A Few Thoughts On Spangler's Spring, Gettysburg, and the Business of Reconciliation

Screen shot 2014-02-18 at 5.29.37 PMI was going through some files today and found a folder filed under "great stuff that did not make it into the book" (yes...that is really the title of the folder). In this folder was a wealth of information on the legend of Spangler's Spring - at Gettysburg - and how it works as a part of a very old business...making sure that reconciliation is the story that park visitors get. I know that these days things are changing at Gettysburg in terms of interpretation - but this file dates back to 2005.  At any rate - here's the skinny from waaaaaaay back then. Located near Culp’s hill on the Gettysburg battlefield in Adams County, Pennsylvania, Spangler’s Spring serves as a popular tourist attraction for millions of annual visitors. Along with many notable sites at the Gettysburg National Military Park, including the High Water Mark of the Confederacy, The Eternal Light Peace Memorial, Little Round Top, and Devil’s Den, the relatively diminutive Spangler’s Spring monument ranks among the most frequently visited.  In early July 1863, the Confederate and Union armies converged on the Gettysburg area to fight the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. On the first day of battle, July 1st, the Union XII Corp occupied the meadow that included the spring and constructed earthworks on a knoll north of the spring site. Although most soldiers in the XII Corps were subsequently placed farther east on the Federal line of battle, and the immediate area was occupied by few Union soldiers, artillery placed on a nearby hill overlooked the meadow and worked as an effective daytime deterrent during against advancing Confederates. After nightfall on July 2nd, Confederate units from Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina under the Command of Brigadier General George Steuart advanced under the cover of darkness toward the near abandoned earthworks. Within moments, the Confederates made contact with northern skirmishers and Union reinforcements were deployed to check the Confederates’ forward movement. Although Rebel soldiers initially repulsed the Yankee counterattack and occupied the ground, shortly before sunrise the next morning Union troops from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania proceeded to retake the meadow. Casualties were heavy on both sides – for some regiments as much as fifty percent. Suffice to say, over the course of three days, the area surrounding this tiny spring was hotly contested ground.

Shortly after the battle, a legend began to develop regarding Spangler’s Spring. It had been a well-known watering hole for both residents and their animals for years. Naturally, during the battle, it served a similar purpose. Union troops had used the spring to quench their thirst before being moved to other parts of the line; Confederates had filled their canteens there before finally being pushed back by counterattacking Federals. Although this area witnessed undeniably brutal fighting, a persistent legend suggests enemies came together here in a moment of peace. According to widely circulated stories, soldiers called a temporary truce and came together to drink and exchange cordial greetings. While the use of the spring by opposing armies was well documented, there is no contemporary testimony that proves any peaceful episode ever transpired. Yet the story is nevertheless significant. As the legend grew and became entrenched in Gettysburg folklore, it became symbolic of the broader movement for national reconciliation and an enduring testament to the camaraderie of American soldiers of all sections.

The exact origin of the spring story is difficult to pinpoint. Numerous personal accounts had circulated before the first large scale Blue-Gray Reunion at Gettysburg took place. One of the earliest published depictions of the spring story appears in an 1870 New York Times article, and suggests the spring was were northern and southern soldiers “enjoyed themselves in a rational manner.” Also, while the story was passed around through the ranks of veterans’ organizations and written about regularly in the early twentieth century, it is nearly impossible to determine the degree to which the story was accepted as truth.

Whether veterans accepted the stories or wrote them off to reconciliationist folly, the events of 1913 solidified reconciliation in the eyes of much of the public and the spring story flourished. By the 1920s and 1930s, articles specifically perpetuating the legend appeared with great frequency in the press, particularly during important anniversary dates. The sixtieth anniversary of the battle saw former enemies celebrating reconciliation at the spring with “ a special luncheon for 500 veterans” designed to recreate the legend for the old soldiers in attendance. “The old veterans appeared in a reminiscent mood,” suggested another reporter, “wearers of the Blue and the Gray gathered at Spangler’s Spring, which had refreshed them during a temporary lull in the fighting three score years ago. They marched about the spring, arm in arm in high glee, to the tune of ‘When Johnnie Comes Marching Home.’”

Others suggested a trip to Gettysburg could add to one’s sense of patriotism and illustrated sectional ties as part of the national spirit through the spring story. “Spangler’s Spring,” one reporter pointed out, was “where the wounded of both sides gathered in amity on the night of the second day of the fight.” Although this story somewhat varies from older versions that failed to mention injured soldiers, it nevertheless supports the idea of a unified national culture through the bonding of former enemies. This overarching concern with nationalism and patriotic observance that infused editorials celebrating the significance of the battlefield as a shrine to sectional reconciliation appeared frequently around the time of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the battle. Articles that featured recreations of heroic battlefield actions, where the last surviving veterans, many over 100 years of age, donned their old uniforms and re-formed once threatening ranks, included as a particular point of interest the camaraderie of soldiers. The spring story once again reinforced ideas that northerners and southerners alike were essentially Americans at heart and, given the chance, would prefer peace and reconciliation to sectional difference and hostility. The “greatest battle of the Civil War” was also remembered as a time where “both sides filled their canteens” during a peaceful moment.

Today, tourists can enlist the services of a personal licensed battlefield guide to learn the story of the spring. Many of these national park employees and other amateur guides hired through the Gettysburg Civic Center support the reconciliationist version of the battle, illustrating the courage and determination of the fighting man while at the same time supporting the idea that all Americans, northern and southern, share the same national culture. Robert E. Lee is particularly venerated by many of these guides as having joined the seceding Confederacy only reluctantly, vowing to never draw his sword against his native state of Virginia. Guides are often quick to point out that Lee worked harder than anyone to reunify the country during the postwar years. Reconciliation stories form an important part of many tour guides’ park interpretations. Some, especially if it suits the requests of a paying customer, highlight episodes of peace both during and after the battle including the 1913 Blue-Gray reunion, the lighting of the Eternal Light Peace Memorial in 1938, and, of course, the legend of Spangler’s Spring.  While similar to GNMP officials, the Gettysburg Civic Center recognizes the spring story as merely legend. Still, Civic Center representatives play a role in the story’s persistence. Guides, recommended through the Civic Center, are hired who specifically convey, for a fee, the legend and reconciliationist interpretations of the significance of Spangler’s Spring.

It is no surprise that books, postcards, magazines, and newspaper articles featured numerous photographs of veterans, dignitaries, and tourists from both North and South standing next to the spring. This is particularly evident when events geared to foster reconciliation took place at the battlefield. Like many other tales and legends, it did not take long for this story to materialize in venues where commercial profit was the primary objective. Today, this has multiplied exponentially. Entire industries, from souvenir shops to ghost tours, have developed along reconciliatory lines and incorporated the spring legend into their moneymaking ventures.  The persistence of the spring legend, despite the fact that most understand it to be false, illustrates the power of folklore when linked to the marketplace. The very fact that the spring story stands out among so many tales of fraternization among wartime enemies rests firmly on Gettysburg’s significance in the national narrative and its viability as a center for consumer culture. Gettysburg is a shrine not only to patriotism, reconciliation, and the virtues of soldiers, but to the marketplace.

So - go see for yourself. I would love to know what YOU think!

With compliments,