Loconic Soldiering

December 3, 2008

union-soldier.jpgIt is a point of (perverse?) pride that our soldiering tradition is marked by extreme laconic perspectives, attitudes and general disposition. Where that disposition irritated British officers the pleasure is refined. But Australian volunteer soldiers are not the owners of the laconic voice – I suspect that volunteer soldiers down through the ages have owned the same voice. It was certainly evident in the 20th Maine and I made Private Keegan an honorary Australian when I read (see below) the following exchange. Read more

In the Hands of Providence

November 26, 2008

providence.jpgThere is something very mystical about the Gettysburg battlefield which is hard to explain. There is a very powerful sense of uniformed men still there, lingering over the heartache, savagery, the mundane and the heroic. That is, provided you do not arrive there on a day when thousands of boy scouts are running all over the place. Read more

Bloody Feather Quilts

December 21, 2006

Well, the Joseph Sherfy story is starting to piece itself together. The material is a little thin at this point but the Library of Congress has been helpful, so too some resources at Carlisle Army War College and also a very hospitable group of on-line enthusiasts at

This is by no means definitive or necessarily confirmed in every detail but some of the story is coming together and as it does so I will keep you informed. I am interested in the human story of Joseph and his family and the impact the Battle at Gettysburg had on them. Recall they owned the Peach Orchard at which I, and few of you no doubt, have eaten peaches.

Apparently the farm was owned, and the farmhouse built by Joseph’s father, Jacob. A sense of the effort it took to build the place can be gained by understanding that 250 cartloads of stones were used in its construction. The farm originally extended over Little and Big Roundtop. And Jacob’s holding originally included the Rose Farm, some being of the understanding Jacob gave that farm away as a wedding present.

Apparently, before the battle Joseph and others, drove their stock to a point on the south east side of those two hills and successfully hid them from both armies. So not everything was destroyed. However as some of those at point out farmers, including Sherfy lost miles of fencing and looking after stock after the battle must have been a challenge.

Apparently Joseph and Mary Sherfy had seven children. Their names were Rafael, Otelia (spelt Ophelia in the 1870 Census), Mary, Anna (Annie in 1870), and John. In 1870 Earnest is added to the family, born in 1861, and Fannie was born in 1866. At least three went on to become teachers. According to the 1860 United States Federal Census Joseph was 48, making him 51 at the time of the battle, and his children’s respective ages 20, 17, 15, 11, 10 and 2. Sherfy himself was one of eleven children, nine of whom survived beyond infancy. It would seem that the family were part of the Brethren faith and, as with many of those congregations up and down the Shenandoah were staunch pacifists.

Some sources hint that Joseph Sherfy was a “Reverend” but I have yet to determine if that is the case. An index of all pastors and ministers in the Adams County does not reveal his name there but a Sherfy family was extremely active at the Marsh Creek German Baptist Brethren congregation.

In other parts of the country and at later times large numbers of Sherfys appear as Baptist Clergy. And in a war notorious for pitting brother against brother it is interesting to learn that two Tennessee Sherfys were Reverends – one fought for the south and one for the north. Their uniforms sit side by side in a museum in Knoxville. I am not sure of this family is connected to Joseph or not.

Back to Gettysburg and the Peach Orchard. The Sherfy house was used as a medical post.

“Every dwelling and farmyard left behind in the wake of the withdrawal by Longstreet’s troops had been ransacked. Notably Joseph Sherfy’s brick house on the Emittsburg Road was in shambles. According to a civilian visitor to the battlefield who gazed upon Sherfy’s property: “The rebels had searched the house thoroughly turning everything in drawers etc. out and clothes, bonnets, towels, linen etc were found tramped in indistinguishable piles from the house out to the barnyard. Four feather beds never used were soaked with blood and bloody clothes and filth of every of every description was strewn over the house.”

Joseph and his son returned on the 6th, the rest of the family the following day. It would not be too much of a stretch to guess that the Sherfys came back to find their home was a carnage house, with blood now black and congealed, body parts and gore through the house. “Filth of every description” should probably be read as a polite euphemism for human offal, refuse and other waste. Photos attest to the bloated bodies left in their fields.

