Seven Secrets of the Gettysburg Battlefield

By Carl Whitehill – In my 10 years in Gettysburg, I’ve met some amazing folks – visitors, locals and Civil War experts alike – that astound me with their depth of knowledge about the Gettysburg National Military Park. I’ve even picked up an amazing amount of information in my travels around this great town and yet pick up new stories, new insight about this turning point in American history each time I take a tour or sit down and talk with a knowledgeable and passionate history buff. At the same time, it’s all-too-often that we drive through the battlefield, eyes gazed out over the horizon, with little attention to what’s right in front of us.

The more than 1,300 monuments, markers and plaques are story tellers themselves, giving glimpses not only into the valor of the men who fought on this hallowed ground, but symbolic meanings hidden inside the stone memorials that dot the nearly 6,000 acres.

But, it leaves me to wonder, has it all been discovered? Are there stories that sit quietly on this battlefield waiting to be found? Where are the untold stories?

We beckoned help from Christopher Gwinn, Chief of Interpretation and Education at Gettysburg National Military Park, to see if we could compile a few stories, a few places, that may be less than common knowledge by even seasoned visitors to the battlefield.

 

Sallie the Dog

We’ll start with probably the easiest, yet most heart-warming story. The monument to the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteers stands in a row of Union monuments on Doubleday Avenue on Oak Ridge. It peacefully looks out over the field of the first day’s fighting.

From the road, the monument appears like many of the battlefield’s memorials – an infantry soldier standing armed atop a granite base. But to the park visitors that stop and walk around to the front of the monument, that’s the real story. There lies Sallie the Dog, a pit bull terrier, that became a mascot for the 11th Pennsylvania throughout the Civil War.

Sallie was reported to have taken position during the Battle of Gettysburg and barked furiously at the Confederate Army. No, Sallie didn’t die in Gettysburg, but her time with the Union Army did come to end in 1865 during the Battle of Hatcher’s Run, where she was buried.

“As these guys were deciding what to put on their monument in Gettysburg, they all remembered Sallie and wanted to make her part of their monument,” Chris Gwinn said. “They were loyal to their country, and this dog represents that.”

Sallie is one of two dogs memorialized on the Gettysburg battlefield – the other being the Irish Wolfhound on the Irish Brigade monument near The Wheatfield.

Civil War-Era Graffiti

It’s not often a park ranger at Gettysburg smiles joyously as he walks you toward a barn with graffiti on the side. This place, at the McPherson Barn along Meredith Avenue, features one of Chris Gwinn’s favorite stories – the markings left behind by Civil War veterans who came back years after the battle and carved their names into the stone above the first-floor window.

It was here that veterans of the 143rd Pennsylvania returned to Gettysburg and revisited the location of their regiment’s fighting on the first day, July 1, 1863. When they returned, a few carved their names into the rock above the back window on the south side of the barn. It’s hard to read, but it’s there.

“For me, it’s things like this that really connect me to the battle. It’s things like this that make 150 years seem not too long ago – when you can come and trace the inscription, knowing the soldier stood where I am standing,” said Chris.

There are others around the Gettysburg battlefield, including the “DA” rock to mark David Acheson’s grave, the Strong Vincent rock on Little Round Top, and the Coble Rock at the base of Culp’s Hill.

“I think there’s a desire to write your name in the book of history,” Chris said. “Part of that is coming back and visiting the battlefield and another part is doing something like this.”

Birds of a Feather

The 90th Pennsylvania Infantry monument on Oak Ridge, Chris said, is the perfect example of the symbolism and meaning behind monuments on the Gettysburg battlefield.

A common story alleges a Confederate cannonball hits a tree near the regiment and knocks a bird’s nest to the ground. As the story continues, a soldier places the nest back up in the tree, and thus gave the veterans an idea for their monument in Gettysburg.

But Chris thinks there’s an additional theory behind the monument, shaped like a tree with a mother bird feeding her babies in a nest atop the memorial.

“I think they were trying to get to a deeper message and that this tree is shattered by war, kind of like the country at the time … but the nation survived, and the scars of war were being healed. I see this as a sign that even among the ruins of war, that life is going to continue.”

Getting the Last Laugh

The 13th Vermont was marching into Gettysburg when Lt. Stephen Brown allowed his soldiers to stop for water. The commanding officer disciplined Brown and took away his sidearm. When Brown was released, his revolver was nowhere to be found.

“All he can find is a camp hatchet. So that’s what he goes into battle with,” said Chris.

During Pickett’s Charge, he captures a Confederate officer “at hatchet point.” He survives the Battle of Gettysburg and three decades later when the 13th Vermont sought to put a statue of Brown atop their monument with the hatchet, the park officials at the time nixed the idea and instructed the regiment to redesign their monument.

“But the veterans got the last laugh because if you go to the 13th Vermont and look closely, the hatchet is there at the base of Brown’s feet,” Chris said.

If you look on the left side of the monument, you can see the head of the hatchet resting at his feet.

On the Fringe of Fighting

The men of the 84th Pennsylvania were as important to the Civil War as any regiment of the Union Army’s Third Corps, and they believed they deserved a monument in Gettysburg … even though they never actually fought here.

In reality, they spent the duration of the three-day battle almost 25 miles away guarding wagon trains in Westminster, Md. But they petitioned the park for a monument on Cemetery Ridge and were granted permission.

Today, their monument stands just north of the Pennsylvania Memorial at the corner of Pleasonton and Hancock Avenues.

Case of the Misidentified Confederate Soldier

After the battle, the remains of a soldier were found and believed to be that of J.L. Johnson with the 11th Massachusetts. He was buried among fellow Union soldiers in the Massachusetts plot in Soldiers’ National Cemetery.

“The only problem is,” said Chris, “there was no J.L. Johnson in that regiment. But there was a J.L. Johnson in the 11th Mississippi who was killed and never recovered.”

It is widely suspected, Chris said, that when creating the national cemetery and laying to rest the soldiers, that his headboard was difficult to read and they thought he was part of the 11th Massachusetts.

Cora, Cora, Cora

If you’re like most visitors to Gettysburg National Military Park, you drive by the Trostle Farm with eyes affixed on the hole in the side of the barn, blasted away during the fighting on July 2. But if you stop and look carefully at the second cannon, you’ll find the name “Cora” painted on the base of the breech.

The men of the 9th Massachusetts Battery, Chris explains, named their cannons after their wives. One of those wives was named “Cora” and her name is the not-so-obvious dedication to not only the men of the 9th Massachusetts, but their families back home as well.

These are just a few of the many stories that are waiting to be told on the Gettysburg battlefield. Visit the battlefield, explore the land and monuments and take a tour to maybe unearth some more of these untold stories.

Do you have a story that you want to share? We want to hear more! Post your stories in the comments below.

 

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