Interview: Hessler & Isenberg: “Gettysburg’s Peach Orchard”

10 09 2019

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A few weeks ago, I gave very brief previews of a number of recent Savas Beatie releases here. Among them was Gettysburg’s Peach Orchard: Longstreet, Sickles, and the Bloody Fight for the “Commanding Ground” Along the Emmitsburg Road, by Licensed Gettysburg Battlefield Guides Jim Hessler and Britt Isenberg. The authors recently took some time to discuss this new book.

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BR: Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves?

JH: In addition to spending the majority of my working life in financial services, I have been a Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guide since 2003. My second career as a public historian took off with my first book, Sickles at Gettysburg, which was published by Savas Beatie in 2009. In 2015, I co-authored Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg with Wayne Motts and maps by Steve Stanley. I speak across the country at Civil War Round Tables and have had various media appearances on venues such as the Travel Channel and NPR Radio. I also recently started co-hosting The Battle of Gettysburg Podcast with fellow Guide Eric Lindblade. So I always keep pretty busy. I am blessed to have a family that allows me to do this while still working and giving battlefield tours.

BI: I grew up in Millersburg, Pennsylvania and graduated from Millersville University in 2008 with a BA. I spent a few years working in the airline industry and with Fedex Express before taking the guide exam and passing in 2014. I’ve been guiding full-time for five years now.

BR: Britt, we’ve heard from Jim on this before, but what got you interested in the Civil War? Who/what were your early influences?

BI: I was fortunate enough to know my great grandfather on my mother’s side as a kid and he was the definition of a Civil War buff. Some of my fondest memories as a kid are sitting with Grandpa Leroy and watching the movie Glory or paging through his Civil War coffee table books with all Matthew Brady’s most famous images. I then began learning about my own direct ancestors who served in the war, which exacerbated a new condition known as civilwaritis. Trips to Gettysburg, Antietam and Harper’s Ferry sealed the deal!

BR: You’re both Licensed Gettysburg Battlefield Guides. How long have you known each other?

JH: I’m not sure where and when we met, but I imagine like most people locally we probably met at O’Rorkes. I had finished writing both my Sickles and Pickett’s Charge books. I was considering doing something in depth on the Peach Orchard because I knew there were many aspects of that story that didn’t fit into my Sickles book. When Britt published his regimental on the 105th Pennsylvania, it struck me that he might be someone who would want to tackle this project together.

BI: I met Jim when I was going through the process to become a battlefield guide back in 2013. I knew of him long before he met me (isn’t that the story for all of us!), so we’ve known each other about six years. I really enjoyed his Sickles at Gettysburg and Pickett’s Charge books, but then I found out he was a New York Yankees fan and the relationship soured (not really).

BR: That Yankees thing should have sunk him. But despite that, you’ve written Peach Orchard together. How did you come to the decision to write it in tandem, and how does that process work? How do your positions as guides inform this book?

JH: Since I had done my Sickles book and Britt had done his 105th PA book, it was obvious that we both had enough interest on this part of the field to complete books. Many people try to write books and never finish, so knowing that we both had the ability to finish was important. I’m not a proponent of telling people, “This contribution was mine and that was his,” since it’s either a team effort or it isn’t, but the best part of working with someone is that both parties can add stories that the other one might not know. You don’t know what you don’t know. As for being Guides, the obvious answer is “we spend a lot of time on the ground and know the terrain.” But beyond that, we get to audition stories for audiences and figure out which ones work well, and which ones don’t, long before we have to commit them to paper. Many Gettysburg buffs look at Battlefield Guides and say, “Oh, I could easily do that,” but the art to it is really being able to tell stories concisely. That skill hopefully lends itself to writing.

BR: Why yet another microstudy of Gettysburg?

JH: Why not? Why do we always have to answer this question? But seriously, because if people are still interested in the Civil War, then Gettysburg is the battle that still garners the most interest. As for the Peach Orchard, amazingly this topic has NEVER been done in a full-length study before. Beyond the Sickles and Longstreet stuff, we wanted to tell the stories of the people who lived and fought at the Peach Orchard. We think many of these stories have not been told before, and certainly not in one book like this. Plus Sickles and Longstreet, our two primary protagonists, still generate heat among Gettysburg enthusiasts. Someone asks a question about Sickles, and usually gets eviscerated for it, at least once per day in social media forums.

BR: How would you characterize the popular notion of the Peach Orchard operations, and how does your book conflict with that notion?

