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Civil War Diary

Emmitsburg, 150 Years Ago, Before the Battle of Gettysburg

John Miller
Emmitsburg Area Historical Society

This year marks the 150th Commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg and the Pennsylvania Campaign. During the time period, 150 years ago, Emmitsburg residents saw first hand, thousands of Union soldiers enter and occupy the grounds surrounding the town. From the west to the north, thousands of Union soldiers encamped here before heading into battle. Those soldiers were veterans and accustomed to long marches in the heat of the sun, or during heavy downpours of rain. Life was not easy for the Civil War soldier. But they bore it for their cause and their beliefs, with the help of their messmates.

Life for the average Emmitsburg resident was not easy either. Just like the Civil War soldier they endured hardships of their own. By the time the first Union soldier entered into their community, many residents were displaced from the "Great Fire" that erupted during the night of June 15th. For many of those residents, they lost everything that they had. Within a week and a half, they would endure more hardships, as thousands of Union soldiers would come to occupy the fields surrounding the town.

On June 27th, 1863, Dr. Thomas Moore from Mt. Saint Mary’s College recalled seeing the first soldiers in blue marching pass the college and head for Emmitsburg. Among the soldiers he saw were the 5th and the 6th Michigan Cavalry. "They jogged along, four abreast, many of the weary riders leaning forward, sound asleep on the necks of their horses. Many of us sat on the fences along the road watching and listening to their sayings. We naturally looked upon the men as sheep led to the slaughter, and we were not a little surprised when we overheard two of them closing a bargain on horseback with the remark: 'Well, I will settle with you for this after the battle. Will that suit you?' The other party readily assented. The whole period of life is treated as a certainty, even by men going into battle."

These riders were part of General Joseph Copeland’s Michigan Brigade that was now under the command of a young general, General George Armstrong Custer. They encamped on the grounds of St. Joseph’s. The young general Custer would greet his command at Emmitsburg, and hired local resident James McClough to guide his brigade.

The next day, more Union soldiers came into town on horseback. These men were part of the Keystone Rangers, Company C of Cole’s Cavalry. Many of these men were from Emmitsburg. They had with them several Confederate prisoners. The next day, these men were escorted to Frederick, Maryland.

During the evening of June 29th, General John Reynolds, commanding the left wing of the Army of the Potomac entered Emmitsburg after a hard march from Frederick. The weary soldiers of the First Corps encamped in the fields surrounding St. Joseph’s, stretching toward the Emmit House. Following along another road was the Eleventh Corps, and they would encamp southwest of Emmitsburg, closer to Mt. Saint Mary’s College.

As the evening went on, a practical joker quietly spread a rumor that Mother Superior had invited all of the commissioned officers to a reception, with suitable refreshments, to be held in the main building of the institution. Some of the men actually believed what they heard, and once arriving at the convent, they were quickly surprised to see that it was in total darkness.

A.J. Brown, who recorded his experiences of seeing the Union soldiers wrote: "We were visited by single soldiers, officers, groups, etc., to the amount of some thousands, some for the purpose of seeing old friends and companions."

Upon seeing the St. Joseph’s convent, Corporal Adam Muenzenberger of the 26th Wisconsin recalled his experience at Emmitsburg. "We must march like dogs and now that the rainy weather has started the road is pretty bad. We camped a few days at Middleton and then we proceeded to Frederick City. We camped there over night and the next day we marched to Emmitsburg. There we camped on a wet field and this morning we marched two miles nearer the hills where the St. Joseph's convent is located. We have our camp close beside the convent. Should we stay here for a while - which I doubt - I will receive communion."

Many descriptions regarding the landscape surrounding Emmitsburg were noted by the Union soldiers. Isaac Hall of the 97th New York Infantry recalled: "The broad and smooth road along which they were marching led through a grove, with noble overhanging trees, fresh with large foliage of early summer, and looking through this vista, down a gentle slope, was seen in front the neat and quiet town in the distance. It was a little before sunset, and the weather delightfully serene and mild. The surrounding country had felt none of the miseries of war, and the eager crowds which flocked to the roadside gave evidence in their manner, that troops on the march were a rare spectacle in that region."

Lieutenant William Ballentine of the 82nd Ohio Infantry wrote, "This institution of the Sisters of Charity (whose grounds we are now on) Farm and Buildings (especially the latter) is the finest I ever saw. Nothing in Ohio will compare with it; I was astonished to find such magnificence in such a place, a place I have never heard of before."

There are several accounts of Emmitsburg as it appeared by the Union soldiers. Upon seeing the burned out buildings in Emmitsburg after the fire, William Henry Locke, the Chaplain of the 11th Pennsylvania Infantry noted, "One week ago, the finest half of the town was destroyed by fire, certainly the work of an incendiary but whether a rebel spy, or a home of a rebel sympathizer, does not yet appear."

