The Myths of Gettysburg

In color image of luminary memorial of the dead soldiers of the Civil War
Kimberly J. Largent


If you recently visited Gettysburg and had a difficult time finding the location of the Gettysburg Shoe Factory on your battlefield map, or you wondered what the Yanks and Rebs talked about as they socialized at Spangler’s Spring while filling their canteens (probably the 100-degree heat in which they fought earlier in the day), then this article is for you. Although most Gettysburg visitors have a clear understanding of what happened at Gettysburg, some visitors have fallen victim to the many myths that surround the Battle of Gettysburg. I decided to go on a myth-collecting expedition and sought the help of several Gettysburg park rangers to whom I am indebted for their assistance. With their help, I've compiled information on the more popular ones.

Sleepy Town of Gettysburg

Myth: The most decisive battle of the Civil War was fought in the "sleepy" town of Gettysburg.

Fact: Gettysburg was not such a sleepy town in 1863. With a population of about 2,400, it ranked only a few hundred shy of what a metropolitan area boasted (around 3,000) in 1860. During the war, Gettysburg was the county seat of Adams County, named in honor of John Adams, who had been President of the United States from 1797 to 1801. Gettysburg touted not one, but two institutions of higher learning: Pennsylvania College (now Gettysburg College) and the Lutheran Theological Seminary. Many Pennsylvania roads intersected at Gettysburg, 10 in all, a fact that made it an appealing location to assemble an army. The town was home to 44 businesses with the carriage trade being the most important industry. Its homes were lit up with gas lamps, as well as its roads. Additionally, with the town so close to the Mason-Dixon it was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Source: A history of Adams County Robert L Bloom.

The Gettysburg Heatwave of July 1863

Myth: The weather during the first three days of July 1863 included a record-breaking heat wave with temperatures in excess of 100 degrees!

Fact: The temperature during the three days of the battle wasn't as hot as is often portrayed. In fact, the men of both sides complained more about the rain than the heat. We know the temperature during those three days since a professor from Pennsylvania College kept daily records on the Gettysburg's weather. On July 1st, the temperature reached 76; on July 2nd it climbed to 81; and on July 3rd it peaked at 86. Additionally, it was cloudy during the first three days of July. Compared to what it could have been on a Gettysburg summer day, the weather was relatively mild! Source: Desjardin, Thomas A Legend of Gettysburg: Separating Fact from Fiction, 1996 FNPG.

The Shoe Factory® of Gettysburg

Myth: The Battle of Gettysburg was fought over a shipment of shoes housed at the Gettysburg Shoe Factory.

Fact: Not only was there not a shoe factory in Gettysburg in 1863, but the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac did not engage in three days of battle to gain control of a mythical shipment of shoes—even though both sides were in need of them, especially the Confederates. Fannie Buehler, wife of Gettysburg postmaster described Confederate General John Gordon's infantry as it marched into town. They were "dirty, …hatless, shoeless, and footsore." Additionally, when Confederate General Jubal Early marched his troops into the town for the first time on June 26 (on his way to Hanover Junction and York), he ordered the town to hand over 1,000 pairs of shoes and 500 hats, or as an alternative $10,000 cash. Gettysburg authorities knew they couldn't fill Early's bill and instead offered to open their stores to him. Early's inspection of the town's shops yielded him little in way of supplies (especially shoes) except for a hefty supply of horseshoes and nails. Source: Coddington, Edwin The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, 1968 Charles Schribner Sons.

The Armies Accidentally Met at Gettysburg

Myth: The armies hadn't planned on fighting at Gettysburg but were forced to when they "accidentally" met on July 1, 1863.

Fact: Although Union generals Hooker and Pleasonton would claim years after the battle that they knew that Gettysburg would be the location of the decisive fighting, due to its geography and network of roads, at no time did either commanding general point to Gettysburg on a map and state, "We will fight here." However, the clashing of the armies on July 1st wasn't accidental either. On July 30th, Brigadier General J. Johnston Pettigrew of Heth's Division, was ordered to Gettysburg "for the purpose of collecting commissary and quartermaster stores for the use of the army," according to Lt. Louis G. Young who overheard the conversation between Heth and Pettigrew. Heth stressed his subordinate "might find the town in possession of a home guard,…but if, contrary to expectations, he should find any organized troops capable of making resistance, or any portion of the Army of the Potomac, he should not attack it."