JH: Traditional interpretation of the Peach Orchard is always something like this: “Sickles murdered his wife’s lover before becoming a dreaded political general. Then he told Meade to ‘go to hell,’ and moved into the Peach Orchard. Sickles created a salient which is bad. Very bad. General Barksdale’s attack was the most amazing of the war and broke Sickles’s salient. Afterwards, Sickles dated the Queen of Spain.” Well, we try to tell the REAL story, starting with the story of the Sherfy family themselves. As for the battle itself, we provide the details on who defended the orchard, their actions, and how those actions contributed to Barksdale’s success. Sickles, Longstreet, and Barksdale are part of our story, of course, but we try to tell it in a broader context.

BI: Most of the focus on the second day at Gettysburg is a mile too far east. The Peach Orchard often gets a mere drive-by as people make their way to Little Round Top. We think the Peach Orchard is second only to Cemetery Hill as the most important piece of ground on the second day of the battle. Also, it’s often forgotten, but the Peach Orchard was an important part of R.E. Lee’s day two objectives and the decisions made by commanders on both sides because of the terrain’s deceptive nature drove the outcome of the battle. Instead of being just a footnote, the significance of the orchard should be elevated since it is integral to understanding why the battle played out as it did.

BR: Can you describe how long it took to write the book, what the stumbling blocks were, what you discovered along the way that surprised you or went against the grain, what firmed up what you already knew? When did you know you were “done”?

JH: I think we were working on it for close to 4 years. We both had some preliminary research done due to our prior projects, but we soon realized that we still needed to do much more research to fill in blanks on other regiments and individuals. While it didn’t surprise me, in terms of going ‘against the grain’, we wanted to emphasize why this action is so important vs. less significant but more heralded actions at places like Little Round Top and the Wheatfield. Lee repeatedly referred to the Peach Orchard and Emmitsburg Road as significant on both July 2 and July 3, yet not enough people appreciate it. In fact, the Peach Orchard on July 2 directly leads to Lee’s decisions on July 3. While several friends pre-read our manuscript and provided very useful commentary, we also shocked several of them by including July 3 in our scope. They were shocked because they had been conditioned to think of the Peach Orchard as “Day Two” only. We need to stop looking at this battle as isolated days. The actions of one day lead to the next day, and nowhere is that more evident than at the Peach Orchard.

BR: Can you describe your research and writing process? What online and brick and mortar sources did you rely on most?

JH: We create an outline; we research; we write; we edit; we edit again; we edit again. Then we turned it over to an editor and edited it again. And again. Our bibliography is pretty extensive; I’ll let readers check it out. As for the sources relied on the most, first and foremost remains the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. Yes, I know their limitations, but they remain the place to start.

BI: We both spent a lot of time searching for sources in so many different places. Like most Civil War studies, the source we leaned on the most was the Official Records. Beyond that, newspapers were a great help. Our fellow guides and other historians from the Civil War community were also extremely helpful in pointing us towards other less-publicized accounts.

BR: How has the book been received so far?

JH: It’s been received very well and we thank everyone for that. I admit I wasn’t originally sure if the market wanted a “Peach Orchard book” but we tried to strike a balance between military and human interest. We seem to have accomplished that. I am very proud of the book and think it stands up equally to my prior books.

BR: What’s next for you?

JH: I am currently enjoying co-hosting The Battle of Gettysburg Podcast. I know I am supposed to say, “I will keep writing history for the joy of creating,” but I’ve decided that writing history is too thankless. Writers of history need to be: informative, entertaining but not too fluffy, new but not revisionist, have great maps, have rare photos, have detailed but not too detailed footnotes at the bottom of the page, not use end notes (except for the one person in ten who prefers end notes), and have an extensive bibliography of primary sources. All for little to no money, so that social media warriors can critique it and then forget it in 12 months. So I might be finished with this phase of my career. I am proud of the three full-length books that are on my resume. Or I might do a book on Custer and the Little Bighorn, which I have been promising for years because I enjoy being miserable.

BI: I’ll tell you one thing… I’m never writing a book again!!! No, I do have a couple other projects in mind, but first and foremost I’m taking a break. Then I’m going to continue work on a regimental history of the 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry and maybe a photo study of cavalrymen from the Cumberland Valley. We’ll see what happens…





Gettysburg’s Leister Farm

3 07 2019


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An edited version of this article appeared as the first of a series I wrote for Civil War Times magazine, beginning in the June 2010 issue. The column was first called In Harm’s Way, and later as Collateral Damage.