Major Frederick Winkler served in the 26th Wisconsin Infantry and on General Schurz’s staff recalled, "A large portion of the place is in ruins, having been destroyed by fire; expensive buildings of the Catholic Church, convents, etc., occupy very fine grounds on the limits of the place; not far from here too, at the foot of the mountains, there is Saint Mary's College, said to be the oldest college in the country."

Lieutenant William Ballentine of the 82nd Ohio Infantry recalled "About one half of the town was burnt about two weeks ago. The people think it was done by a resident of the town whom they now have in jail. He is said to be a union man although the town is one of the worst secessionist towns in Maryland. But that was not the reason it was burnt. It was in revenge for some private wrong done by some individual of the town, His store was set on fire and burnt the rest with it."

The next day, June 30th, Dr. Moore recalled, "The Army of the Potomac was truly a beautiful sight" and describes a grand but horrible passing of "the wagons, ambulances, cannons, etc, which were coming early dawn till nightfall. ... They camped around Emmitsburg. Their campfires, as viewed from the college windows, almost led one to imagine that this section for miles had received in one shower all the stars of the heavens."

General John Reynolds ordered the First Corps to march to Marsh Creek, located to the north of Emmitsburg, in Pennsylvania. A soldier of the 121st Pennsylvania Volunteers recalled marching through town. They were greeted by cheering townspeople who waved handkerchiefs, flags, passed out water, cakes and bread. "The commissary wagons were unable to keep anywhere near the troops on this march, and, as a consequence the want of food induced many of the men to leave the ranks and raid on the products of the farms of this rich country."

The young boys of Emmitsburg were excited at seeing the soldiers go marching by. Members of the 12th Massachusetts Volunteers recorded a story about a courageous boy who wanted to be a soldier "An instance of the bravery of a 15 year old Emmetsburg lad named J. W. (C.F.) Wheatley, as Baxter’s brigade was marching through Emmetsburg it was followed by the village boys, one of whom continued to the camp at Marsh Creek, where he offered to enlist. His offer, however, was ridiculed, and he was sent away. On the morning of the 1st of July he reappeared, and so earnestly entreated the Colonel of the Twelfth Massachusetts to be allowed to join his regiment, which a captain of one of the companies (Company A) was instructed to take him on trial for a day or two. When the regiment halted near the seminary, the boy was hastily dressed in a suit of blue."

"Afterwards, during the action [at Gettysburg], he fought bravely until a bullet striking his musket split it in two pieces, one of which lodged in his left hand and the other in his left thigh. The boy was taken to the brick church in the town to be cared for, but nothing was afterwards seen or heard of him until July 4th. I saw him for the last time bitterly crying for his mother and sundry of other relatives. He was never mustered into the service, therefore fought as a civilian."

Portions of the Eleventh Corps moved closer to Emmitsburg. During the same time, a division, under the command of General David B. Birney of the Third Corps, was marching in from the direction of Taneytown. They were ordered to Emmitsburg and began occupying the grounds near St. Joseph’s. Colonel Philippe Régis Denis de Keredern de Trobriand wrote about his brief stay at St. Joseph’s. "It was on the domain of St. Joseph that I had placed my brigade. A small stream made part of the boundary line. I leave it to you to guess if the good sisters were not excited, on seeing the guns moving along under their windows and the regiments, bristling with bayonets, spreading out through their orchards. Nothing like it had ever troubled the calm of this holy retreat. When I arrived at a gallop in front of the principal door, the doorkeeper, who had ventured a few steps outside, completely lost her head. In her fright, she came near being trampled under foot by the horses of my staff, which she must have taken for the horses of the Apocalypse, if, indeed, there are any horses in the Apocalypse, of which I am not sure."

As Colonel Trobriand entered into the building he noted "We reached the belfry by a narrow and winding staircase. I went first. At the noise of my boots sounding on the steps, a rustling of dresses and murmuring of voices were heard above my head. There were eight or ten young nuns, who had mounted up there to enjoy the extraordinary spectacle of guns in battery, of stacked muskets, of sentinels walking back and forth with their arms in hand, of soldiers making coffee in the gardens, of horses, ready, saddled, eating their oats under the apple trees; all things of which they had not the least idea. We had cut off their retreat, and they were crowded against the windows, like frightened birds, asking Heaven to send them wings with which to fly away."

As those soldiers bedded down for the night, they could only imagine what was to come the next day. As dawn came on July 1st, no one in the town of Emmitsburg would imagine that a major battle was going to take place at a small country town called Gettysburg, ten miles to the north. As the day wore on, the sounds of musketry and cannon could be heard. As the Eleventh Corps moved out and headed toward Gettysburg, the rest of the Union Third Corps entered town. There, General Daniel Sickles would halt his Corps for a few hours.

After several dispatches came for General Sickles, he began to march toward Gettysburg, leaving behind one brigade of infantry and a battery of artillery. And just like thousands of soldiers before them, they too were ordered to Gettysburg to fight one of the greatest battles of the Civil War.

Read more about Emmitsburg in the Civil War