Voices of Gettysburg

Two battles, one destiny: Penn State and Gettysburg during the Civil War

Two battles raged in Pennsylvania in 1863. One would serve as a defining moment in the Civil War, a conflict that ended slavery and changed the identity of the United States. Another battle, not far from the bloody fields and smoke-veiled ridges of Gettysburg, would redefine the identity of a struggling university and reveal the promise of higher education to a new generation of Americans.

In both battles, Penn Staters paid the ultimate price.

Despite the ominous clouds kicked up by the war, Evan Pugh also saw opportunities, ones that matched his own ambition to grow Penn State beyond its agricultural roots.

"The Storm of War"

While dozens of students from Penn State, then called the Farm School, fought to keep the Union together, the institution’s President, Evan Pugh, struggled to hold onto enough students to keep the new institution from fading into oblivion.

The news that reached Pugh’s desk in 1861 must have added to the young President’s apprehension about this task. The New York Agricultural College announced that it would close, at least temporarily, because the war had drained most of its student body. “We are hard pushed but intend to live through the storm of war,” Pugh wrote to his friend Samuel W. Johnson.

Pugh and Old Main montage

Evan Pugh and Old Main montage

Evan Pugh, upper right, Penn State's first President, along with Hugh McAllister, lower right, a founding Trustee, struggled to keep the still-developing agricultural school operational and enrollments from dwindling during the Civil War.

Image: University Archives

“We are hard pushed but intend to live through the storm of war,” Pugh wrote to his friend Samuel W. Johnson.

As Confederate troops began to plot their audacious—or rash, depending on who is telling the story—push into Pennsylvania in the late spring of 1863, Pugh was in the thick of a battle to win the sole land-grant designation for Penn State. Whatever time and energy Pugh had left over from the day-to-day running of a college teetering on the thin line between transformation and failure, he spent lobbying legislators, who officially designated Penn State the Commonwealth’s sole land-grant institution in April 1863.

The march north

As Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia marched north, war fever and war fears spread throughout Pennsylvania and into the Farm School. Lincoln and Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin called for 50,000 volunteers from the state. Students, often without consent from their parents or from school officials, left to join the hastily formed militias.

Meanwhile, Pugh faced an assault of a different sort. Dozens of worried parents bombarded him with letters, many of them angry that he did not do enough to stop their sons from joining the militia. Despite the loss of students and the increased tension with parents, Pugh vowed to press on.

State of Pennsylvania monument Gettysburg

The State of Pennsylvania monument

The State of Pennsylvania Monument, the largest on the Gettysburg battlefield, honors every Pennsylvania regiment that fought in the historic battle, including the 148th Pennsylvania Infantry.

Image: Patrick Mansell

“We are going on as usual though with very diminished numbers,” Pugh wrote to Hugh McAllister, a founding Trustee of the Farm School. “I feel annoyed that I did not more preemptorily strive to hush up the wild and foolish excitement that took away so many students and yet gave so few efficient soldiers to the army and these without consent of parents.”

Meeting at a crossroads town

The battle of Gettysburg had less to do with the Confederate Army’s hunt for shoes—a common explanation of why the two armies decided to fight it out in the southeastern Pennsylvania community—and more to do with the town’s position as a transportation hub in the mid-1800s, according to Carol Reardon, George Winfree Professor of American History at Penn State. The town was at the center of several roads, or pikes, as well as a rail line, that connected to the cities of Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Harrisburg.

By late June of 1863, those pikes streamed with men and material from both the Union and Confederate armies. The flashpoint occurred on the morning of July 1, just to the northwest of Gettysburg, when lead elements of the Confederate invasion force clashed with a group of Union infantry and cavalry. After a spirited defense, the Union troops withdrew to the high ground along Cemetery Ridge.

148th pennsylvania monument gettysburg

148th Pennsylvania Infantry monument

The 148th Pennsylvania Infantry monument, located at the edge of the Wheatfield at Gettysburg, marks the location where Penn State students fought side by side with soldiers from Centre, Jefferson, Indiana, and Clarion Counties on day two of the historic battle.

Image: Patrick Mansell

On July 2, 1863, Robert M. Forster, who served as the Farm School's first postmaster, now a captain of the 148th’s Company C, and his fellow soldiers, including several former Farm School students, were positioned near the Union’s vulnerable left flank in a wheatfield that would be transformed into, as Reardon describes it, “a horrific no-man’s land covered thickly with the dead and wounded from both armies.”