One of the leading units of Pettigrew's brigade came upon a scout who warned that a large force of Yankee cavalry occupied the town. Pettigrew immediately returned this information, via messenger, to Heth who responded to push on—indicating he didn't believe Pettigrew's assessment. Next, a Yankee sniper fired off a shot and that, in addition to the reports that drumming could be heard in the distance (indicating infantry), led Pettigrew to halt his troops. They countermarched back to camp. Pettigrew conveyed the day's events and General Hill, refusing to believe the Army of the Potomac was so close, permitted General Heth to march to Gettysburg the following morning. The next day, July 1st, Archer's and Davis' brigades of Heth's Division led the way back to Gettysburg and did indeed run into the Yankees. On a grander scale, both Lee and Meade predicted the battle would be in the Gettysburg area; Lee more on target than Meade. Arthur J. L. Fremantle, who was visiting from England and observing the Army of Northern VA, stated that Lee confided in him that he expected to run into the Union Army somewhere around Gettysburg. Meade, although not as exact as Lee, also felt a battle would be fought at a location between Chambersburg and the Susquehana River. Source: Coddington, Edwin The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, 1968 Charles Schribner Sons.

Guns of Gettysburg

Myth: Buford's Union Cavalry was able to successfully hold out against its Confederate attackers the morning of the first day due to the fact the cavalry troopers were firing with new Spencer repeating carbines.

Fact: According to Ordnance reports, Buford's men fought with an assortment of single-shot, breech-loading weapons (Sharps, Merrill, Smith, Burnsides, and Gallagher). In reality, it was superb leadership and battle planning that allowed Buford's cavalry to hold the Rebels back for so long. Buford's strategy was to fight a delaying action until General Reynold's I Corps arrived on the field. Buford and his men were successful in their endeavors.

The "Evolution" of Baseball

Myth: Abner Doubleday, who commanded the field after Major General John Reynolds fell mortally wounded, is the inventor of baseball.

Fact: In reality, during the 19th century, many cultures touted some type of stick and ball game-cricket being the most well known. While the exact origins of baseball are unknown (since it was more of an evolution), historians do agree that it is loosely based on the English game of Rounders. The game grew in popularity and had a variety of monikers including "Townball," "Base," and "Baseball." Rules of the game seemed to vary until 1845 when Alexander Cartwright set out to standardize the rules of play. Without a short amount of time, teams began forming in small towns and large cities were home to baseball clubs. So why is Doubleday credited with the invention? Well, it started in 1904, (Doubleday died in 1893) when Al Spaulding assembled a commission to research the origins of baseball. It seemed that Spaulding refused to accept that this all-American game was born of an English children's game. The commission went on a fact-finding mission and after receiving a letter from an elderly gentleman named Abner Graves who claimed to have been a boyhood friend of Doubleday's, the commission was ready to introduce the inventor. In his letter to the commission, Graves stated that as a young boy in Cooperstown, NY, he'd seen Abner Doubleday rallying 20 to 50 boys in a school yard where they were playing Town Ball (form of Rounders). Graves claims he saw Doubleday divide the boys into teams of 11 players each and that four "bases" were used. The commission, and Spaulding, were satisfied with the story and in 1907 gave the credit to Doubleday. In reality, Doubleday was never seen playing baseball, never talked about baseball, and never wrote about baseball in his personal diary. Apparently, if he was its inventor, even he didn't know it. In 1938, Alexander Cartwright was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame for his contributions in developing the game of baseball.

Fraternizing with the Enemy at Spangler's Spring

Myth: It's said that Spangler's Spring, located at the south base of the lower hill of Culp's Hill, was the sight of frequent fraternization between the soldiers of the North and South as they gathered to fill their canteens.