The Leister House

The Leister house is best known for serving as the headquarters of Union Major General George Gordon Meade during the battle of Gettysburg – particularly as the site of the famous council of war held in its cramped interior on the evening of July 2, 1863.

The 1.5 story log house on Taneytown Rd. south of the town of Gettysburg was built no later than 1840, by Thomas Nolan. The farm at 10 acres was small for the day, as was the house at about 390 square feet plus floored attic. The main living area consisted of two rooms: a kitchen and a living/bedroom. Nolan sold the farm to Henry Bishop, Sr. in 1840, and Lydia (Study) Leister purchased it from Bishop for $900 on March 30, 1861, apparently with funds left her by her father but held in trust until her alcoholic husband’s death. Lydia and her husband James moved to the Gettysburg area from Maryland in 1850, and James died on Dec. 11, 1859, leaving behind his wife and six children, at least two of whom were living with Lydia on the farm at the time of the battle.

On July 1, 1863, Lydia and young Hannah and Matilda were advised by a mounted Union officer to leave the farm for their safety. They eventually found shelter on the Baltimore Road. The farm’s location was ideal for communications; the house and outbuildings were occupied and the grounds used as a signal station, the fields crossed frequently by troops, messengers and staff. On July 2nd and 3rd, Meade established his headquarters there. By the afternoon of the 3rd, it was being used as an aid station. Gettysburg resident Daniel Skelly visited the farmhouse on July 6th:

“In the front room of the house was a bed, the covers of it thrown back; and its condition indicated that a wounded soldier had occupied it. I was told that General Butterfield, Meade’s chief of staff, who had been wounded, had been placed upon it before being taken to a hospital.”

When Lydia and her children returned, they were greeted with devastation. In 1865 she described the scene to author John T. Trowbridge:

“I owed a little on my land yit, and thought I’d put in two lots of wheat that year, and it was all trampled down, and I didn’t get nothing from it. I had seven pieces of meat yit, and them was all took. All I had when I got back was jest a little bit of flour yit. The fences was all tore down, so that there wasn’t one standing, and the rails was burnt up. One shell came into the house and knocked a bedstead all to pices for me…The porch was all knocked down. There was seventeen dead horses on my land. They burnt five of ‘em around my best peach tree and killed it; so I ha’n’t no peaches this year. They broke down all my young apple trees for me. The dead horses sp’iled my spring, so I had to have my well dug.”

Trowbridge reflected on Leister:

“This poor woman’s entire interest in the great battle was, I found, centered in her own losses. That the country lost or gained she did not know or care, never having once thought of that side of the question.”

Lydia was eventually able to repair her house, even building a two story addition. She also expanded the farm, purchasing additional acreage from neighbor Peter Frey. She sold the bedroom table used by Meade during his stay to an Edmund Cleveland of Elisabeth, NJ (the table subsequently made its way back to the Park’s collection), and also sold for fertilizer the 750 pounds of bone from the dead horses, from which it took over 18 months for the meat to rot. She lived on the farm until 1888, when poor health caused her to move into town. At that time, the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association purchased the farm from Lydia for $3,000.

The original farm house was lived in continually by tenant farmers into the 1920’s. In 1933 the property was taken over by the National Park service, at which time it ceased to operate as a tenant farm and the buildings used for storage. In 1961, extensive excavation and reinforcement of the foundation was done, and the house was fully restored in 1966.

Upon selling her farm to the GBPA, Lydia had the two-story addition removed to a lot she purchased in town. She lived in that dwelling, which today is known as the Gettystown Inn near the Dobbin House on Steinwehr Ave., until her death at the age of 84 on Dec. 29, 1893, and is buried in Gettysburg’s Evergreen Cemetery. Over the years Lydia Leister had filed claims against the War Department totaling just over $1,311 for damages to her farm during the battle. Settlement was made for $52.50.

[See here for some photos of the Leister house and farm. Thanks to GNMP and Ranger Troy Harmon for access to the house on a very, very cold day.]