The position was not linked with other Union defenses and the Confederates, noticing the exposed troops and the break in the Union line, quickly seized the advantage, pouring troops across the field. Meade countered by bringing reinforcements to shore up Sickles’ line. Forster was listed as one of the many casualties during the bloody fighting in the Wheatfield on July 2. While Union commander George Meade oversaw a textbook defense during the three-day battle, a subordinate, Gen. Daniel Sickles, committed one of the Union army’s biggest blunders. Disobeying orders, Sickles moved his troops off high ground along the southern part of Cemetery Ridge and into a field of just-ripening wheat.

A nearly daylong series of charges and counter-charges ensued. While leading one of those charges to maintain the Union position, Forster was shot in the head. His remains are interred in Centre County’s Spring Creek Presbyterian Cemetery.

Pugh had an almost prophetic belief that while the war would be won on battlefields, the peace and the reconstruction that would follow would be won on the campuses of universities like Penn State.

The aftermath

While Pugh struggled to stop students from leaving the school to fight in the war, he also considered joining the Army. Pugh wrote in a letter to Johnson, “Prof. Wilson and myself have been helping to raise a military company at Boalsburg. He is elected captain and will go if called upon. I would have gone if I could have left. Walker, Buner, Stoner, and Rich have gone.” He added, with uncharacteristic venom, “I would leave my quakerism at home till we could give those traitor scoundrels such a thundering thrashing as no people ever got before.”

Instead, Pugh fought the war by wielding a pen to write letters, campaigning endlessly for the Farm School in Harrisburg and enduring batteries of meetings with government officials and bureaucrats to shore up its land-grant status. Pugh, though, had an almost prophetic belief that while the war would be won on battlefields, the peace and the reconstruction that would follow would be won on the campuses of universities like Penn State.

Many of the students who went off to war returned to graduate from the Farm School and, along with each successive class of students, helped broaden the college from its purely agricultural roots into a world-class leader in higher education. Just as Lincoln’s vision for a united, free country survived his death, so did Pugh’s vision for a transformed University. Penn State would play a critical role in educating not just the next generations of farmers, but also the next generations of engineers, poets, physicists, and other experts from a wide spectrum of disciplines and fields.

Top photo: Carol Reardon, George Winfree Professor of American History, on the Gettysburg battlefield.

Through the eyes of Union generals

Newly discovered sources, current battlefield restoration efforts, and fresh approaches to a well-established narrative are helping historians better understand one of the war’s most important and complex battles, said Carol Reardon, George Winfree Professor of American History.

Crews have recently cut down trees that blocked the view from the cupola on top of Schmucker Hall, which at the time of the battle served as a dorm and classroom at the Lutheran Seminary. Union cavalryman John Buford used the cupola as an observation post, according to Reardon. She said the newly unimpeded view offers historians and visitors a chance to see what Union generals saw on the first day of the battle. According to Reardon, rehabilitation experts are restoring important terrain features throughout the Gettysburg National Military Park to better match what it looked like during the battle.

The restoration effort provides historians with new ways to look at key facets of the battle, noted Reardon, who has co-authored “A Field Guide to Gettysburg” (The University of North Carolina Press, June 2013) with retired U.S. Army Col. Tom Vossler.

As more records become digitized and placed online, historians can more easily access personal information about the soldiers who fought in the battle, Reardon said. For example, the state of New York recently placed online the rosters of Civil War regiments and batteries from the state, some of whom fought at Gettysburg. Reardon and Vossler relied on those details when they wrote sections of the book that covered the actions of the New York troops during the battle. They also used newly discovered letters from soldiers who fought at Gettysburg, from some of the first visitors to the battlefield and from civilians who endured the battle.

Reardon and Vossler have about forty years of combined experience leading tours of the Gettysburg battlefield for groups of dignitaries, active duty and reserve military units, ROTC cadets, Penn State alumni and students from grade school through graduate school. These tours and the questions that the participants asked about the battle helped shape the researchers' approach to the guidebook.

Reardon and Vossler then selected thirty-five stops on the battlefield to tell the story of the battle. The sites are generally based on the their understanding of the battle and feedback from previous tour participants. At each stop, the researchers try to answer six questions: What happened here? Who fought here? Who commanded here? Who fell here? Who lived here? What did they say about it days or years later?