Few things are more satisfying to historians having a long-standing question answered, especially when it’s about something like Gettysburg. There prob- ably isn’t a Civil War buff alive who doesn’t have unanswered questions than about that battle. Some will have to remain that way—we’ll never really know what would have happened if Ewell had moved aggressively against Culp’s Hill on July 1 or if Pickett’s Charge had been successful. But as I was recently reminded, other key Gettysburg questions can be answered. This November a rare opportunity provided by the Adams County Historical Society (ACHS) will allow you to discover that for yourself.
I, like many others, have been wondering what Gettysburg looks like from the cupola for a long time. The cupola, of course, is the white gazebo that sits atop what might be the most famous structure of the Civil War—Schmucker Hall, which is generally thought of as the main building of the Lutheran Theological Seminary. It was from this vantage point on July 1 that Brig. Gen. John Buford surveyed the choice battleground that Gettysburg offered as he awaited the approach of Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s Confederate division and its collision with his dismounted troopers on Herr’s Ridge, and then McPherson’s Ridge. And it was from the cupola that Buford hailed the timely arrival of Maj. Gen. John Reynolds, commander of the left wing of the Army of the Potomac—a scene made all the more famous by its appearance in Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels, and then in the movie Gettysburg.
Buford’s chief signal officer, Lieutenant Aaron Jerome, witnessed the generals’ famous exchange and many other events of the battle’s first day. His poignant 1865 letter to another soldier who gained fame at Gettysburg, Winfield Scott Hancock, describes some of what he saw that day:
A squadron of the “1st Calvary Division” entered Gettysburg driving the few pickets of the enemy before them. The General [Buford] and Staff took quarters in a hotel near the Seminary. As signal officer, I was sent back to lookout for a prominent position and watch the movements of the enemy. As early as seven A.M. I reported their advance, and took my station in the steeple of the “Theological Seminary.” General Buford came up and looked at them through my glass, and then formed his small cavalry force. The enemy pressed us in overwhelming numbers, and we would have been obliged to retreat but looking in the direction of Emmitsburg I called the attention of the General to an Army Corps advancing some two miles distant, and shortly, distinguished it as the First on account of their “Corps Flag.” The Gen. held on with as stubborn a front as has ever faced an enemy, for half an hour, unaided, against a whole corps of the rebels, when Gen. Reynolds and a few of his staff rode up on a gallop and hailed the general who was with me in the steeple, our lines being but shortly advanced. In a familiar manner Gen. Reynolds asked Buford “how things were going on,” and received the characteristic answer “let’s go and see.” In less than thirty minutes Reynolds was dead, his corps engaged against fearful odds, and Howard only in sight from my station, while the enemy were advancing on the right flank in numbers as large as our whole front….Excuse me, Gen., but it will be difficult to find a parallel in history to the resistance made by a small force of Cavalry against such odds of Infantrymen…. Will you not General, endeavor to bring General Buford’s name more prominently forward? Everyone knows that he “in his day” was first and foremost. I have the honor to enclose an extract from his report which will show, I presume, that I speak from actual experience.
As we know, the stiff resistance offered by Buford’s cavalrymen and then by the I Corps wouldn’t last. The Federals were swept off McPherson’s Ridge and pushed back toward Seminary Ridge. There, the Union troops would regroup for another stand, and the ridge’s namesake would find itself in the middle of a hot fight between Union Colonel Chapman Biddle’s I Corps brigade and Colonel Abner Perrin’s South Carolinians.
Schmucker Hall, which was functioning as the seminary’s main administration and dormitory building in 1863, had been quickly converted into a field hospital once the shooting started on July 1. During the battle and after, notable Confederates such as Maj. Gen. Isaac Trimble, Brig. Gen. James Kemper and Major Henry Kyd Douglas, of I Rode With Stonewall fame, would be treated there. Lieutenant Colonel George McFarland of the 151st Pennsylvania was shot through both legs just outside the building on July 1 and would be treated there for several weeks. The 142nd Pennsylvania’s wounded colonel, Robert P. Cummins, wasn’t so lucky. He died within hours in a first floor room. Schmucker Hall itself took several shots, including artillery fire that tore away a portion of its northeast corner.
Unfortunately for later generations, not many eyewitness accounts from the cupola beyond Jerome’s remain—including none from Confederates. The Federal stand on Seminary Ridge was ultimately broken as well, and from the late afternoon of July 1 through the end of the battle, Schmucker Hall was in Southern hands. It’s highly unlikely that the Confederates didn’t take advantage of what was the best vantage point anywhere in the area, but for various reasons their accounts have either been lost or were never written down in the first place. There were even rumors that Robert E. Lee made his way up to the cupola at some point during the threeday battle, but solid evidence of that is lacking. Because Schmucker Hall continued to be used as a hospital, it’s possible that soldiers were reluctant to make any mention in their official reports of using the cupola for observation, as this would have been a breach of military protocol. We can only wonder about the incredible scene of martial beauty, followed by several minutes of hell on earth, that Pickett’s Charge must have been from that perch.
I won’t ever get to see Pickett’s Charge from the cupola, but I at least have a much better sense of what it might have looked like thanks to a fantastic opportunity accorded by the ACHS. Last June America’s Civil War editor Dana Shoaf and I made good on an invitation from the ACHS’s director, Wayne E. Motts— who is one of the finest people you’ll meet in this community or any other—to take a tour of Schmucker Hall, crowned by a visit to the cupola. The tour began with some perspective on the fighting that swirled around the building on the first day, followed by some up-close time with several artifacts from the ACHS’s impressive collection—and then the view from the top that you have to see to believe.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. You can experience the same tour, and the same view, on November 18. To put this opportunity in its proper perspective, consider that very few group tours of the cupola have ever been allowed (this is the first year since Schmucker Hall was built in 1832 that groups tours are officially being offered), and far fewer individuals than I ever imagined have been able to take in its view since the end of the war.
It hasn’t been for a lack of trying. Motts says that requests to visit the cupola come on an almost daily basis, from every imaginable source. He tells the story of two Brazilian men who showed up at Schmucker Hall one day, excitedly pointing to the top of the building. The staff was only able to make out one word of English amongst the Portuguese they were speaking: cupola. However, a variety of issues—everything from lack of staff and insurance to preservation of the structure—have prevented the ACHS from being able to offer sanctioned tours.
But with those issues now addressed, the ACHS is accepting reservations (which are required) for individuals on a first come, first served basis for the November 18 tour. It will last approximately one hour, including the visit to the cupola. Reservation forms can be obtained by email at email@example.com or by calling 717-334-4723. Information about accommodation of groups can be acquired the same way. The Seminary Ridge Historic Preservation Foundation is co-sponsoring the event, and all proceeds will go to it and the ACHS. A donation of $100 is requested from members of either society, or $125 from nonmembers. Information about joining the ACHS can also be obtained from the e-mail address and phone number above.
Going on this tour and visiting the cupola are rare and exciting opportunities that will also benefit exceptionally worthy causes. Take it from someone who speaks from experience—you’ll be very happy you did it.
Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.