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Signal Service

Like many, I have often wondered what Gettysburg must have looked like from the top of the Lutheran Theological Seminary. The cupola, of course, is the "gazebo" that sits atop what must 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 1st 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. 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).

A view from the Cupola in 1890 and then 2006

Buford's chief signal officer, Lieutenant Aaron Jerome, witnessed the general's 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 obliiged to retreat but looking in the direction of Emmitsburg I called the 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 confederates, 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 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 formost. I have the honor to enclose an extract from his report which will show, I presume, that I speak from actual experience.

As it is known, the stiff resistance offered by Buford's cavalrymen wouldn't last. The Federals were swept off McPherson's Ridge and pushed back towards 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 Colonel Chapman Biddle 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 1st. During the battle and after, notable Confederates such as Maj. Gen. Isaac Trimble, Brig. Gen. James Kemper and major Henry K. Douglas, would be treated there. Lieutenant Colonel George McFarland of the 151st Pennsylvania was shot through both legs just outside of the building on that July 1st day, and would be treated there until September 16, 1863, the longest stay of any patient who was treated in the building. 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, not many eyewitness accounts, beyond that of Jerome's remain. The Federal stand on Seminary Ridge was ultimately broken, and by late afternoon of July 1st, through the end of the battle, Schucker Hall was in Southern hands. It would be highly unlikely that the Confederates didn't take advantage of what was the best vantage point anywhere in the area, but for various reasons accounts of this either have been lost or were never written down in the first place. There were rumors that Robert E. Lee made his way up to the cupola at some point during the three day battle (as depicted in the above painting), but solid evidence of that is still lacking. Because Schmucker Hall continued to be used as a hospital, it is possible soldiers were reluctant to make any mention in official reports of using the cupola for observation, as this would have been a breach of military protocol. One can only wonder about the incredible scene of martial beauty, followed by several minutes of absolute hell on earth, that Pickett's Charge would have been from that signal/observation vantage point.

Also see: The Signal Corps At Gettysburg ~ A Communicator's Guide

[Compiled Excerpts from "Civil War Times, October 2006", by Chris W. Lewis, "The Signal Corps in the War of the Rebellion", by J. Willard Brown, and "A Manual of Signals", by A.J. Myer. for The Signal Corps Association Research Division SCARD, by Mark C. Hageman]