To make matters worse the their barn which burned down still contained the charred of those burned alive in there. A member of the 77th NYI Referring to Sherfy’s barn burnt by cannon fire on 3 July 1863: “As we passed the scene of conflict on the left was a scene more than unusually hideous. Blackened remains marked the spot where, on the morning of the 3rd, stood a large barn. It had been used as a hospital. It had taken fire from the shells of the hostile batteries, and had quickly burned to the ground. Those of the wounded not able to help themselves were destroyed by the flames, which in a moment spread through the straw and dry material of the building. The crisped and blackened limbs, heads and other portions of bodies lying half consumed among the heaps of ruins and ashes made up one of the most ghastly pictures ever witnessed, even on the field of war.”

This is all getting a bit morbid I suspect. But imagine these people with their teenage family (and younger) coming home to confront and clean up this mess. We understand the people of Gettysburg, due to stench from the dead animals, men, blood, piles of amputated limbs, carcasses from the animals butchered by soldiers, outhouses and sinks (latrines) filled to capacity “most everyone walk around with a bottle of pennyroyal or mint oil” to alleviate themselves from the noxious odours and that many folks were unable to open their windows until the effects of frost and cold weather arrived (thanks Ed). That gives us some idea of what the Sherfys would have had to tolerate. What impact did this have on the kids?

So imagine if you will the appalling things this family confronted. Bloody quilts. Their clothes and fittings bloodied and scattered in bloody heaps across their yard and through their house. Blood covered floors and walls. Stinking carcasses. Severed limbs. Human offal. Life could hardly ever be the same. There is more to the Peach Orchard than eating those peaches!

The Peach Orchard – Will the Real Joseph Sherfy Please Stand Up?

December 15, 2006

The Peach Orchard at Gettysburg is understood by military historians to be significant in this particular battle for the Confederate breaking of the Union line. Under General Sickles the Union line had been drawn from the Devils Den, anchored at the Peach Orchard and then drawn up Emmitsburg Road. A map always helps, so here is one courtesy of Wikpedia.

One of the things I appreciate about Gettysburg, so long as I don’t arrive there behind 43 coach loads of boy scouts (!) is the sense you get of what impact the battle had, not just on the soldiers, but the community as well. There is something about the way the battlefield is preserved that engages you, at all sorts of levels. That “something” is assisted by the way the National Parks have attempted to keep things as they were in 1863. So the Wheatfield has an impact born of souls you seem to be able to touch. The Peach Orchard gives you a similar sense, of being on the farm as it was. You take a peach and eat it and keep half an eye on the farm house just in case Joseph Sherfy appears, brandishing his shotgun.

Joseph Sherfy was the owner of the Peach Orchard. Larger then than it is now, Joseph also grew apples and operated a cannery here. A label here from one of his cans.

But Sherfy for me encapsulates all that you wonder about Gettysburg and those who lived on the battlefield. He got his wife and five children away from the place before the shooting started. But in the course of the three days troops ransacked his house, used it as a shield, and thereby drew fire onto it. His fences were destroyed and his barn burned to the ground (where most things head when they burn!). And his fields were covered with dead and dying soldiers.

What on earth did he make of all this? Did the State of Mississippi make good the destruction? Confederate Brig. General William Barksdale had assaulted the Union line there? A naive question of course – but did he get any repatriation from anywhere at all? Did anybody? What did Mrs Sherfy find when she came home? What trauma did the children experience? Did they arrive back home before their fields were clear of the broken and rotting bodies – they bloated pretty quickly in the heat. Did anyone help them repair? What hellish horrors did Joseph find in the ashes of his burned barn?

I can’t seem to find anything about Joseph and his family after the war. They seem to have been fused into the background story of Gettysburg. The war moved on. We remember the heroic and move on as well. Their house is a monument but we don’t enter it with our imagination – just as we don’t really enter all the others that are scattered over the battlefield. A useful marker and that is about all.

One warm afternoon I stood with Andre and ate peaches from The Peach Orchard. It was a still hot day and there were no other visitors on the field. That helped us cast our imagination as far as we dared. I know it has been replanted, and these trees are not those that he tended. But we fancied we were eating Joseph Sherfy’s peaches. And as we ate we looked around the trees and wondered at the soldiers that sniped here, observers that watched here, artillery that blasted here and men that died here – and wondered at the family that was blighted here by those three days in July.

Follow up post on Sherfy family…

High Water Mark of the Confederacy

November 20, 2006

Unless distant family was involved in the US Civil War there is almost nothing to connect an Australian with a war that threatened to rip a nation apart, eventually welded it, and which still resonates more than 140 years later as something sentimental and patriotic. And divisive -flint eyed southerners will tell you they are going to “do it again”.