Sources: Gettysburg National Military Park files; http://www.dobbinhouse.com; National Park Service Cultural Resources Management Bulletin Vol. 5, #4, December 1982, “The Mystery of General Meade’s Table,” Ronald Sheetz, http://crm.cr.nps.gov/archive/05-4/5-4-all.pdf; “A Strange and Blighted Land,” Gregory Coco; “A Vast Sea of Misery,” Gregory Coco; “The South: A Tour of its Battle-Fields and Ruined Cities,” John T. Trowbridge.





Mt. Lebanon, Pa. Boy Scout Troop 28

20 03 2018

I just spent a delightful evening speaking to a great group of kids and parents to help them prepare for a day of hiking the Gettysburg Battlefield. Just the basics of the armies involved, the personalities of the army and corps commanders, and the importance of the lessons to be learned from history (especially military history) that get kicked to the wayside a bit in this day of STEM. The kids were very engaged and asked a lot of questions, which I liked, and seemed to be appreciative of my decision to NOT do a PowerPoint presentation – they get enough of that in school these days, I think. So thank you all. I had a great time. If you have any other questions, you can fire away right here in the comments section. If I don’t know the answer, I know someone who does.

[To the dad who asked me about Gettysburg residents who fought for the Confederacy at the battle, see my preview of Tom McMillan’s Gettysburg Rebels right here.]





Gettysburg’s Jacob Weikert Farm

20 02 2018

[A shortened version of this article ran in the February, 2011 issue of Civil War Times Illustrated. I wrote about it back then here. In that post you can see some photos of the farm and farmhouse.]

Medical staffs of the Fifth Corps, Army of the Potomac descended on the farm of Jacob Weikert on the Taneytown Road south of the town of Gettysburg like a twister on July 2, 1863. Elements of the corps were fighting just to the west of the farm, which bordered on Little Round Top in that direction. By the time the last wounded soldier was evacuated to other treatment facilities, or buried on the premises, somewhere between 750 and 950 had been treated on the farm, including some Confederates. Weikert’s family sacrificed much in material goods and performed vital services during this time, but they are possibly best remembered for a story frequently used to illustrate the greed and selfishness of the local civilian population.

Jacob Weikert (b. 1797), a carpenter by trade, married Sarah Ikes (b. 1805), in 1824: their union produced thirteen children between 1825 and 1849. In 1840 Jacob acquired a farm of 190 acres with a large, L-shaped two-story house of nearly 2,200 square feet, for a total purchase price of $3,973.16. The dwelling was situated hard-by the Taneytown Road, sturdily built with stone walls nearly two feet thick. By 1863 Jacob had sold off several tracts of land leaving him with 115 acres, on which he grew wheat, oats, corn, and timber.

At the time of the battle, two minor children, Rebecca (Beckie) and David, as well as an adult son and his family lived with Jacob and Sarah Weikert. Another daughter, Henrietta (Hettie), had married in 1855 and lived in town, where she and her husband George Schriver operated a saloon and bowling alley in their home on Baltimore Street. At the time of the battle, George was serving with Cole’s Maryland Cavalry (he would die in Andersonville prison in 1864).

About noon on July 1st, as fighting raged to the northwest, Hettie Schriver determined that with her husband away, it would be best to take her two children to the relative safety of her parents’ home to the south. She invited her neighbor’s daughter, fifteen year-old Matilda (Tillie) Pierce, to accompany her, and Mrs. Pierce “readily consented”. It is through Tillie’s memoir “At Gettysburg, or What a Girl Saw and Heard of the Battle” that we know much of what occurred at the Weikert farm in the following days.

After a harrowing journey, upon arrival at the Weikert house Tillie immediately took up the task of carrying water from the spring on the north side of the house to the passing columns of Federal soldiers. She and others repeated this maneuver until the spring was dry – they then drew water from the pump on the south side of the house until nightfall put an end to the operation.

July 2nd saw the arrival of the medical staffs. Surgeon-in-Chief Dr. Clinton Wagner had selected the Weikert farm as the hospital for the 5th Corps’ 2nd Division that afternoon. Dr. John Shaw Billings was first to arrive, finding the place deserted but with a fire blazing, dough mixed and pans ready for bread baking. Dr. Cyrus Bacon “ransacked” the house for operating tables and linens for dressings, including a “neatly worked ladies chemise” that he surrendered to one of the women of the house, but not before she provided something to take its place. Ambulances and medical supplies arrived and all was put in order as casualties began to pour in.