Fact: Any meeting between the opposing soldiers at the spring was purely accidental and, if anything, embarrassing. On the evening of July 2, Confederate General "Maryland" Steuart's brigade of Johnson's Division, Ewell's II Corps was located on the lower hill of Culp's Hill. Union Brigadier General A. S. Williams, First Division of the XII Corps was located on Cemetery Hill. When two brigades of Williams' Division returned to the lower hill, they found that Confederates now held the position that they'd fortified with breastworks earlier in the day. The Union boys set out to capture these Confederates and after a firefight that took several lives and yielded many prisoners, the Union claimed victory. They found that their newly acquired prisoners were carrying canteens and had been on a search for water. There was no camaraderie during this encounter. The events that followed were out of the ordinary, but certainly don't represent any camaraderie.

Captain Alexander Selfridge of the 46th Pennsylvania, recalled leading a few of his men to the spring to fill their canteens. Just before reaching the spring, Selfridge recognized Confederates at the spring filling their canteens. He quietly countermarched. Another Union soldier Horatio D. Chapman, 20th Connecticut recorded in his diary that after his regiments returned from Cemetery Ridge, he and a few others took their canteens to the spring that evening. There, they came upon other men filling their canteens, and although it was dark, he knew he was in line behind Confederates and he was certain the Confederates knew that they were in line ahead of Yankees. No words were uttered and the men quietly returned to their respective sides. Another First Brigade officer Lt. Rober Cruikshank of the 123rd NY also reported that he and his men came upon Rebels at the spring when they arrived to fill their canteens. Unfortunately, none of the Confederates encountered at the spring wrote about their experience that night. Regardless, there was no camaraderie, but instead several tense minutes when the men probably felt uncomfortable and embarrassed over their predicament.

Who Really Saved Little Round Top?

Myth: If it hadn't have been for the fierce determination of Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the 20th Maine regiment, Little Round Top would have been lost and the Union left flank would have caved under the dogged determination of the Alabamians and Texans.

Fact: Although Colonel Chamberlain's role in holding Little Round Top was significant, if it hadn't have been for the keen eye of Chief of Engineers Brigadier General Gouverneur K. Warren who noted the hill's vulnerability, and the fact it was "the key of the whole position," the hill could have been easily taken by the Confederates. Finding only a handful of Union signalmen on the hill (an excellent location to signal messages to any part of the battlefield), Warren quickly gathered information and assessed the situation with which he was faced. Not certain of the exact location of the Confederates in his front, he ordered Smith's battery to fire a single shot toward the trees on the ridge line where he supposed the enemy to be. He later described this revealing shot: "As the shot went whistling through the air the sound of it reached the enemy's troops and caused every one to look in the direction of it. This motion revealed to me the glistening of gun-barrels and bayonets of the enemy's line of battle, already formed and far outflanking the position of any of our troops; so that the line of his advance from his right to Little Round Top was unopposed. I have been particular in telling this, as the discovery was intensely thrilling to my feelings, and almost appalling." Noting that the Confederate line extended further south of the Emmitsburg Road than he previously thought, and realizing the damage that could be done to the Union left if the Confederates controlled Little Round Top, he immediately sent for troops to occupy the hill.

Horses Hooves Chronicle Generals’ Fate?

Myth: Many visitors to Gettysburg National Military Park still believe that a "code" exists for memorializing a general with an equestrian statue. The "code" supposedly states that if the general was killed in battle, his mount will have two hooves raised from the base of the monument. If he was wounded, one hoof will be raised. If he survived unscathed, all hooves will be firmly planted on the monument's base.

Fact: Purely coincidental. There is no such "code." Even so, this myth circulated for decades and seems to have been started by early Gettysburg National Military Park guides. According to Elbert Cox, "…the posture of the horse has no symbolic significance…The sculptor positions the horse, in each instance, to reflect the spirit of the rider, or to help tell a story…So the stance of the horse really does have symbolic significance but only in the sense that is helps interpret the personality or mood of the rider or helps tell a story." Furthermore, Henry Kirke Bush-Brown, sculptor of both the Reynolds and Meade equestrian statues was specifically asked about this point in 1915 by W. C. Storrick. Bush-Brown conveyed that there was no specific reason for the position of the hooves on either of the statues nor was it his intention to convey the rider's fate through positioning. In fact, while working on the Meade statue, Bush-Brown worked under the watchful eye of Meade's widow and son and a "code" was never mentioned. When the statue was unveiled on June 5, 1896, the Gettysburg Compiler reported that the statue reflected the exact moment when the general was "looking intently in the direction of Pickett's Charge, holding his field glasses in the right hand and his cap in the left, the bridle rein hanging gracefully."

