Living on hallowed ground in Gettysburg
Every time Elizabeth Hoffman walks up the steps of her Cumberland Township home, she can't help but remember the story.
A solider whose eyes had been blown out in an explosion during the Battle of Gettysburg had been resting in the bedroom, she said, gesturing upstairs. But after hearing the loud noises from nearby Pickett's Charge he became frightened and panicked, Elizabeth continued, her eyes wide as she told the familiar story.
Walking over to the staircase, she explained how the panic led the blind soldier to fall down the steps.
"There isn't a time I'm not aware there's a history here," she said, her voice now in a softer and more reflective tone.
Together with her husband Gerry, Elizabeth lives on what is known by local historians as the Jacob Weikert Farm, a roughly 200-year-old piece of property on Taneytown Road that served as a Civil War field hospital during the Battle of Gettysburg.
Like many other Gettysburg area residents, the Hoffmans own a piece of national history. The Battle of Gettysburg was the costliest battle ever waged on North American soil and it wasn't fought within neat battle lines on big empty fields. It spilled out into people's homes and barns, many of which became field hospitals and command headquarters during those few frightening days in July of 1863.
Today, the streets of Cumberland Township surrounding the Gettysburg battlefield are littered with these temporary hospitals. It is a fact that is told with great pride by local residents, so much so that several organizations have sprung up to support them.
Historic Gettysburg Adams County, the National Park Service, the Gettysburg Foundation, the Cumberland Township Historical Society, and an entire community of homeowners have worked together over the years to keep these old hospitals standing and to educate the public about their importance.
Earlier this month the Cumberland Township Historical Society hosted an entire lecture given by Licensed Battlefield Guide Phil Lechak about local field hospitals, many of which are still standing today and have impressive stories to tell of citizen heroism and devastating destruction.
After the battle ended on July 3, Lechak said, 20,342 wounded men were left behind in Gettysburg and although many of them were eventually moved on to large Army-run hospitals, those men were the responsibility of average townspeople for at least a period of time.
When the Hoffmans moved into their Cumberland Township home 11 years ago, they didn't know any of this. They heard that their house had been a Civil War field hospital, but they didn't fully appreciate what that meant. That is, until they read the book.
"At Gettysburg, or What a Girl Saw and Heard of the Battle," written by the now-famous Tillie Pierce, takes place nearly entirely on the Jacob Weikert Farm and inside of what is now the Hoffman's home. Only 15 years old at the time of the battle, Tillie Pierce lived on Baltimore Street in Gettysburg, but was brought out to the Weikert farm in July to seek safety from the fighting. She accompanied her neighbor, Henrietta Weikert Shriver, whose father was Jacob Weikert.
Located near the base of Little Round Top, the Weikert farm was quickly thrust into history as hundreds of wounded men from the now-famous struggle on the Round Tops flooded into the property. Tillie ended up spending a life-changing week tending to the wounded at the farm and, as an adult, finally wrote down her experiences in her book.
It is that same book that Elizabeth stumbled upon years later as a new Gettysburg resident. And just as its contents had changed Tillie's life, the book proved to have a profound impact on the Hoffmans as well.
"I bought the book and said wow! We aren't homeowners. We are curators," Elizabeth said.
Ever since, the Hoffmans have taken their new role as history-keepers very seriously, maintaining their home and barn according to preservationists' standards and sharing Tillie's and the Weikert's stories with anyone who will listen.
When the armies came through and killed and ate much of the townspeople's livestock, ran their wells dry, and damaged their homes, Jacob Weikert filed a claim for
$1,700 in damages and got back $125, 10 years later, Gerry Hoffman said.
When the soldiers were at his farm in 1863, Jacob tried to save the family's water supply, which was limited in the summertime, by taking the handle off the well pump and hiding in the basement, Gerry Hoffman said. Then when the Union soldiers found out, one of them came up to him and at gunpoint made him return it, Hoffman added, explaining that the soldiers found Jacob to be selfish for not wanting to share his water.
"Well after we heard that, we thought, that's it. This man's reputation has to be redeemed," Elizabeth Hoffman said. "He was just trying to protect his family."
So the Hoffmans went out and bought a decorative well pump to place over the existing well site, in recognition of Jacob Weikert and the struggles that the civilians endured during the battle.
Everything that the Hoffmans do with their home is in recognition of the people who once lived and spent time there. They have added modern appliances, like a dishwasher, to their kitchen, but have tried to keep everything tasteful and in the same 19th century country style.
The previous owners also put a National Park Service easement on the property, which means that the Hoffmans are bound by about 20 pages of rules preventing them from building any additions or interfering with the architectural integrity of the house, Elizabeth said.
In an easement agreement, the property owner is essentially given a financial incentive to preserve their historic property. The preservation restrictions than remain with the property even if it is sold by the owner, said Katie Lawhon, a spokesperson with the National Park Service.
The Park Service has several of these easements on historic properties that, like the Jacob Weikert Farm, fall within the boundary of the Gettysburg National Military Park. Although the Weikert property itself is under private ownership, it falls within Park Service boundaries, which is why the Park Service was able to help preserve it, Elizabeth Hoffman said.
Community groups like Historic Gettysburg Adams County are also active partners in preserving these properties inside and outside of park boundaries. For the first time this year HGAC is offering a $2,500 matching grant for any property owner looking to preserve Civil War era barns, in particular.
"It's the first program of its kind in Pennsylvania," said Curt Musselman, a member of HGAC.
HGAC in the late 1980s also helped to put up blue signs marking all the local Civil War hospitals and will be putting up another sign this spring at the Christ Lutheran Church in downtown Gettysburg.
There are about 40 HGAC Civil War hospital marker signs out there right now, Musselman said, and the property owners have all been cooperative in having the signs placed in front of their houses.
"The owners are very interested and proud of the history," Musselman said.
And the Hoffmans are no exception. They often open up their home for school tours and other interested historians who want to see where Tillie's book took place.
"The school groups I especially can't turn away," Elizabeth Hoffman said, explaining that the students really connect with 15-year-old Tillie's story.
The Hoffmans too have connected with Tillie's story, naming their antique store, Tillie's Treasures, after her, and using her words to navigate their historic house.
"There were amputated limbs piled high outside this window and this window," Elizabeth Hoffman said, recalling Tillie's descriptions while pointing outside her own dining-room window.
Although the Army helped to dispose of some of the limbs, this is the kind of thing the families were left to deal with when the battle was over, she said.
"I just can't imagine having that going on in the house and not being in complete panic," Elizabeth Hoffman said, standing on the still bloodstained floor of her 19th century dining room.