As it turns out I have distant family connections that were involved in both the War of Revolution and the US Civil War. The first time I visited a US Civil War site it was in 1989 and I had no awareness of those connections. However I had the good fortune to discover in the Wheatfield a connection woven of common humanity, and I was fused to that place by bonds that have everything to do with the blasphemy of spilt blood and the gnashing of emotion as you realise you stand where brother slaughtered brother. Stand in the middle of the Wheatfield and be the only person there, in quiet, stunning lark punctuated silence, knee deep in grass, turn slowly and see how small the field is as the woods close in on you. And ponder the thousands who perished here in three short days. I connected with America in, of all places, the Wheatfield.

Years later I discovered the remarkable story of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain who, on revisiting the battlefield in 1889 said…”In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream, and lo! The shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.”

Poetic language which says more powerfully something that touched me as I looked around that wheatfield. And since 1988 there are any number of stories about that battlefield I have gathered in my head. But one sticks out above all others. It is the story of an old man and the common spirit and vision we shared with him. It is my habit when visiting the Gettysburg battlefield, to park my car and then walk every inch of ground I can. Only in climbing or descending Little and Big Roundtop can you appreciate what tough ground it was to fight through. Lie in the Devils Den and understand the advantages and disadvantages of your lair – and just how close you are to sharp eyed soldiers across Plum Run. Or closer. How men came to be trapped there and die with no one knowing. And walk Pickets Charge and comprehend the despair and futility and hopelessness and unexplainable courage of the men who pushed the Union Line. It only takes twenty minutes to walk from Lee’s statue which marks part of the Confederate jumping-off point to the top of Cemetery Ridge, their objective. Stand there and marvel that anyone got that far in the face of canon fire and musketry. A steady walk across open ground into steady fire.

In 1997 I was walking Pickett’s Charge. It was September. Still hot but not with the high humidity that July can bring. I was walking with a friend from Slovenia, Andre, who knew the site well and who had been touched in some place by what this battlefield represented. Being from the Balkans he knew only too well what brother fighting brother was really all about. Chamberlain would no doubt be amazed that his battlefield would connect with two foreigners from opposite ends of the earth. We were of a generation he knew not, from afar, but most reverent.

As we climbed the shallow incline we were distracted by the struggling figure of an old man who was clearly making a hard job of the heat and the uneven ground, and we hastened forward to catch up with him. On reaching him we offered him assistance but he gruffly rebuffed us. So we offered him some water instead which he gladly accepted. As we spoke he realised from our accents we were not locals and so asked us from where we hailed. When he discovered we were from Australia and Slovenia he was overcome with emotion and for a moment Andre and I thought we had a heart attack victim on our hands.

As the old fellow straightened up (continuing to rebuff our offers of assistance) and wiped his eyes he told us he was 86 years old. That his grandfather had somehow survived Pickett’s Charge in July 1863. And that every year on the anniversary of his grandfather’s death he walked Pickett’s Charge. Had done so every year since before he could remember – he had been carried there as a baby by his grandfather who walked up there once a year to remember fellows ground into eternity by Union guns. And in the mind of this old fellow the best way to honour the memory of his grandfather was to walk this field alone, all the way to the low stone wall along the front of the copse where Meade has blasted Confederates all day at point blank range until many of his own men wept at the carnage and refused to continue the slaughter.

This old gent had it in his head that he had to walk this walk on his own, to reach the High Water Mark of the Confederacy (that stone wall) unaided. Regardless of health. Of weather. Above the protests of his family – he pointed out a car parked near the copse. Said his daughter was waiting up there with a first aid kit and oxygen tank “just in case”.

We asked him if we could walk with him and he was clearly moved. He was amazed to discover two foreigners who were familiar with the battle, familiar with the place it has in American (and world) history, but more importantly, who had discovered some other less concrete but no less tangible connection with this bloody ground. So we walked in a slow shuffle, probably no faster than the shattered bodies were able in the face of all the leaded fire, and under the rain of steel shot one hundred and thirty four years earlier. This day there was no noise or smoke or shouts or battlefield moan of expiring or striving men. Just the three of us. One American. One Slovenian. One Australian. All men. Silent in our shared humanity and companionship.

As the old gold Mercury slid slowly and silently over the ridge and out of sight towards the town of Gettysburg with our new old friend, it occurred to me that we had not asked about those in his family who might continue this tradition of remembrance. To have the power of the vision pass into their souls. As we looked at each other we knew we had not needed to ask. Without any words he had declared there were none.