Major General Henry Warner Slocum's equestrian statue was the work of sculptor Edward Clark Potter, a prominent sculptor during the 1890s. Potter won this appointment when he was selected for having the best design during a competition spearheaded by General Daniel E. Sickles. Sickles preferred a competition because it afforded a variety of designs from which to choose. The competition initially yielded 10 models from nine sculptors, but the commission rejected all of these. The competition was extended and brought another 18 models from 17 sculptors. The commission picked their favorite and it just happened to be the work of Potter. Throughout his working on the statue, Potter remained in touch with Slocum's family who often offered their opinion on the statues appearance and Potter took their thoughts to heart. There is no mention from him over the course of the project, or from the New York Monuments Commission that was overseeing the project, regarding the horses' hooves "code." If you're still skeptical about the nonexistence of a "code," visit General Longstreet's monument. Sources: Article, Stauffer, William H. "There’s No General Rule About Position of Feet on Equestrian Statues," July 1960. Civil War Times; Memorandum, Cox, Elbert, Regional Director. 1959 All Hands, Region One; Letter, W.C. Storrick to Frederick Tilbert, National Park Historian, March 28, 1939. Gettysburg National Military Park Files.

Gettysburg Address

Myth: Lincoln, having found a scrap envelope lying on the floor of his rail car while en route to Gettysburg on November 18, 1863, took those few quiet moments aboard the train to reflect what message he would deliver at the dedication of the National Cemetery.

Fact: The first draft of the Gettysburg Address was written in pen on Executive Mansion stationery, and there is enough evidence to support most of it was written in the White House. In mid-July 1863, David Wills, a prominent Gettysburg citizen, was tapped by Pennsylvania Governor Curtain to oversee the proper interment of the dead who were crudely buried in shallow graves immediately following the battle. On July 17, 1863, after corresponding with the governors of the states of the Union that fought at Gettysburg, Wills sent a dispatch to Curtain outlining a resolution. The resolution called for the purchase of 17 acres of land next to the Citizen's Cemetery to be allocated for the National Cemetery. There, the dead would be buried and memorialized. The plan was approved by Curtain. The dedication of the National Cemetery was originally scheduled for September 23, 1863; however, main guest speaker Edward Everett (former governor of Massachusetts) was unable to attend that day and advised the soonest he would be available was November 19. Planning for the event began. Also receiving an invitation to the dedication was President Lincoln; however, his attendance was initially not expected; most felt the president belonged in Washington during this critical time.

Even so, almost as an afterthought, Wills sent a second letter to the president on November 2, 1863 stating, "…I am authorized by the governors of the different states to invite you to be present and participate in these ceremonies, which will be very imposing and solemnly impressive. It is the desire that after [Hon. Edward Everett's] oration, you, as Chief Executive of the nation, formally set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks. It will be a source of great gratification to the many widows and orphans that have been made almost friendless by the great battle here, to have you here personally; and it will kindle anew in the breasts of the comrades of these brave dead, who are now in tented field or nobly meeting the foe in the front, a confidence that they who sleep in death on the battlefield are not forgotten by those highest in authority; and they will feel that, should their fate be the same, their remains will not be uncared for. We hope you will be able to be present to perform this last solemn act to the soldier-dead on this battlefield."

