25 June 2006 by Published in: Battlefield preservation 12 comments

As a student of cavalry operations, I pride myself on visiting and learning about obscure and out of the way cavalry battlefields. I’ve been to some extremely obscure places in my day.

One of my very favorite Civil War cavalry battlefields has always been the little gem of a cavalry battlefield at Hunterstown, about six miles north of Gettysburg. On July 2, 1863, Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick’s division, marching for Gettysburg, ran into the rear guard of Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton’s Confederate cavalry brigade at Hunterstown, and a nasty little fight evolved from this meeting engagement. Brig. Gen. George Custer led an impetuous charge, and was nearly killed and then captured when his horse was shot out from under him and then fell on him, pinning him. Only a heroic gallop by his orderly saved him from capture.

The Hunterstown battlefield was almost completely pristine until a huge and horrifically ugly power station was built on a portion of it about five years ago. As if that wasn’t bad enough, on my most recent visit to Gettysburg, I learned that the entire battlefield–a small but beautiful gem–is in dire danger of being turned into nasty little cheesebox houses. From today’s issue of the Hanover Evening Sun:

History lost forever

By MARC CHARISSE

Evening Sun Editor

The big white barn stood as silent sentinel for more than 140 years.

But time had taken its toll. Only the foolishly brave would have followed in the footsteps of Gen. Custer’s troopers, out across the rotting timbers to the bales of hay still stacked near the second-story windows where the Michigan men waited to ambush the Rebel horsemen.

The massive Reliant Energy generating station looms in background, but it was still easy enough, in the middle of these pristine farm fields, to imagine it was July 2, 1863. Surrounded by open space and pastoral silence, it was easy to hear the boom of cannons and the rattle of carbines.

It was here that George Custer, a general for just three days, was nearly killed and showed his true colors as a commander. Here, in a particularly vicious clash along the Hunterstown Road, his Michigan cavalrymen helped decide the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg.

And then it was gone.

Without warning, the historic Felty barn was torn down this month, just a few weeks before a battlefield tour that last year drew about 300 people to this little-known crossroads.

“That just takes the wind out of you,” said National Park Service ranger-historian Troy Harman, who has been studying the battle and working with preservationists to save at least some portion of the field. “I feel like a prize fighter who’s been staggered.”

The Felty barn may seem a minor casualty in the battle for historic preservation. Within a decade, most of the Hunterstown battlefield will disappear under a 2,000-home development approved for the area.

But there is still hope some portion of the field can be saved, and the old barn was the centerpiece of the battle, a symbol of the rearguard action fought by preservationists to save Hunterstown before it is too late.

Saving the farm

Posted near the old barn is a sign that reads: “Dan and Leo Keller, Adams County Conservation District, Farmer of the Year 1994.”

But much of the farm, owned by J. Felty during the Civil War, will become part of developer Rick Klein’s Gettysburg Commons.

Leo Keller doesn’t want to comment on the demise of his historic barn. The building was already falling down, he says, and he just finished the job.

Preservationists say he could have gotten an easement, grants to shore up the falling structure.

But Keller says while lots of folks made noise about saving the barn, no one ever actually came by with an offer to fix it up for him.

The preservationists say they tried. The trouble, they say, is that too many longtime locals take their historic heritage for granted. It’s a battle waged across central Pennsylvania between the reality of local agricultural economics and dreams of a national shrine to America’s collective past. So it’s no surprise that much of their support comes from Civil War and historical groups across the country.

Jackie Volkhen, of Grand Rapids, Mich., heard about the barn’s demise in an e-mail from Roger and Laurie Harding, newcomers to Hunterstown who bought the historic Tate farm four years ago and have since started a local preservation group.

Volkhen and her husband, John, are re-enactors who come to Gettysburg at least a couple of time a year and hope someday to move there.

“I was just horrified,” she says. “How much history is in that barn that’s gone now.”

She pauses before adding, “I suppose when you live in a place, you grew up there, you think, ‘Ah, that’s not a big deal.”