That same morning Tillie picked up where she had left off the evening before, carrying water to soldiers moving on the Taneytown Rd. One of the men she served that day was none other than General Meade. The Weikert women spent the afternoon baking bread. Soldiers were being struck down where they stood on the west side of the house. Artillery fire began to pick up, and the family evacuated the house for a brief time, only to return upon reaching their destination, determining it was more dangerous there. This was probably the period during which Dr. Billings arrived.

Casualties arrived at the hospital all during the day and night at an alarming rate, while the surgeons busily operated in and around the house. Limbs amputated in the improvised operating room in the southeast corner of the ground floor of the house were deposited out the south window. Later that day, the mortally wounded Brigadier General Stephen Weed was brought into the house and placed in a room in the basement. He would die there before morning. The bodies of Col. Patrick O’Rorke and Lt. Charles Hazlett were also reportedly brought to the house and laid on the porch on the evening of the 2nd. The Weikert’s cooked bread and soup and served the medical staff and wounded until late in the evening.

Early on July 3rd, in anticipation of renewed action nearby the hospital was relocated further east toward the Baltimore Pike, and the evacuation of the wounded commenced. The transfer was reportedly complete by that evening. The family had left the farm that morning for the area of Two Taverns, returning again in the late afternoon to scenes of carnage. Wounded filled the house, barn, and carriage house. Amputated limbs sat in piles. For days after, soldiers too seriously injured to be moved to the relocated hospital were treated at the farm.

Tillie Pierce returned to her home in Gettysburg on July 7. She left the Weikert farm in a distressed state, linens and clothing torn up for bandages, furniture and kitchenware broken up, walls and floors bloodstained, crops and fence rails used up.

Jacob Weikert, despite what Tillie Pierce describes as the significant hardships suffered and humanitarian efforts made by his family during those trying times, is perhaps best known as a villain. In a tale used to illustrate what has been called by one historian “the greed, selfishness, and hard-heartedness of many of the citizens who lived in the vicinity of the battlefield”, Lt. Ziba Graham of the 16th Michigan claimed that on July 3rd:

“On my way back to rejoin the regiment I called at a large house for a drink of water; I saw that the well crank had been removed. I turned to a rebel captain who was lying on the grass and asked him if he knew where it had gone to; he said that but a few moments before the owner of the house had taken it off, declaring he was not going to have his well pumped dry by rebel soldiers, and that they wasted the water. This captain begged that I might get it again. There were some fifty rebel wounded in the yard, besides a few of our own men. The surgeons who had been with them, and who had partly gone around in their first examination, had cleared out and left them on the commencement of the firing, and with the fever of their gunshot wounds they were thirsting for water. I went into the house, found this man, a mean Dutchman, buried in the bosom of his family, and his family buried in the bowels of the cellar, they having taken safe refuge from the hail of iron which was bursting in every direction. I ordered him to give up the well crank. He first refused. Just at that time a shell struck his chimney, and the noise and rattle of the falling brick nearly frightened him to death. I threatened to shoot him if he did not give me the crank; this brought it out of its hiding place back of the stairway. I went out, watered the boys, put two of the least wounded in charge of it and then left, receiving the thanks of all.”

We know from Tillie Pierce that the Weikert’s had been more than generous with their water in the preceding days; that in fact their spring had been drained by thirsty soldiers. And we know from the owners of the house today that the well, now used as a supplemental water source, is nearly dry by the Fourth of July – while the overall water level in the well may certainly have depleted in the intervening 147 years, the relative annual levels are likely similar. Assuming Graham’s story is not apocryphal, was Weikert’s removal of the pump crank an act of “greed, selfishness, and hard-heartedness” or a practical act of survival in the coming days for his family and for any remaining Union casualties on his property?

Sarah Weikert died in 1877. Jacob followed her in 1878, suffering a stroke in an apple orchard near the house. Jacob made three claims to the War Department for damages incurred in 1863, including the use of his house and carriage house, damages to the house and bedding, hay, wheat, oats, corn, rails, timber, damages to the land and stone walls, clothing, and furniture. The three claims were for $186, $1,277, and $2,756. Some of the same items were listed on each claim. In the end, he received a total of $45 in payment for the loss of three tons of hay.

Today the Weikert farm sits outside NPS boundaries and is a private residence. While an antique store is operated out of the barn, please respect the privacy of the homeowners.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Weikert farm owners Gerry and Beth Hoffmann, the staff of the Gettysburg National Military Park, and to the Adams County Historical Society for their assistance in the preparation of this article.

