Gettysburg is not a good place to look for colonial history.
This is probably obvious to everyone but me, I thought it was worth a try. Yes, the Pennsylvania town is most famous for the pivotal Civil War battle fought in and around its borders, but I figured the town had to exist before 1863 and I thought that some of that older settlement would still be around.
Turns out I was wrong. History in Gettysburg begins and ends in 1863, according the approximately 3.7 million historical markers, plaques and signs that litter the town like political posters during election week.
This was not immediately obvious when we first arrived in town on a dark Friday night, of course. We headed out on foot to check out a couple of restaurants recommended by locals. The first we came to, Farnsworth House, was Victorian. Since they were about to close for the evening, we headed further down the street to the other recommended restaurant, Dobbin House Tavern. This was an 18th century clapboard building with a big stone basement. We ate in the Springhouse Tavern, a dark basement room with a big fireplace, flickering candles, and waitresses in pseudo-colonial garb.
So far, so good. We’d been in town half and hour and without trying had already found an atmospheric 18th century establishment. How hard could it be to find more?
Very. In fact, impossible is more like it. The next day, I spent most of my time in a writers’ retreat, but I sent out my research assistant (i.e., my husband, Jim) to find any 18th Century buildings within walking distance. I figured I could check them out on Sunday at the end of my retreat.
That turned out to be really easy – for me. There was only one building for me to look at and it wasn’t open to the public. But Jim spent hours looking for others. Though Gettysburg features a great many buildings that might well date back to the 1700s, they are all labeled with plaques that say simply “Civil War Building, July 1863.” My husband concluded that in Gettysburg, all that matters is whether something did or didn’t exist at the time of the battle.
The one labeled 18th Century building he found, the “Stevens Log House,” had two conflicting signs dating it to both the 1790s and 1830s. The latter sign contained five paragraphs of text. Out of all that, only one sentence had anything to do with the house. The rest talked about how (in July 1863, of course) the inhabitants must have witnessed the battle, etc. And then there were four paragraphs about the organization that put up the plaque.
All the signs in town pretty much talk about the same thing: the battle. Specifically, they discuss three aspects of the battle. First, since most larger buildings were used as hospitals, there are lots of descriptions of the moans of the wounded and dying. Second, the signs also insist that all shots fired nearby came from sharpshooters. Either both armies brought large brigades of sharpshooters with them, or town historians decided that shots fired by regular infantry didn’t sound impressive enough. The third common feature of the signs is that they all seem to indicate that the site had a connection with Jennie Wade, the sole civilian casualty of battle. She must have been a very social woman.
At least one sign combined these two features by asserting that Jennie Wade had been killed by a sharpshooter. Jim pointed out that the shooter couldn’t have been particularly sharp if he hit a civilian woman cooking in her sister’s kitchen.
So anyway, those were the official signs. Most of the non-official signs dealt with the sale of souvenirs, ice cream or ghosts. Okay, so we didn’t see any actual ghosts for sale. But there were at least six different ghost tours and a couple of places advertising ghost hunting equipment. The Farnsworth House, where we had dinner our second night, even offered two different ghost tours on their own property. Proud of their label as “one of the most haunted inns in America,” The Farnsworth house advertises that it was (surprise) “occupied by Confederate Sharp Shooters” and has “Over 100 Bullet Holes.” In fact, some historians have noticed that this building (which, as Jim pointed out in a period photo, had another building right next to it at the time of the war) has more bullet holes on the side than any of the buildings on the actual battlefields. There is some speculation that if you come out to the Farnworth House late on a dark night, you won’t find any ghosts but you will find the owner of the establishment outside chiseling more “bullet” holes in the brickwork of his building.
But even though we didn’t find much about the early town of Gettysburg, we did find some fun things. My husband’s favorite place was Ernie’s Texas Lunch Hot Weiners, a hot dog joint that was in its third generation of family ownership. Though there may be other things on the menu, most customers order “one with” or “one without,” meaning a hot dog with or without a huge pile of raw onions. He was very disappointed that the place was closed on Sunday because he wanted to take me there for breakfast.
One of my favorite things in Gettysburg was “Penelope” the cannon that is stuck in the cement sidewalk not far from Lincoln Square. Town bigwigs purchased the gun in the first part of the 19th Century not to protect the town but just for fun so they’d have something to make noise with to celebrate festive occasions. It was said to be fired every time the Democrats won an election, and when the gun was overloaded with powder and the barrel ruptured in 1855, she was stuck into the cement in front of the office of the Gettyburg Compiler, the town’s Democratic Newspaper. The newpaper is long gone now, but Penelope is still there.
All in all, I’ve got to believe that Gettysburg must frustrate history buffs who want to know about the year 1863 about as much as it frustrates someone like me who would rather hear about 1763. The town has spent nearly a century and a half trying to capitalize on its fame, and much of the real history is obscured by all the tourist hype. I can’t imagine that Civil War historians enjoy seeing signs advertising “battlefield fries” any more than I did.
And maybe the deceased residents of Gettysburg find that a bit tacky, too. That would explain why there are so many restless ghosts in town.
Until next time…