Until yesterday, I had never visited the George Spangler Farm at Gettysburg. Located just off the Baltimore Pike south of Powers Hill, the farm is now administered by the Gettysburg Foundation, which purchased the property in 2008 and restored the barn. It opened to the public in 2013. To visit, you have to take a shuttle bus from the visitor center.
I went on July 7, 2018. It was a beautiful day to visit a place with such a grim background. Back in July 1863, the Spangler’s farm was pressed into service as a field hospital for the Union XI Corps. Surgeons worked around the clock amputating limbs and treating grievous injuries. Wounded men filled the barn and the house. (The six members of the Spangler family were allowed the use of a single room.) One of the dying soldiers was Confederate Brig. Gen. Lewis Armistead, who led a brigade in Pickett’s division and was mortally wounded after he had led his remaining men over the wall at the “Bloody Angle” on Cemetery Ridge. He was taken to the Spangler farm and supposedly placed in the summer kitchen, where he died on July 5.
Of course, many less prominent people reached the Spangler farm in July 1863. On the shuttle bus, today’s visitors receive a pack of five cards with the images of people with connections to the farm. One of my cards had a picture of Capt. Frederick Stowe. He was the son of Calvin and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Mrs. Stowe had started writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, while her husband was a professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. The card shows a very serious and somewhat haunted-looking young man, one hand on the hilt of his officer’s sword. He had enlisted in 1861 at the age of 21 and had been on the staff of Gen. Adolph von Steinwehr of the XI Corps at Gettysburg. Stowe was struck on the head by a shell fragment on July 3 and treated at the farm. “Although he survived the wound and the war, his fight with alcoholism was a continuing struggle,” reads the text on the back of the card. “Frederick Stowe moved westward in 1870 and was never heard from again.”
Rowland Howard, the brother of XI Corps commander Oliver Otis Howard, had reached Gettysburg with his brother on July 1. As I wrote in Maine Roads to Gettysburg, the younger Howard was a volunteer for the United States Christian Commission and he helped the wounded at the Spangler farm, where he quickly learned about “the real and essential character of war.” It was far removed from the “pomp and circumstance” that had excited him when he first saw an army on the march, or the patriotic thrill he had felt when he heard the sound of the guns. In the hospital, war showed its true face. It was blood and gore, death and destruction, suffering and horror, and it soon became overwhelming. Rowland was struck by the contrast between the peaceful moon and stars in the night sky and the “ghastly faces of our dead.” He was moved by the agonized moans and cries of the dying soldiers who surrounded him. “I said to myself, ‘O God, the moon and the stars Thou has made, but not this miserable murder and mangling of men.’ It is not like nature: it is anti-natural; it is of the pit.”
Carl Schurz commanded a division in the XI at Gettysburg (and briefly commanded the corps itself, when Oliver Howard was serving as senior officer on the field). On July 4 he visited the hospital at the Spangler farm and wrote about the visit in his memoirs. He said:
At Gettysburg the wounded—many thousands of them—were carried to the farmsteads behind our lines. The houses, the barns, the sheds, and the open barnyards were crowded with moaning and wailing human beings, and still an unceasing procession of stretchers and ambulances was coming in from all sides to augment the number of the sufferers. A heavy rain set in during the day—the usual rain after a battle—and large numbers had to remain unprotected in the open, there being no room left under roof. I saw long rows of men lying under the eaves of the buildings, the water pouring down upon their bodies in streams. Most of the operating tables were placed in the open where the light was best, some of them partially protected against the rain by tarpaulins or blankets stretched upon poles. There stood the surgeons, their sleeves rolled up to the elbows, their bare arms as well as their linen aprons smeared with blood, their knives not seldom held between their teeth, while they were helping a patient on or off the table, or had their hands otherwise occupied; around them pools of blood and amputated arms or legs in heaps, sometimes more than man-high. Antiseptic methods were still unknown at that time. As a wounded man was lifted on the table, often shrieking with pain as the attendants handled him, the surgeon quickly examined the wound and resolved upon cutting off the injured limb. Some ether was administered and the body put in position in a moment. The surgeon snatched his knife from between his teeth, where it had been while his hands were busy, wiped it rapidly once or twice across his blood-stained apron, and the cutting began. The operation accomplished, the surgeon would look around with a deep sigh, and then—”Next!”
And so it went on, hour after hour, while the number of expectant patients seemed hardly to diminish. Now and then one of the wounded men would call attention to the fact that his neighbor lying on the ground had given up the ghost while waiting for his turn, and the dead body was then quietly removed. Or a surgeon, having been long at work, would put down his knife, exclaiming that his hand had grown unsteady, and that this was too much for human endurance—not seldom hysterical tears streaming down his face. Many of the wounded men suffered with silent fortitude, fierce determination in the knitting of their brows and the steady gaze of their bloodshot eyes. Some would even force themselves to a grim jest about their situation or about the “skedaddling of the rebels.” But there were, too, heart-rending groans and shrill cries of pain piercing the air, and despairing exclamations, “Oh, Lord! Oh, Lord!” or “Let me die!” or softer murmurings in which the words “mother” or “father” or “home” were often heard. I saw many of my command among the sufferers, whose faces I well remembered, and who greeted me with a look or even a painful smile of recognition, and usually with the question what I thought of their chances of life, or whether I could do anything for them, sometimes, also, whether I thought the enemy were well beaten. I was sadly conscious that many of the words of cheer and encouragement I gave them were mere hollow sound, but they might be at least some solace for the moment.
There are people who speak lightly of war as a mere heroic sport. They would hardly find it in their hearts to do so, had they ever witnessed scenes like these, and thought of the untold miseries connected with them that were spread all over the land. He must be an inhuman brute or a slave of wild, unscrupulous ambition, who, having seen the horrors of war, will not admit that war brought on without the most absolute necessity, is the greatest and most unpardonable of crimes.
I often muse about the emotional disconnect of my visits to Gettysburg. I am always happy to be there, and experience great pleasure—joy, even—exploring the battlefield and the town. Yet the reason it’s a destination for me is because the place was a scene of such misery and horror back in 1863. Real war is not fun. I felt the same disconnect at the Spangler farm. It was a glorious day—bright sun, clear blue skies, low humidity, the green of the trees and red of the barn eye-popping in their brilliance. I was happy that I got a chance to see the place. Yet I was visiting a site that had witnessed terrible things. The medical encampment beneath the tents in front of the farmhouse today could only hint at what had happened here 155 years ago. The living historians had red smears on their white aprons, but it was not real blood. The severed leg on their table was plastic, not flesh and bone. I was glad to be here, unlike all the poor wounded and dying who had never planned on a visit to the George Spangler farm back in 1863.