War & Memory: How the battle changed the College forever

The battle that engulfed the campus 150 years ago deeply impacted the College, infusing it with memories of sorrow, sacrifice, and the promise of peace.

In the waning hours of July 1, 1863, the knock at the door of Pennsylvania College Prof. Charles Schaeffer must have been a shock. For the better part of the day, hellish battle had been waged north and west of his home along Chambersburg Street before careening through the streets of Gettysburg outside the professor’s windows. The knock brought a strange visitor: Frederick Lehmann, a 15-year-old student in the College’s Preparatory Division. He was seeking refuge and the professor let him in.

Lehmann’s morning, like Schaeffer’s and the rest of the town’s, had begun like most others. The students of Pennsylvania College awoke and headed from their rooms toward their classrooms inside of the College Edifice (modern day Pennsylvania Hall).

There were very few left to study that morning. All told, fewer than 20 students remained in their rooms, which were also in what would become Penn Hall. Dozens had fled their alma mater for safer climes; others had joined the Commonwealth’s hastily organized militia. For the first time in three years of war, it truly looked like Pennsylvania was in the crosshairs of the Confederacy. Staying put in a college a scant eight miles from the Mason-Dixon line might not be the wisest choice.

Classes soon were interrupted by the echo of cannon. The few students rushed outside to see what excitement they could find. Senior Michael Colver and junior Henry Watkins decided they didn’t need permission to see what was going on. “Let the faculty go to grass and you come on,” Colver shouted to his friend as they both bounded toward the Lutheran Seminary west of town. Climbing to the Seminary’s cupola, they caught sight of the opening shots of the Battle of Gettysburg before being scared down by just how close to their ears shells were bursting. The two lost each other in the chaos and wouldn’t be reunited until days later.

Frederick Lehmann, though, didn’t let the prospect of bursting shells and whizzing bullets scare him. He sought adventure. Lehmann’s father was away from their Pittsburgh home serving in the United States Army. Now was the young man’s turn to try his mettle and defend his native state. Wandering to the front lines, Lehmann plucked a musket from the hands of a dead soldier. He stripped the man’s cartridge box from his lifeless shoulder and slung it over his warm one. And then the young man plunged into hell.

As some were charging toward the fray, others were escaping the maelstrom. College President Henry L. Baugher sought refuge in his home on campus (the modern Norris-Wachob Alumni House). Baugher and his wife Clarissa had lost their son Nesbitt (a graduate of the College) to rebel bullets the previous spring after the Battle of Shiloh. Now Southern lead clattered against the walls of their home. The stream of wounded men passing outside the home must have become too much for the Baugher women, as Clarissa and her 21-year-old daughter Alice brought nearly 20 of them into their home. Private George Kimball of the 12th Massachusetts remembered Alice’s courage as she nursed his wounds, remarking that “every time I opened my eyes in my brief periods of returning consciousness during that eventful afternoon her kindly face was looking down upon me.”

July 1 saw the retreat of the federal army through the streets of Gettysburg. Prof. Michael Jacobs and his family dove into their basement for protection and heard dead soldiers falling on their doorstep as the battle raged in town. And up on Seminary Ridge, Frederick Lehmann, the student-turned-soldier, found himself captured and in enemy hands. Without the intervention of a kind lieutenant on his behalf, the 15-year-old might have found himself in a harsh Southern prison. Instead, the rebels let the young man go, and he scurried to the door of his German professor, Charles Schaeffer, to wait out the battle in relative safety. Two days later, curiosity got the better of the boy as he sneaked out to see the latest excitement. A Confederate rifle drilled a bullet through his leg; he would walk with a limp for the rest of his life.

Battle raged for two more days south of the town and the campus. For a month more, the College Edifice served as a hospital for dying soldiers from the South.

The College and its students were forever changed. “Our books and furniture were scattered,” student John Mumma Young remembered, “so that it was almost like making a new start.” Surrounded by death, Pennsylvania College’s students soldiered on. Young was once offered buttons and cloth cut from the grave of a rotting rebel corpse. He turned it down, not because it was a man’s burial shroud, but simply “because the odor attached to it did not appeal to me.”

Such was life in Gettysburg after the battle. The town stood, a landscape inexorably darkened. And its college would forever bear the stains of war, sorrow, and loss. 

by John M. Rudy ’07, adjunct instructor of Civil War Era studies and National Park Service ranger. He is writing a book, Every Purpose Under Heaven: Pennsylvania College and the Civil War.

PA Militia

Two weeks before the battle, many students enlisted to defend their state, forming Company A of the 26th Pennsylvania Emergency Militia Regiment. Five days before the battle, west of town, the green troops fired one volley at a veteran brigade marching in advance of the invading army, but the students were quickly routed. The rebels captured dozens of members of the regiment, whom they later released in the town square. Right, Company A in 1892 at the dedication of their monument at Chambersburg and West streets. (Photo by William H. Tipton. Courtesy of Special Collections / Musselman Library, Gettysburg College.)