It wasn’t until a few years ago that the Volkhens learned of the role their local Michigan heroes played at Hunterstown from a fellow re-enactor. These days, a Hunterstown visit on the anniversary of the battle is the highlight of their annual pilgrimages.

Volkhen says she gets goose bumps when she walks the battlefield. “I get a profound sadness, that someone might have died where I’m standing. It might have been one of our Michigan boys,” she says. “I’m sad that the story is so little known.”

If more people understood what happened at Hunterstown, she says, maybe the battlefield could be saved.

Earning his spurs

Like most battles, exactly what happened at Hunterstown is surrounded with controversy.

This much is certain: Twenty-three year old George Armstrong Custer led a seemingly suicidal charge of a few dozen men down the Hunterstown Road against an enemy who was behind cover and outnumbered him.

Hemmed in by the fences on either side of the road, the troopers could only charge four abreast, a perfect target for the Rebels lined up at the Gilbert farm on the ridge to the south.

Dressed, as one of his men said, like a “circus rider gone mad,” and flashing his saber made of Toledo steel. The Boy General had his horse shot from under him and narrowly escaped death or capture when one of his men hoisted him onto his own horse as the Union troopers scurried back to the Felty farm less than a mile away.

Some historians see at Hunterstown the reckless bravery that would eventually get Custer killed at the Little Big Horn.

But ranger-historian Harman sees the battle a little differently. It was here that Custer really earned his general’s spurs.

It was the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg and the Union forces were worried about an attack on the right flank at Culp’s Hill. The cavalry had been ordered to scout the area north of the hill in search on Confederate troops.

Rebel cavalry commanded by Gen. Wade Hampton had been spotted at Hunterstown, moving south, and it was Custer’s job to find out what lay behind them.

Harman says Custer planned a careful trap.

He hid men in the barn and in the fields across the road. Behind the barn, out of sight of the Rebels, Union artillery unlimbered and got ready for the bloody work ahead.

Custer understood the impetuosity of cavalrymen; Harman says he knew if he attacked, the Rebel horsemen wouldn’t be able to resist the challenge and would chase him back down the Hunterstown Road into an ambush.

He was right.

Confederate private Wiley C. Howard remembered what happened next:

“Our command had a thrilling experience and while charging a body of cavalry down a lane leading by a barn, ran into an abuscade of men posted in the barn who dealt death and destruction upon us. Within five minutes some four or five officers were killed or wounded and about fifteen men were slain or wounded.”

Casualties were relatively light – 22 Union cavalrymen, five officers and an unknown number of enlisted men on the Confederate side killed, wounded or missing.

But Harman says the battle was important because it kept the attention of both sides focused on the northern end of the battlefield when the crucial struggle was to the south, at Little Round Top and the Peach Orchard.

The cavalry action further delayed and weakened Confederate attacks on Culp’s Hill. It also delayed the redeployment of Union cavalry to the south, leaving the Union left flank unprotected on July 2.

Harman likes to call Hunterstown, four miles north of Gettysburg, the “north cavalry field,” following the pattern of the east and south cavalry fields. He sees the seemingly separate cavalry actions from Hanover to Fairfield as unified elements, part of the big picture of the Battle of Gettysburg.

“In all of these actions, Union cavalry buffered key Union positions in four directions of the compass,” he wrote in a recent article. “Each site is equally essential to accurately portraying Gettysburg as the most famous battle for human freedom in American History.”

Eyeing opportunity

Gettysburg developer Rick Klein sees economic opportunity in the fields around Hunterstown – not just for himself but for Adams County schools and communities.

He sees opportunity for history, too.

Called Gettysburg Commons for now, the development will market itself to “active adults” without kids who will swell the tax base without crowding the schools.

And the development will be marketed with an eye on history. Streets will have Civil War names and the 25,000-30,000-foot clubhouse will house a display on the battle of Hunterstown.

“The area’s going to develop. You can’t just shut the doors and block the highways,” Klein says. “But this is very positive growth.”