Sources:





Bull Run at Gettysburg: James McKay Rorty

10 12 2017

On Dec. 2, I was in Gettysburg for a gathering of friends. Arriving on Saturday afternoon and the meeting not set to begin until 6 pm, I decided to “get my steps in” and did a little loop on Hancock Ave. from the Alexander Hays statue to the First Minnesota July 2 monument and back, stopping at each marker along the way. This meant there was a lot of back and forth and backtracking. While there were plenty of Bull Run connections along the way, let’s just take a look at one: Battery B, 1st New York Light Artillery.

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Battery B, 1st New York Light Artillery, at Gettysburg

You’ll recall that Private James McKay Rorty of the 69th New York State militia was captured at First Bull Run, escaped from prison in Richmond and made his way back to Washington (read his Bull Run account here, and also read a more complete biography of Rorty here). Mustered out of the militia, he subsequently enlisted in what was designated the 5th Regiment of Thomas Francis Meagher’s Irish Brigade (read his letter to his father explaining his rationale for enlistment here). This turned out to be a battery of New York Light artillery – he had expected it would be cavalry – though his record of formal attachment to specific batteries thenceforth is murky. Regardless, by May of 1862 Lt. Rorty was serving as ordnance officer on the staff of Major General Israel B. Richardson.

At Gettysburg, now Captain Rorty was ordnance officer on the staff of Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, who had succeeded Richardson upon the latter’s mortal wounding at Antietam and was then in command of the Army of the Potomac’s Second Corps. Technically, Rorty was in command of the non-existent 14th New York Independent Battery of the Irish Brigade. [UPDATE – while the battery did not serve in the field as a unit at Gettysburg, its sections did in fact exist. They were divided up between other units, including the 1st NY Independent Battery. Rorty it appears was always on detached duty. Thanks to reader David L Shultz. See below for a history of the battery from Vol. II of The Union Army.] At the same time, Rorty maintained his association with Irish Nationalist organization the Fenian Brotherhood, and was recording secretary in the group’s Potomac Circle. You can read about Fenians in the Civil War here – there’s a lot to it, and it’s not always what you think. Long story short, Rorty was a big deal in “the movement.”

On the afternoon of July 2, Rorty became anxious to join in the fighting, and petitioned his boss for assignment to a combat unit. Hancock acquiesced, and some time that day Rorty was placed in command of the 122 men and four 10 pounder Parrot rifles of Battery B, 1st New York Light Artillery, 2nd Corps’ Artillery Brigade. Late in the day, the battery was in place in the Plum Run Line that helped repulse the assault of Longsteet’s Corps’ assault on the Peach Orchard salient. The battery lost one man killed, eight wounded, and 13 horses rendered unserviceable.

On the morning of July 3rd, Rorty’s command was moved to a point about 250 yards south of the now famous “copse of trees” believed by most to be the focal point of General Robert E. Lee’s assault known as Pickett’s Charge. During the artillery barrage that preceded the infantry advance, Rorty advanced his guns to the stone wall in front of his position, and returned fire. His command began to suffer casualties, and Rorty moved from gun to gun, issuing orders and encouragement. Eventually three of his four rifles were out of action, and Rorty himself stripped down to his shirtsleeves, grabbed a sponge staff, and joined the crew of his last gun. The Captain called for help from the nearby 19th Massachusetts Infantry, and received about 20 men in reply. Then, the Confederate infantry moved out from the tree line to the west.

Rorty’s lone gun continued to fire on the advancing rebels, until the men of Brigadier General James Kemper’s brigade came past the barn of the Codori farm and into canister range. Some time before the advance petered out at the stone wall, Capt. James McKay Rorty was dead, killed instantly by a shot to the head or heart. Nine more of his command lay dead; another eight were wounded.

Two weeks after the battle, Rorty’s brother Richard gathered his remains from where he had been buried on the field and returned them to New York. He was reinterred in Calvary Cemetery on July 19, 1863.

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Rorty’s grave in Calvary Cemetery, Woodside, New York, from FindAgrave

[Sketch of 14th New York Independent Battery (2nd Battalion Light Artillery, from The Union Army, Vol. II, p 221: – Capts., William H. Hogan, James McKay Rorty. The battery served with Richardson’s division, 2nd Corps from March to May 26, 1862, when the first section was attached to Battery C, 4th U.S. artillery; the second tp Battery G, and the third to Battery B, 1st N.Y. artillery. On Jan. 16, 1863, the first section was transferred to Battery G, 1st N.Y., and in September these transfers were made permanent by order of the war department, the battery being discontinued. The battery took part in the siege of Yorktown, the Seven Days’ battles, Antietam, Leesburg, Charlestown, Snicker’s gap, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville,  and Gettysburg. It lost during service 2 officers and 3 men killed and mortally wounded, and 4 men died of disease.]





