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Excellent new Gettysburg book from York Countian

York County, Pennsylvania, has a rich and storied history dating to colonial times. It is also abundantly blessed with a cadre of historical authors and writers who collectively have captured much of the area’s stories of all genre and periods. Add Ron Kirkwood to that distinguished list. The York County resident, a retired journalist and professional newsman, has penned an outstanding new study of the George Spangler farm near Gettysburg. Published this summer by Savas Beatie, the book is the first full-length account of the history of the farm and the important role it served as the site of Union temporary field hospitals after the July 1863 battle of Gettysburg. The book is gaining widespread notice for its unique topic and its excellent prose, and is a likely candidate come the award season for Civil War books published this year. Congratulations indeed are in order to Ron and to his publishing team at Savas Beatie, LLC, which has become the premier contemporary publisher of fine Civil War titles.

I had the privilege of cyber-interviewing Ron about his background, the significance of the George Spangler farm, visitation protocols, and his new book.

Here is that discussion:

Q – Ron, congratulations on the new book! Could you please tell us how you first became interested in the Civil War?

A – My wife, Barb, and I grew up and lived in Michigan all of our lives, then we moved to York County in 1984 when I became sports editor of the Daily Record. We visited Gettysburg numerous times because it was so close to York as part of our explorations of our new home area, which prompted me to read several books on the battle and the Civil War and my interest kept growing. The magnitude of the battle and battlefield and stories kept drawing me in deeper, and I felt fortunate that Gettysburg was in the next county. The sense of wonder and awe that I feel on that battlefield is understandable, but I’m still trying to figure out the calm and peace that I feel where so many horrible things happened. I began volunteering for the Gettysburg Foundation in 2013 because I wanted to be involved in Gettysburg in some small way, and that happened to be the first year that the Foundation opened the farm to the public and they needed volunteers. I gave it a shot and I’m still there. By the way, I worked in Harrisburg, Baltimore and at USA TODAY after leaving the Daily Record, but we stayed in York County the entire time.

Q – Where is the George Spangler farm located and what can you tell us about the Spangler family?

A – The farm is located behind and right in the middle of the Army of the Potomac line with a short distance to both the right flank on Culp’s Hill and the left flank on Big Round Top. That and the roads through the farm that connect the Taneytown Road and Baltimore Pike and the fact that the farm was so large made it crucially important militarily as a staging area for the Union army.

It was a lot more than just a hospital. George and Elizabeth Spangler bought 80 acres in 1848, but the farm had grown to 166 acres by 1863 because they bought neighboring land whenever it became available. There was a log cabin and log cabin barn on the property when they purchased it, so they tore those down and built the new house, summer kitchen, smokehouse, Pennsylvania bank barn and other buildings. They had four children, all of whom were living at home at the time of the battle. Harriet, age 21; Sabina, 19; Daniel, 17; and Beniah, 14. All six of them stayed together in one upstairs bedroom of their home during the time that their farm was occupied for the XI Corps hospital. A neighbor, Jacob Hummelbaugh, also stayed with them in the bedroom during the battle because his farm on the Taneytown Road was under fire and also in use as a hospital. The Spanglers had to step over wounded and dying men and blood and other body fluids to get out of their house. Harriet and Sabina married local farmers and remained in the area. Daniel moved to Iowa and Kansas and worked as a carpenter. Beniah stayed in the area and farmed and did other work. George was a respected community leader who served on several church, school and community boards. He was president of the Cumberland Township School Board when he donated land for Granite Schoolhouse to be built on his property. He was on the Evergreen Cemetery board when it voted in the 1860s not to allow Confederates to be buried there.

Q – During the battle of Gettysburg, the military took possession of the farm, like so many others in the area, as a temporary field hospital. Tell us about why this farm became so prominent as a collection site and treatment center for the Eleventh Corps? How many injured men were brought there, in your estimation?

A – Most hospitals for the Battle of Gettysburg were division hospitals, with each corps having three separate division hospitals. The XI Corps, though, didn’t use the division hospital setup at Gettysburg. Instead, it combined all three of its divisions into one corps hospital on George and Elizabeth Spangler’s farm. This made for a really big hospital. Both the Sanitary and Christian commissions estimated that there were about 1,900 wounded in the XI Corps hospital on the peak days of July 4-5. Of those 1,900, maybe 50 to 100 were Confederates. There also were wounded from a couple of dozen non-XI Corps regiments at Gettysburg because the Spangler farm was so close to the Army of the Potomac line and it was convenient to get to. This farm was chosen for this big hospital because of its size, crops, livestock, proximity, abundance of buildings, good water, good roads to get there and lots of wood for the hospital, for cooking and for the cemetery on the premises. The XI Corps hospital at Spangler gets all of the attention, but there actually were two hospitals on the Spanglers’ land. The First Division of the Second Corps used the Granite Schoolhouse for its hospital July 2-3 until dangerous Confederate overshots made them relocate farther behind the line. This, too, was a big, important hospital. You never hear this, but this is where most of the Army of the Potomac wounded from the Wheatfield were taken. Col. Edward E. Cross died at Granite Schoolhouse. He has a road named for him at the Wheatfield. Between the two hospitals, the Spanglers probably hosted 2,500 to 3,000 wounded men.

Q – Your book is chock full of interesting stories of some of the soldiers who received medical attention at the Spangler farm. Could you please relate a couple of your favorite stories?

