Monday, June 11, 2012

Barns of Gettysburg: Preserving these witnesses to war's valor and horror

Its renters having fled, the McPherson farm stood in the direct path of the horde of Confederates under the command of Maj. Gen Henry Heth, marching into Gettysburg, Pa., on July 1, 1863.

Over the next several hours, Union forces under cavalryman Brig. Gen. John Buford and Maj. Gen. John Reynolds furiously countered the Rebel thrust, buying time for the Union Army to form a defensive line along Cemetery Ridge.

The McPherson barn (above), constructed about 50 years before the battle, is a classic Pennsylvania structure, featuring a cantilevered forebay, pitched gable roof and stone foundation.

The barn, near Chambersburg Pike, sheltered Federal troops, and sharpshooters fired from embrasures in the walls -- Heth surmised he was wounded by a shot from the barn. Eventually, the position was overrun. Stranded Union prisoners were unattended until July 6, after the battle, when the surviving structure was used as a field hospital.

“The barn has a beautiful view, looking west and seeing various ridges,” said Katie Lawhon, spokeswoman for Gettysburg National Military Park. “You can almost imagine the Confederate troops heading toward Gettysburg."

The McPherson barn is one of nearly 20 within the park’s boundary, most of which are original. Five of them are featured along with eight other Civil War-era barns in a 2013 fund-raising calendar now on sale, produced by Historic Gettysburg-Adams County, a society that promotes and supports barn preservation and restoration in the south-central Pennsylvania County.

Each structure tells its own fascinating story.

Two barns were burned during the three-day battle: The Bliss barn blaze was intentionally set to thwart Confederate sharpshooters. Wounded Union soldiers seeking shelter in the Sherfy barn died an agonizing death in the other.

Another structure on a farm briefly used as headquarters by Union commander Maj. Gen. George Meade. And the Trostle farm barn (photos, above and left) still has the hole left by a Confederate artillery shell.

Curt Musselman, president of Historic Gettysburg-Adams County, said about 500 of Adams County’s 1,500 historic barns were around at the time of the momentous battle.

Only a fraction of them are within the park’s boundaries; many others served as shelters, headquarters and hospitals in the rolling farmland surrounding Gettysburg.

Barns on park property are maintained by the National Park Service. They have fire sprinkler systems and equipment that help protect them from today’s primary enemy – lightning. (Photo below, McClean farm barn north of Gettysburg on NPS land.)

“We do not lease out the barns for agricultural use,” Lawhon told the Picket. “To protect them from fire, they are not used for hay storage or for storing gas-powered equipment such as tractors.

Twelve farmers have leases to grow crops and graze cattle on NPS land at Gettysburg.

"There's a constant need to do preservation maintenance on the barns," Lawhon said. "(It includes) protecting them from water that comes off these large roofs. It can undermine the stone foundations. If the bank barn (earthen embankment that moves up to the upper level ) gets waterlogged it has a tendency for the foundation to fall into the barn."

Musselman’s group works to safeguard barns not on federal property.

Its efforts include an annual barn dance, a survey and registry, art show and, now, the $20 calendar. This year’s dance is set for Oct. 6 in the town of Orrtanna.

"They are a real place-setter as far as I am concerned,” Musselman said of the barns. “They are unique to this area.”

"We really have a beautiful, large rural county where agriculture is still a big part of what happens here economically,” said Musselman, a park cartographer. “We are trying to preserve the rural character of the county. If we put up factory farms it would not be the same thing."

Agriculture in Adams County has shifted a bit since Civil War days, with a big focus now on fruit tree crops, such as cherries and peaches.

"We're the leading apple producer in Pennsylvania,” said Musselman.

Farms at the time of the battle were primarily subsistence; some had granaries.

"Most of the barns are made in a very solid fashion,” according to Musselman. “In some cases, they may need some shoring up.”

Adams County is considered to be in the core region for Pennsylvania barns, inspired by farmers who came over from Switzerland and southern Germany. Most of the earliest barns were made of logs.

The barns are known for a cantilever or overhang on the front and an entrance to a second level via a ramp. The style spread to Ohio and the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.

Historic Gettysburg-Adams County is preparing to launch a program in which it provides up to $2,500 in match money to make repairs on area barns.

"The roof or the foundation are the primary areas where you have the most problems,” said Musselman. "The frame starts rotting and there the barn goes."

Perhaps the oldest surviving barn in the county was built around 1760.

"It's what we call ironclad; it keeps the wood from rotting. You go inside and see these gigantic beams," said Musselman.

Farms on the northern end of the battlefield tended to be more prosperous, according to Lawhon. Soil in the south was rockier.

An observer also could judge a farmer's affluence by his fences.

"A post-and-rail fence is much more expensive to make than the traditional Virginia worm (zig-zag)," the spokeswoman said.

Summary of a few barns at Gettysburg National Military Park:

-- Lydia Leister barn (two photos, above) is a one-story double pen log, plank, and frame building with a one-story lean-to addition on the south. The building was located in the rear of the center of the Union battle line andused to shelter Union headquarters staff and horses until they moved because of heavy gunfire. It later was used as a temporary aid station and field hospital when headquarters was relocated elsewhere.

-- Joseph Sherfy barn, destroyed during the course of the battle, has been reconstructed. It had been used as a shelter for wounded Union soldiers, many of whom died in a fire that consumed the barn. According to the Stone Sentinels website, a soldier from the 77th New York Infantry who observed it wrote, “As we passed the scene of conflict on the left was a scene more than unusually hideous. Blackened remains marked the spot where, on the morning of the 3rd, stood a large barn. It had been used as a hospital. It had taken fire from the shells of the hostile batteries, and had quickly burned to the ground. Those of the wounded not able to help themselves were destroyed by the flames, which in a moment spread through the straw and dry material of the building. The crisped and blackened limbs, heads and other portions of bodies lying half consumed among the heaps of ruins and ashes made up one of the most ghastly pictures ever witnessed, even on the field of war.”

-- The Joshiah Benner farm (photo, right), Old Harrisburg Road, was bought in 2011. The park is trying to receive funding to do needed rehabilitation. Its location placed it in the line of advance by Early’s Confederate Division on the afternoon of July 1. In an effort to attack and outflank Union positions on and near Barlow Knoll, Confederates had to pass around this solid obstacle. "The walls and height of the building provided cover for skirmishers on both sides during various portions of the July 1 conflict. At the close of the fighting of that day, the barn was pressed into use as a temporary Confederate hospital," according to the NPS.

-- The Abraham and Catherine Trostle barm is a two-story brick and frame Pennsylvania bank barn on a granite foundation. The location of the farm near the bottomland of Plum Run placed it between two Union defensive positions of Cemetery Ridge and Emmitsburg Road Ridge on July 2. It was used as headquarters by the commanding general of the 3rd Corps, Daniel Sickles (photo, left). At least one Union battery was located in the yards of the barn and house and drew return fire from several Confederate batteries on July 2. From the evening of July 2 to the evening of July 3, the barn was in the hands of Confederates. It is likely that the barn served temporarily for hospital purposes after close of the fighting on July 5.

Modern barn photos courtesy of Gettysburg National Military Park. Historic photos, Library of Congress

Historic Gettysburg-Adams County
Details on Gettysburg farms and barns
From the Fields of Gettysburg blog

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