laid many in spots without shelter some indeed in the barnyard where the foul water oozed up into their undressed wounds, the sight was harassing in the extreme."  In these conditions men died and somehow, survived. 8

On July 5 the forty-six year old General Armistead passed away.  It has been said that he died from exhaustion, prostration, or maybe even a shattered pride.  He was initially interred in the hospital cemetery just south of the house and summer kitchen, one of many who would lay in repose in Mr. Spangler's south field.  At least 205 soldiers north and south were buried there.  George Spangler's 1,200 board-foot of cord-wood that had been recently stored in the barn, was taken out and fashioned into coffins, headboards and fencing to enclose the cemetery plot.  General Armistead's body was later removed in early August by members of his family and taken to Baltimore.  Many of the Union soldiers were also removed with the formation of the National Cemetery, some even being taken next door to Evergreen Cemetery.  With efforts finally being made in the 1870s to remove Confederate dead to southern cemeteries, a number of those men buried at the Spangler Farm were re-interred in the south.  That being said, there are at least a half dozen Confederate soldiers with no record beyond that period who may very well rest eternally under the Pennsylvania loam in Spangler's south field, along with hundreds of amputated limbs. 9    

The gory work of a Civil War hospital continued on the Spangler Farm until the first week of August in 1863, when the perfunctory hospitals throughout the area were consolidated into one large general hospital on the York Road.  It became known as Camp Letterman after the medical director of the Army of the Potomac and the bloody deeds of caring for the maimed continued on until  November 20, 1863. 10

As for the George, Elizabeth and the couple's four children, life would go on.  Of course they left something behind in those fateful days of July, but they too were able to recuperate their belongings.  In many ways, they were the lucky ones.  The landscape would necessarily take time to heal, but the Spangler Farm was bigger and better than ever within fifteen years of the end of the war.  A number of damage claims were filed by George Spangler in the 1870s ranging from $2,500 to $3,000.  In March of 1881, the U.S. Treasury Department finally awarded sixty dollars made payable to Spangler's attorney.  Whether or not George and his family ever received the check is unknown. 11  

The story of the Spangler Farm does not end there though.  The Spangler Family remained on the property until the very early part of the twentieth century when the farm changed hands a number of times until 1953,
when it was bought by the Andrews Family.  They held the deed until putting the farm on the auction block in 2008.  The bidding met with great competition, some of those involved having plans for development, others with a brighter future in mind that included saving the hallowed site for future generations, namely...the Gettysburg Foundation.  Through trepidation at the uncertain future, hard-work and perseverance finally paid off for the non-profit organization which was able to purchase the farm, saving it for future generations.  Although it fell into their hands a historical gem, the Gettysburg National Military Park's superintendent at the time was quoted as saying, "the great thing about the Spangler Farm is that it largely hasn't been touched since 1863...the bad thing is that it largely hasn't been touched since 1863." 12 

Since 2008 the Gettysburg Foundation, in cooperation with the National Military Park's easement, has been working to preserve and restore the site in an effort to allow public visitation.  This goal was finally realized earlier this year on Memorial Day weekend.  The summer kitchen is the first fully preserved building on the property and the others are waiting in the wings for the necessary funds.  There is a long road ahead in terms of properly restoring and preserving the site.  Every penny and minute that can be furnished will be extremely appreciated not just by the Gettysburg Foundation, but by future generations as well.  If you are interested in helping, please follow the link below and in the comments section, type: "Spangler Farm Donation."

The site is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday each week until the weekend of August 17-18, 2013 from 11 AM - 3PM.  If you would like to visit, get your free ticket at the Visitor's Center and you will need to take the shuttle, as there is no public parking available at the site.  Shuttles return every half hour.  Future plans at the site include a walking trail from the Visitor's Center to the farm and preservation of all associated property features.  
July 4, 2013 at Spangler Farm


1. Humphrey, William. 28 January 1862.  Ed. Britt Isenberg. Author's Collection.  William Humphrey was Captain of Company D in the 2nd Michigan Infantry and rose to the rank of Brevet Brigadier General, commanding a brigade of the 9th Army Corps during the Overland Campaign and being wounded twice at the battle of Spotsylvania on May 12, 1864.  He was back in time for the initial assaults on Petersburg where he commanded a brigade through October of 1864 and then mustered out of Federal service.  
2. Coco, Gregory A. A Vast Sea of Misery. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1988. 105. Print.
Motts, Wayne E. . "The George Spangler Farm: 11th Army Corps Hospital." Gettysblog. The Gettysburg Foundation, 28 Apr 2011. Web. 19 Jul. 2013. 
3. Ibid.
4. Coco, Gregory A. A Vast Sea of Misery. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1988. 107. Print.
5. Busey, John W., and David G. Martin. Regimental Strengths and Losses at Gettysburg. Fourth. Hightstown, NJ: Longstreet House, 2005. 116. Print.  The author chose to round the number up.
6. Coco, Gregory A. A Vast Sea of Misery. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1988. 105. Print.
Coco, Gregory A. On The Bloodstained Fields: I&II. Orrtanna, PA: Colecraft Industries, 2013. 40. Print.
7. Hess, Earl J. Pickett's Charge: The Last Attack at Gettysburg. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. 213-214, 349. Print.        
Motts, Wayne E. . "The George Spangler Farm: 11th Army Corps Hospital." Gettysblog. The Gettysburg Foundation, 28 Apr 2011. Web. 19 Jul. 2013.
8. Coco, Gregory A. A Vast Sea of Misery. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1988. 106. Print.
9. Hess, Earl J. Pickett's Charge: The Last Attack at Gettysburg. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. 213-214, 349. Print.
Motts, Wayne E. . "The George Spangler Farm: 11th Army Corps Hospital." Gettysblog. The Gettysburg Foundation, 28 Apr 2011. Web. 19 Jul. 2013.
10. Coco, Gregory A. A Vast Sea of Misery. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1988. 172. Print.
11. Motts, Wayne E. . "The George Spangler Farm: 11th Army Corps Hospital." Gettysblog. The Gettysburg Foundation, 28 Apr 2011. Web. 19 Jul. 2013.
12. Ibid.

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