President Lincoln accepted the invitation. Lincoln's journey to Gettysburg on November 18th by rail car was uneventful. Accompanying him on the train ride was Secretary Seward and other White House staff members. For the duration, Lincoln was drawn into conversation by his traveling companions and had little time to reflect. Upon his arrival in Gettysburg, he became the guest of the Will's family and took a room on the second floor. There was much activity in the Will's home that evening and again, the president's time was consumed by introductions and conversation. The following morning, the day of the dedication, Lincoln, dressed in black and wearing a tall silk hat, mounted a horse and began the procession through the crowded streets to the cemetery. There, he took his seat in a rocking chair on the platform next to Secretary Steward. Another chair, reserved for Everett, remained empty until the guest speaker showed up ½ an hour late. The dedication commenced and a little over two hours later, Everett's speech concluded and Lincoln, speech in hand, took his place on the platform. He stood tall and remained silent for a moment, as though collecting his thoughts. He then lifted his head to face the crowd. There are conflicting reports at this point as to whether he read from the copy in his hand or whether he spoke from memory.

Regardless, Lincoln offered his immortal speech: "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation, so conceived and dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We are met to dedicate a portion of it as the final resting place of those who have given their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow, this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our power to add or to detract. The world will very little note nor long remember what we say here; but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated, here, to the unfinished work that they have thus far so nobly carried on. It is, rather, for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us; that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom, and that the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." -This version was recorded by Charles Hale, a newspaper man and part of the committee overseeing the dedication. 

Although no one, save Lincoln, knows exactly when the speech was put on paper for the first time, there are several indicators we can use to estimate its creation/completion. There is ample reason to believe that Lincoln's speech was not a last minute thought but was instead given much consideration. On November 14th, journalist Noah Brooks accompanied Lincoln to a photographic studio in Washington where Lincoln was scheduled to have his portrait taken. As they were preparing to leave together, the president fetched a copy of Everett's prepared speech and commented to Brooks, "It was very kind in Mr. Everett to send me this. I suppose he was afraid I should say something that he wanted to say. He needn't have been alarmed. My speech isn't long." That tells us that Lincoln was already formulating his words. Others close to the president (Colonel Ward H. Lamon, a presidential confidante; John F Defres, a Public Printer; James Speed, a Lincoln cabinet member; and Senator Cameron of Pennsylvania) attested to the fact the first draft of the address was written in part-if not in whole-prior to his departure to Gettysburg. Others assert that the address was written en route to Gettysburg; however, those traveling with the president recognized that his time was completely monopolized by his traveling companions. That said, on the evening of the 18th in the Wills home, Lincoln did spend some time in his room editing the address and even sent for Seward to join him so they could review some of his phrases.

He continued editing and finalizing his thoughts early the next morning as well, as witnessed by J.A. Rebert of Company B, 21st PA Volunteer Cavalry. Rebert, an orderly to the president, remembered, "On the morning of the 19th I was detailed as orderly to President Lincoln, who was a guest of Judge Wills. About 9 a.m., I was sent to the room directly…occupied by the President at that time. He requested me to wait a few minutes until he finished his writing, which I found him engaged in on entering the room. He had several sheets of note paper in front of him written in pencil…After finishing them he folded them all together and placed them in his pocket."

In fact, Lincoln may have finished the address while at the Wills home since the original draft of the address is made up of two sheets: the first written in ink (with no blotting or erasure) on Executive Mansion stationery and ends with an incomplete sentence and the last three words crossed out in pencil. The second page, written in pencil, picks up where the first page left off. The second page was a bluish-gray foolscap paper with large-size, wide lines; the president often used this type of paper for long or formal documents. After Lincoln returned to Washington, he realized that his oral address deviated from what he had written and he set out to recreate the address from memory, based on the words he'd spoken at Gettysburg. This copy is known as the Hay Manuscript. But after finding slight deviations when comparing the draft he'd made from memory with the text recorded by the Associated Press, he made yet another copy he called the "autograph copy." When the dust finally settled, there were five copies of the Gettysburg Address: a facsimile of the original manuscript that Lincoln held in his hand while delivering the address; the speech as reported by the Massachusetts Commissioners who were in attendance; the manuscript made by Lincoln (from memory) for Mr. Hay upon his return to Washington; an autograph copy made by Lincoln for the Baltimore Fair; and a copy that the Associated Press reported in the newspaper on November 20, 1864.

Source: Carmichael, Orton H. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address 1917.

This item was created by a contributor to eHistory prior to its affiliation with The Ohio State University. As such, it has not been reviewed for accuracy by the University and does not necessarily adhere to the University's scholarly standards.