A – Nurse Rebecca Lane Pennypacker Price from Phoenixville, Pa., rode in a railroad cattle car from Baltimore to Gettysburg. She took donations from Phoenixville with her and went to work as a volunteer nurse at the XI Corps hospital soon after the end of the battle and stayed for weeks. She held an umbrella over a soldier who was being carried to the barn for an amputation to protect him from the sun. She sang “Rock of Ages” to a soldier as he died with his parents beside her. Another soldier carried her photo for 43 years in an attempt to find her and thank her for helping to save his life. They eventually reunited. Nurse Price said she often lay in her tent at night weeping instead of sleeping. One wounded soldier left Spangler and arrived home in Ohio to find his obituary in the newspaper. Then he walked in on his funeral. Many desperate family members traveled great distances and arrived at the hospital only to be told that their son or husband had died a day or a few days earlier.

Q – How long was the farm in use as a hospital and what happened to the patients over time? When was the farm returned to the Spanglers? What happened to the men who perished on the site?

A – The Spanglers got their farm back on Aug. 7, 1863, after it had been a hospital for five weeks and two days. It probably took them years to fix and clean up everything and rebuild their lives. Patients who could be moved began to be shipped out to other hospitals in bigger cities such as Baltimore and Philadelphia within a couple of days after the battle. A few from Spangler went to York and Harrisburg. Some Union wounded men went home, some rejoined their regiments, some went to Camp Letterman in Gettysburg when it opened later in July. Some Confederate wounded also were transferred from Spangler to Camp Letterman. Other Confederates were transferred to prison hospitals or prisons. Some were exchanged and some took the Oath of Allegiance to the United States. The men who died at Spangler were buried in the Spanglers’ peach and apple orchards. The wood and trees on the Spanglers’ property were used to make coffins. The Union dead at Spangler were exhumed in late 1863 or early 1864 and reburied in Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg. The Confederate dead at Spangler remained there until the early 1870s, when they were exhumed and reburied in the South.  

Q – You are a volunteer at the Spangler farm. Please talk about how the Gettysburg Foundation came to acquire the property and some of the preservation efforts to date.

A – The Gettysburg Foundation purchased the 80 acres that was left of the farm in 2008. It was in poor condition and there was a real danger that the barn would collapse in a strong wind. Plus, the floor of the barn was covered by three feet of manure, which not only was disgusting but it was eating away at the vertical beams. By 2013 the Foundation had the farm in good enough condition to open it to the public and share its stories. The house is being renovated now into an education center, which will complete the rebuilding of the property except for a possible trail from the Visitor Center. The smokehouse, summer kitchen and barn have been restored to historic detail and look like they did in 1863. In this project, the Foundation even used horse hair to hold the mortar in the buildings together, just like was done back in the day.

Q – How can I and my readers visit the George Spangler Farm today? Is it open to the public, and, if so, how does one go about getting there?

A – The farm is open to the public from 10 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in the summer. It also will be open this year on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday July 1-2-3 on the anniversary of the battle. Its last day is Aug. 11. Visitors get tickets (free for Gettysburg Foundation members or if requested) at the Visitor Center and ride a bus to the farm. There always are living historians there and guides and programs on the Spanglers and the medicine that was practiced in the XI Corps hospital. It’s highly educational, and there’s a lot of meaning in seeing the actual places and actual 1863 wood where all of those wounded men were crammed so closely together and suffered and died. 

Q – Your new book is outstanding. How did it come about; what made you decide to write it; and where can people obtain copies, either locally here in York County, PA, or nationally?

A – Thanks a lot, Scott! That means a lot coming from you. After a few years volunteering at Spangler, I just wanted to know more so I decided to look into the possibility of doing a book. Some research had already been done by some highly talented historians, but much of that was buried in notebooks in offices. But that research was crucial and gave me a great boost. I will always be grateful for it. Then I went all over the East Coast, spending the most time at the Archives in D.C., the Army War College in Carlisle, Cornell University, Adams County Historical Society and the National Park Service library in Gettysburg. The York County History Center also was helpful because many in the Spangler family settled here in the 1700s after leaving Europe. I even found useful information in Kansas. Three years after starting research, here we are. As far as I know, here is where it can be purchased: In Gettysburg at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum & Visitor Center, Gettysburg Heritage Center, Gettysburg Witnesses 2 History, Rupp House and Gallery 30. Elsewhere at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Civil War and More in Mechanicsburg and the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle. Online at Amazon, Barnes & Nobles, Books A Million and publisher Savas Beatie’s website. Also available in digital format. Audio version to come.

Q – Ron, thanks for your time today. Are there any other insights you would like to share about the Spangler Farm or your involvement with its interpretation and presentation to visitors?

A – One of the things I am most happy about with the book is the listing of names of 1,400 wounded men at Spangler, including their wound and treatment. Now most descendants can know for sure if their ancestor was there. Also, I think George and Elizabeth’s farm was the most important farm in the Battle of Gettysburg. Many other farms saw dramatically more battle action than the Spangler farm and were virtually destroyed by it, but no farm set up the Army of the Potomac victory better than Spangler did. I was thinking when I started research that this would be a small book or booklet, but then I kept finding more and more things tying Spangler to the battle and it required 408 pages to tell this story. Spangler was connected to so much. Readers might be surprised by what all happened there and that there was still a Gettysburg story today after all these years that was unreported.

Q – Thanks, Ron, and best wishes for success with the new book!

Ronald D. Kirkwood, “Too Much for Human Endurance” The George Spangler Farm Hospitals and the Battle of Gettysburg (Savas Beatie, 2019), 384 pages, hardback, illustrated with maps, indexed and annotated. ISBN 978-1611214512.

2 comments on “Excellent new Gettysburg book from York Countian

  1. This is wonderful to see, Scott. Thanks for taking the time and trouble to review Ron. Great interview and so pleased you liked the book enough to do so.


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