Preview: Savas Beatie Reprints Coco

29 11 2017

New from Savas Beatie are paperback reprints of two Gregory A. Coco titles, 1988’s A Vast Sea of Misery: A History and Guide to the Union and Confederate Field Hospitals at Gettysburg, and 1995’s A Strange and Blighted Land: Gettysburg The Aftermath of Battle. Each reprint includes a new preface by author and Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guide James A. Hessler. These are must-haves for every Gettysburg student, and A Strange and Blighted Land appears regularly on general Civil War “Best Of” lists.

Layout 1A Vast Sea of Misery is a guide to 162 field hospitals that treated more than 26,000 wounded soldiers during and after the Battle of Gettysburg (an additional 14 identified after the 1st printing are listed as well). Nine maps show relative locations to help the tourist. The field hospital sites are broken down in three parts: Borough of Gettysburg area; Union Army areas; and Confederate Army areas. Additional sites are described in three additional parts:  other important sites; hospital sites in nearby towns; and Camp Letterman. Four appendices cover surgeons and physicians, how field hospital sites were selected, how wounded were moved to field hospitals, and general medical observations. There are seven pages of end notes and a full index.

Layout 1A Strange and Blighted Land is a detailed, heart-wrenching study of what came after the battle – the wounding, gathering, treating, assisting, obstructing, suffering, dying, interring, and remembering. I listed this as one of my ten favorite Gettysburg books. Relying mostly on eyewitness accounts, the reader learns of the scale of the suffering, the treatment of the wounded, the disposition of the dead, the establishment of the National Cemetery, the handling of prisoners and stragglers, and the preservation and establishment of the battlefield and its guides. This promotional passage sums this book up nicely, so I see no reason to rephrase:

Coco’s prose is gripping, personal, and brutally honest. There is no mistaking where he comes down on the issue: There was nothing pretty or glorious or romantic about the battle — especially once the fighting ended.

You get 377 pages of text, 27 pages of end-notes, a 14 page bibliography including three pages of manuscript sources, and a full index.

Gregory A. Coco was an army veteran who served in Vietnam, a degreed historian, a Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guide, and a National Park Service Interpretive Ranger at GNMP. He  authored or edited of numerous books and articles on Gettysburg and the Civil War (I have had occasion to use his papers located in the Park’s archives). He died in 2009 at the age of 62.





Preview: Coleman, “Discovering Gettysburg”

19 07 2017

thContinuing the Savas Beatie trend of really, really long, self-descriptive book titles that don’t leave much room in which a previewer can expand is W. Stephen Coleman’s Discovering Gettysburg: An Unconventional Introduction to the Greatest Little Town in America and the Monumental Battle that Made it Famous. Now, most of us realize that Gettysburg is a very weird place, and I’m not talking about ghosts. If you want to get a good idea of just how weird, check out the little film Route 30 (and it’s so-far-two sequels).

This is described by the author as his personal journey of coming to know the place:

“…you will visit with me a host of famous and off-the-beaten-path places on the battlefield, explore the historic town of Gettysburg as it is today, chat with some of the town’s fascinating ‘resources,’ enjoy ‘conversations’ with a variety of experts on the battle, and follow along, as I did, with some of the most engaging storytelling I have ever had the pleasure of hearing.”

Tim Hartman provides maps and caricatures of historic personalities and, most interestingly, acquaintances like Sue Boardman, Lance Herdegen, Scott Mingus, Scott Hartwig, James Hessler, Eric Lindblade, and Steve Stanley, all of whom have been interviewed here, as well as a few other friends like John Heiser, Chuck Teague, J. D. Petruzzi, Dean Schultz, Eric Wittenberg, and Pete Carmichael.

Stephen Coleman was, until his retirement, a theater professor at the University of Pittsburgh (I have to wonder if he crossed paths with my brother Dennis Smeltzer there?), and you may remember him as the guy who got his face ripped off by Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.

Tim Hartman is also a local Pittsburgh actor and cartoonist, and sometimes gigs as a stand-up comic.