Homes will be priced from the low 3’s, Klein says, and will offer working couples royal amenities like the clubhouse and outdoor ballroom. Groundbreaking on the first phase, near Routes 15 and 394, is anticipated for later this year, but it will be at least four or five years before the Hunterstown battle area is developed, he said.

Klein has already agreed to extra screening in certain critical areas and to install a wayside exhibit at the Confederate position near the Gilbert farm. Still, he would only give the state Historical and Museum Commission approved plan a “C or a D.” Klein says he’s hoping for an A in preserving the battlefield, which lies outside the National Park Boundary.

Harman – speaking for preservationists and not the National Park Service – says he hopes Klein will make three additional concessions critical to the integrity of the battlefield.

Preservationists hope development will stop short of the artillery positions on the Tate-Felty ridge. A couple of hundred feet away, at the road, they’d like to see a turnout and interpretive marker at the center of the Union line.

Finally, moving the buffer of trees from 50 to 150 feet away on the east side of the Hunterstown Road would preserve the frontage of the Michigan cavalrymen and save the central part of the battlefield.

Klein says he’s willing to consider the changes, if he and his engineers are convinced of their feasibility and importance.

He’s also willing to talk about a monument to Custer, for which the Michigan re-enactors are already raising funds.

“What they’re going to get at the end of the day,” he promises, “is going to better than they ever expected.”

Preservationist Harding says she is appreciative and hopeful, noting Klein’s company contacted the Hardings about a monument to Custer and the trooper who saved his life on the Hunterstown battlefield.

“We hope he takes into consideration that is a battlefield and people did die there,” she says. “I have to trust his word and hope he follows through.”

This is some of the very worst news I’ve heard in a long time. This gorgeous little pristine battlefield is about to be lost forever, which makes me terribly sad. All lost for a few bucks. How very depressing indeed that years of preservation efforts, led by Dean Shultz, failed so miserably here (although it’s not for trying by Dean; he did all he could). While I pretty vigorously disagree with most of Troy Harman’s interpretation of the fight, I do give him credit for focusing attention on this little gem of a battlefield (he calls it North Cavalry Field, a name I think is not only very appropriate, but also very fitting), and I had hoped that his efforts might help to save the field. Sadly, I was wrong. Even if the developer does everything that he’s been asked to do, and a completely needless monument to Custer is erected, the battlefield still will have forever lost its integrity, and that is horrible.

Scridb filter

Comments

  1. John D. Mackintosh
    Mon 26th Jun 2006 at 8:55 am

    Very sad, indeed, I am glad I saw the Hunterstown field before its coming demise. Do they really think that giving the streets “Civil War names” in some way atones for the loss of the battlefield? Those in Gettysburg next week for the battle anniversary will not welcome this news.

  2. Mon 26th Jun 2006 at 9:07 am

    John,

    Apparently, they do. Hard to believe, but some actually have the gall to think that’s good enough.

    It’s tragic.

    Eric

  3. Brian S.
    Mon 26th Jun 2006 at 9:22 am

    This is rough news for me too. The tour last year with Troy was one of the best tours I’ve been on. I have half a roll of film of that ridge line and barn. The unobstructed view from the ridge was fantastic. The barn looked like it had seen better days but unless the foundation was weak it did not look like it was about to collapse to me. That sounds fishy to me. It reminds me of a story an old hunter told me once. He was speaking about a PA law concerning wetlands. If someone wanted to develop a piece of land and there were wetlands on it, those wetlands were protected, or so he told me. And the way some people would get around that would be, over time, to back a dump truck up to the edge of the wetlands and dump a load of dirt into it, gradually filling it in until, like magic, there would be no wetlands left. I don’t know how true that story is, if at all, but it sounds like the same thing happened with that barn. It must have been in the way of the developers plans or something because that barn looked pretty solid to me. And your right about the battlefield, it was untouched. The developer is going to sell houses in the low 3’s? Is that $300,000? Do you know if property values are that high around there? I certainly don’t think they are. Excuse the length of this response but this hits a nerve with me. I’m not against all development, but I’m an outdoorsman. I’m all about hiking and tramping around in the woods and it pains me to see out of control development. People hate this kind of development but many continue to move into it.

  4. Lanny
    Mon 26th Jun 2006 at 9:54 am

    Dear Eric,
    I am $addened by your comment$ regarding the $elling and de$truction of America’$ Holy Ground. And for what rea$on? Why would good people de$troy our heritage for the $ake of $ome chee$ebox home$?
    What high ideal$ are motivating the$e people?
    Lanny

  5. Mon 26th Jun 2006 at 10:54 am

    Lanny,

    $adly, you’re right on the $$$ with your comment$.

    Eric

  6. Mon 26th Jun 2006 at 10:56 am

    Brian,

    While I vigorously disagree with why Troy thinks that the Union troops were operating in that area, I definitely appreciate his zeal for the topic. Anything that helps to raise the awareness of this little gem of a battlefield is a good thing in my book, and to that end, I wholeheartedly endorse his efforts (even though I disagree with significant portions of his interpretation).

    And you are, of course, right. The world has plenty of cheesebox houses. I see no reason to lose a battlefield to them.

    Eric

  7. Randy Sauls
    Mon 26th Jun 2006 at 11:13 am

    Eric:

    What, Cannon Ball Court? Corduroy Road? How touching. What’s next, Double Amputee Avenue? That ought to really appeal to the “active adults” willing to pay in the “low 3’s” for a slice of history. Well, at least it’s being done for the “schools and communities.” That makes it OK I guess. How very sad.

    Randy

  8. Chuck
    Mon 26th Jun 2006 at 11:25 am

    Yes it’s depressing…..but…..It’s not gone yet! As stated in the article, “it will take five or six years for the development to reach the battle area”. That’s 5 or 6 years to work out something.
    Pressure needs to be kept on the developer by the people who live there and those who can help (Friends, CWPT, or a new group of Hunterstown folks).
    Can the Battlefield still be purchased from the developer? Even if no at this time….if the housing market declines, he may sell later.
    If he refuses to consider a sale, can the people in Hunterstown get a preservation plan in writing from the developer instead of just newspaper talk?
    What about the County….where do they stand on rezoning? Can they force proffers?
    Brandy Station faced the same ‘inevitable growth’, but survived because of the dedication of local folks bolstered by others.
    It is not too late until the land is actually developed……

  9. Mon 26th Jun 2006 at 11:37 am

    Chuck,

    You are, of course, correct, and maybe this unwelcome news will finally stir enough of a response to do some good.

    Eric

  10. Tue 27th Jun 2006 at 11:15 am

    Let’s hope. In my opinion, what we need is for the government to step in and save it, and tear down that damn electric plant – this from a die-hard conservative!

    Seriously, we can only hope to God that somehow it gets saved. I too, just treasure the thought of parking on Mortal Wound Lane, walking along Saber To The Scalp Avenue, and being able to see…

    Nothing.

    J.D.

  11. Goldie L. (Felty) Miller
    Tue 19th Dec 2006 at 8:52 pm

    My Felty ancestors are from Virginia. Would you know how I could find out
    names of the Felty’s who owned the white barn?

    I am certainly interested in preservation of this battlefield as I’m sure it
    has a connection to my family.

  12. Tom Fedak
    Tue 21st Aug 2007 at 11:26 am

    The real traitors to their own history are the land owners who sold their land to this developer knowing what would happen, if this is the case. Our government, which has wasted millions on projects that have never amounted to anything should take action. They have the power to do so. It isn’t too late to keep the landscape preserved until the the land actually has the structures built on it. Therefore, one must not give up now. This is really scary. This is probably happening because the fight was an off the beaten path indecisive action and it’s thought of as not important to preserve. No battle is too minor. Do you think the soldiers who were shot and in pain or those that died thought it was a forgettable fight? Is the rear slope of Little Round top next? This should be considered an emergency situation.
    Eric, can you please update me on the situation here?
    -Tom
    Clayton, NJ

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