Battle of Gettysburg comes alive at Gleason Library

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This Civil-War-era drum is on display at Gleason Library. (Photo by Karina Coombs)

by Karina Coombs

The Union Army field drum sits in a display case at Gleason Library, a tear in the top skin, but otherwise intact. It was left amid the carnage from the Battle of Gettysburg in the summer of 1863. The instrument would have played a significant role during the fighting by relaying officers’ orders through drumbeats or drum calls as a way to communicate over the din of war.

When not in battle or keeping soldiers in marching formation, the boys who often carried these drums were also stretcher-bearers, gravediggers, medics and camp entertainers. They were also young. Military and historical records show the youngest Civil War drummer boy was nine—a third grader.

Honoring the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the drum and other artifacts are part of a new exhibit at Gleason, “Left Behind: Evidence of Devotion & Destruction on the Gettysburg Battlefield.” The pieces are part of a larger collection of Gettysburg artifacts owned by the town and housed at the Carlisle Historical Society.

“Why was that drum left? Was he killed? Did he run and leave it?” asks curator and Reference Librarian Janet Hentschel, who worked on the exhibit for almost a year, researching and selecting artifacts. Library Director Katie Huffman was in charge of its design.

Hentschel wants the exhibit to relay the sadness of items left behind rather than to glorify war. “I want to impart that after the battle all of these articles are left [behind] and they belonged to people.” She points to tattered Union Army caps resting next to a collection of buttons. “Who did they belong to?” she asks.

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Curator and Reference Librarian Janet Hentschel worked on the exhibit for almost a year. (Photo by Karina Coombs)

Stealing from the dead

Gettysburg was a town of 2,400 at the time of the battle. Following three days of heavy fighting, casualties have been estimated at over 46,000, with 7,863 killed outright, 27,224 wounded and 11,199 missing. Three thousand horses were also killed and farmland and trees were decimated. “After a battle, scavengers come to the field,” explains Hentschel. “Some might be soldiers taking shoes off dead soldiers for necessity. They would take rifles, canteens [and even] food. Others would come in after and take more.”

Within days of the battle’s end, tourists and scavengers descended on the area to view the destruction and liberate artifacts for profit or sentimentality, their numbers dwarfing those providing humanitarian relief. A cottage industry arose in Gettysburg for selling war memorabilia to those seeking a connection or a memento, including soldiers. Says Hentschel, “for years after [the war] people were going out in the field and collecting buttons or shot and would keep it as a way to honor the dead.”

How Carlisle got the collection

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Pocket revolvers. (Photo by Karina Coombs)

One avid collector was Gettysburg resident Joel A Danner. Danner opened the first Gettysburg Battle museum in 1865, “Danner’s Battle-Field Museum.” The museum also served as a relic shop and the pieces were for both display and sale. Danner’s museum was sold in 1890 and his pieces were split up into three different collections and sold. One of the three would find its way to Carlisle.

In the early 1890s former Carlisle resident W. Irving Heald purchased 109 pieces from Danner, ranging from buttons to ammunition. The items were marked with the large white painted catalogue numbers that are telltale Danner markings, pieces much sought after by Civil War enthusiasts.

Heald donated the collection to the town of Carlisle in 1916. “It is still one of the best kept secrets,” says Hentschel, a former collection’s manager at the Historical Society. “[You] will often find little bits written like, ‘we don’t know where some of it went.’ And we have it!”

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Leather swab bucket held water used to cool down the cannon barrels. (Photo by Karina Coombs)

The Heald Collection has a number of rare items including a swab bucket. “It is leather and [was used to] hold water. You would put a swab in to clean out and cool the cannon before [it was] used again,” says Hentschel. Another rare item is a Confederate Whitworth cannon shell. “It is a solid shot. Only two of these [cannons] were used during the Civil War and both by the Confederates,” explains Hentschel. “They made a screaming noise like a banshee.”

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Memorabilia created from items found on the battlefield. (Photo by Karina Coombs)

The exhibit also contains a number of pieces that were made into memorabilia such as a cannon ball turned into an oil lamp and a gavel made from some of the damaged trees, a bullet embedded within. “Former soldiers would often make things into memorabilia,” says Hentschel. A painted canteen from former Carlisle resident and Gettysburg veteran, Daniel Webster Robbins is also part of the exhibit.

Fifty-five Carlisleans fought at Gettysburg

Robbins was 16 and underage when he joined the 16th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, having threatened to run away and join anyway if his mother did not give her permission. He was one of 55 Carlisle residents who fought at Gettysburg. Robbins would later return to Carlisle and become a mason, the Gleason Library being one of his projects. Fittingly, other Robbins’ items are also part of the current exhibit.

Instead of viewing the collection as war artifacts, Hentschel hopes visitors will consider the men who once carried these items into a truly horrible battle, men who were part of communities and had loved ones back home waiting for them. “People don’t often think that these [items] belonged to people. These all belonged to somebody [and] most of them probably lost their lives, but we don’t know [for sure].”

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Cartridge case identified by Paul Carpenter. (Photo by Karina Coombs)

Identifying one item’s owner

The fate of a soldier who possessed one item in the collection is clear however, thanks to the research of Carlisle resident and amateur historian, Paul Carpenter. According to Hentschel, Carpenter was able to find a name inside a leather cartridge case and after checking census data and military records discovered the soldier had survived, having left it on the field while doing burial duty. Says Hentschel, “He went home and lived a long life.”

Gettysburg collection events

The exhibit will be at Gleason until July 20. The library will also be showing the award-winning film Lincoln on May 31 at 7 p.m. Professor Gary Hylander of the BU School of Education will present a lecture on the Battle of Gettysburg on June 11 at 7 p.m. The Heald Collection items are on permanent display at the Historical Society’s Heald House at 698 Concord Street.

See more pictures of the collection on our website, www.carlislemosquito.org. ∆