18 February 2007 by Published in: General musings 7 comments

I spent three years of my life in the lovely, historic town of Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Although it’s been nearly 24 years since I left there, I still love the place. I still visit every opportunity that I get.

My alma mater, Dickinson College, was founded in 1773 by Dr.Benjamin Rush, the famous Philadelphia physician and patriot (Dr. Rush signed the Declaration of Independence). The main building on campus, Old West, was burned by the British during the War of 1812. The college was visited by the Confederates in the days just before the Battle of Gettysburg, and was shelled by Jeb Stuart’s horse artillery on the night of July 1, 1863. We boast a chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States and a President of the United States (albeit probably the worst of both–Taney and Buchanan) among our alumni. I am a member of the College’s Class of 1983, meaning that I graduated as part of the 210th graduating class (old friend and mentor Brian Pohanka was a member of the Class of 1979). Matt Pinsker, who, along with fellow blogger Brian Dirck, is one of the finest of the current generation of Lincoln scholars, and the holder of the Brian C. Pohanka Chair of Civil War History, teaches at Dickinson. We’re lucky to have him.

Next to the college’s campus is the Dickinson School of Law. Until just a few years ago, the School of Law was completely independent–it is not affiliated with the College in any fashion. However, during the 1990’s, Penn State University absorbed it, as Penn State did not have a law school of its own and craved one. By absorbing the School of Law, Penn State was able to acquire a well-respected and long-established law school, complete with its own facilities (although there has been some talk about Penn State moving it out of Carlisle and up to its main campus in State College, which would REALLY be a tragedy).

The town also has a great deal of history. It was founded in the 1750’s as a supply post for the British army. It played an important role during the French and Indian War, and is the home of the Carlisle Barracks, which is the site of the United States Army War College and the U. S. Army Military History Institute. The Barracks were an important training depot where cavalry recruits learned their trade. Fitz Lee’s troopers set the place ablaze on the night of July 1, 1863. The Barracks also housed the Carlisle Indian School, famed for Jim Thorpe, considered the world’s greatest athlete of his era.

Molly Pitcher, of Battle of Monmouth fame, is buried in the town cemetery. The town also features an excellent museum and historical society dedicated to the county’s rich historic legacy.

There were several stops on the Underground Railroad in Carlisle–my fraternity used to use one of those sites to initiate our pledges. Carlisle is the county seat of Cumberland County. The town is filled with beautiful, historic structures such as you would expect from a town founded in the mid-eighteenth century. The handsome old courthouse on the town square still proudly shows damage from one of James Breathed’s guns when the Confederate horse artillery shelled the town that awful night in July 1863.

There are a number of Pennsylvania historical markers around the town, including several dedicated to the Gettysburg Campaign, and there is also a very handsome monument to Cumberland County’s contributions to the Union victory in the Civil War on the town square, right next to the old courthouse.

Although Carlisle is a small town of only 25,000 or so, it’s one of my very favorite places, and a place I never miss visiting when I’m in the area. It’s one of those wonderful spots where you can literally feel the history as you walk through the town. In particular, it has a rich Civil War legacy, and I commend it to you. It’s well worth a visit.

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  1. Art Bergeron
    Mon 19th Feb 2007 at 10:03 am

    I’ll second your comments. As a person born and raised in the Deep South, I never expected to find myself living and working north of Mason & Dixon’s Line and enjoying doing both. My wife and I live in Shippensburg, not far southwest of Carlisle, and I work at USAMHI. She grew up in Las Vegas, so the transition may have been a bit more difficult for her than for me. But we have come to love the area and undoubtedly will retire here. After all, the Cumberland Valley is just an extension of the Shenandoah. We haven’t become Gettysburg fanatics yet, though we enjoy visiting that battlefield. Sharpsburg is actually our favorite.

  2. Randy Sauls
    Mon 19th Feb 2007 at 10:16 am


    I too second your comments regarding Carlisle. My visits there have been to the USAMHI. We drive up through the mountains from Gettysburg when we are in the area. I was struck on my first visit by the wonderful architecture to be found in Carlisle. Pretty and historic town. My wife’s great grandfather was from the D.C. area and served as chaplain of the 12th Virginia. Family history has always maintained that he attended Dickinson College before the war. Small world.


  3. Mon 19th Feb 2007 at 11:10 am


    I spent two weeks there in September and also really like the place. From Harrisburg and the Civil War Museum to Gettysburg National Park was some really pretty country.

    I will go back in the spring to finish up research at Carlisle and I am looking forward to it.


  4. Mon 19th Feb 2007 at 11:55 am


    It’s surprising how many cavalrymen were Dickinson alums. Perhaps that has something to do with my interest.


    Brig. Gen. Richard L. T. Beale
    Capt. George Baylor, 12th Va. Cavalry
    Thomas Nelson Conrad, chaplain and Confederate spy, 4th Virginia Cavalry


    Col. George Fisher, 1st Delaware Cavalry
    Bvt. Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Jordan, 9th Pennsylvania Cavalry

    Those are the ones I have identified to date. It’s entirely possible that there are more.

    And, as an honorable mention, Col. Richard H. Rush, West Point 1846, the first commander and namesake of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, also known as Rush’s Lancers, was a grandson of the College’s founder, Dr. Benjamin Rush. I can tell you for certain that that connection was one of the things that originally captured my interest in the Lancers.


  5. Sasha Mitchell
    Wed 21st Feb 2007 at 6:45 pm

    I am looking for info on an old house I once lived in in Carlisle. I heard it was once part of the Underground Railroad, and I also heard at some point it was used to house a fraternity at Dickinson College. It has since been torn down. It was called Cottage Hill, or Seven Gables. Do you know of this house? Do you know if it was part of the underground railroad? I would appreciate any info you are able to share about it. Thanks.

  6. Wed 21st Feb 2007 at 8:18 pm


    I believe you are describing the house where we used to initiate our pledges. I’ve only been there three times, and once–when I was a pledge–we were blindfolded until we were down the hole. If I remember correctly–and the last time I was there was in January 1983–it was on either Louther or North Streets near the intersection with North Orange Street. I have absolutely no idea whatsoever whether the place is still there. Like I said, it’s been 24 years since the last time that I saw the place.

    I hope that helps.


  7. Fri 23rd Feb 2007 at 8:47 am

    I did not know that the British in the War of 1812 got that far west.

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