The last reunion and the light of peace

From June 28 to July 6, 1938, nearly 2,000 men clad in blue and gray invaded Gettysburg once more. This time, however, the opposing forces leaned on crutches and canes. From across the country, the grizzled veterans (their average age was 92) arrived to mark the 75th anniversary of the greatest battle in American history. Downtown, a small army of Boy Scouts and College students besieged the trains conveying Johnny Reb and Billy Yank and escorted them to campus, where a veritable tent city and eight days of speeches, military demonstrations, and fireworks awaited them all.

Gettysburg College knew a thing or two about hosting reunions of Civil War veterans. A delegation of Pennsylvania veterans tented on campus during the battle’s silver anniversary in 1888. Then, during the great “peace jubilee” — the saccharine festival of sectional reconciliation in which more than 50,000 veterans returned to Gettysburg in 1913 — students offered up their dorm furnishings and linens for use by the veterans and visiting dignitaries. Dozens of students likewise snapped up plum summer jobs as clerks, pages, and battlefield guides. Rather than return home for the summer, other students planned to linger about town in hopes of securing a last-minute position — a scheme that President William Granville, in the pages of The Gettysburgian, deemed an “absurdity” and “poor” economics.

But in 1938, with Pennsylvania State Senator John Rice ’21 at the helm of the battle anniversary commission, the College assumed the leading role in the “final reunion” of the Blue and the Gray. President Henry W.A. Hanson committed the College “wholeheartedly” to the celebration, offering the commission unlimited use of its buildings and grounds. Chairman Rice staked his tent on the lawn of Breidenbaugh Hall. The stately Huber Hall, tapped as the general headquarters for the reunion, also housed Pennsylvania Governor George Earle. From the fourth floor of Glatfelter, NBC transmitted the reunion proceedings around the globe, while print journalists took up residence in both Weidensall and McKnight halls. The U.S. Army Band and Drum Corps bunked in Eddie Plank Gymnasium, and, appropriately enough, Old Dorm became a hospital once more.

Meanwhile, construction crews quickly transformed the northern fringes of campus into a canvas maze, pitching Union tents on the east side of Mummasburg Road and Confederate tents on the west side. Veterans settled into A-frame canvas tents, replete with screen doors and mosquito netting. Every effort was made to ensure that the veterans, who were required to bring an escort along, had a comfortable stay. Tents were furnished with two iron cots, pillows and blankets, and even floor rugs and electric lamps.

On the afternoon of Friday, July 1, following an invocation from the chaplain of the leading Union veterans’ organization, Rice welcomed the veterans and their attendants in a ceremony in the College Stadium. Governor Earle spoke next. But as he rose to address the crowd, the governor lost his balance and tumbled to the stage. As he pulled himself up, Earle allegedly quipped, “Now I’m a Gettysburg veteran too!” After more speechifying from visiting dignitaries, including Secretary of War Harry Woodring and the commanders-in-chief of both the United Confederate Veterans and the Grand Army of the Republic — the service concluded with the National Anthem.

The next afternoon, the veterans paraded through town to the cadences of the Army Band and Drum Corps. But the “high-water mark” of the entire celebration was July 3. The day began at the Christ Lutheran Church on Chambersburg Street, where history Prof. Robert Fortenbaugh spoke on the church’s role during the battle. Later that morning, the pastor of St. Francis Xavier celebrated a military field Mass at the College Stadium. Meanwhile, thousands gathered along Oak Ridge awaiting the 21-gun salute announcing the arrival of President Roosevelt, who would dedicate the Eternal Light Peace Memorial. Hoping to catch a glimpse of the presidential motorcade, the Fortenbaugh family crowded on the roof of their Broadway home.

Roosevelt’s speech, like the estimated 250,000 people in the audience, marveled at the “achievement” of lasting national unity and the hearty old warriors who, after many decades of acrimony and bitterness, had finally clasped hands across the bloody chasm. The resolve of a reunited nation was likewise on display the following day, as fighter planes simulated an aerial attack above the College Stadium and modern artillery and cavalry units drilled on the field below.

But then it was over. Volunteers escorted veterans to their trains, tourists packed up, reporters filed their stories, and tents were folded up into the dusty pages of history. Within a decade, only a handful of Civil War soldiers remained. The last, 108-year old Union drummer boy Albert Woolson of Duluth, Minnesota, died in 1956.

When Roosevelt, with the aid of a Union and a Confederate veteran, unveiled that limestone shaft atop Oak Hill, he dedicated it as a memorial to all Civil War veterans. But there is another, less conspicuous monument to those ex-soldiers on the Gettysburg battlefield. Today, our neatly manicured campus endures as a tribute — not only to the sprawling tent cities that once blanketed its acres — but also to those tottering survivors of war who, for at least a few days, called Gettysburg College home. 

by Brian Matthew Jordan ’09, adjunct instructor of Civil War Era studies. He is finishing a book, When Billy Came Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War.

Nearly 2,000 veterans returned for the 75th anniversary and what would be their final reunion. (Photos by the Signal Corps, U.S. Army, courtesy of Special Collections, Musselman Library, Gettysburg College.)

The view of the entire Veteran's Camp.

Veterans Camp


3rd Cavalry Parade



Light Tanks from the 66th Infantry, Camp Meade, Md.

War Tanks

Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Posted: Wed, 19 Jun 2013

Next on your reading list

Worldwide researchers

Gettysburg College graduates reflect on 'philosophy and life' on campus April 22

Share this story: