Burning of the Bliss Buildings on July 3


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Tom Elmore

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Undated watercolor painting of the Bliss farm. https://www.gettysburgdaily.com/str...with-licensed-battlefield-guide-woody-christ/

In 1857, William and Adeline Bliss, with their daughters Sarah and Frances, moved from Chautauqua County in New York to the peaceful community of Gettysburg in south central Pennsylvania, where William purchased a 60-acre farm. William Bliss was born on September 4, 1799, and Adeline the following year. Sarah was their second child, born in 1825, and Frances, their fourth child, arrived in 1833. William and Adeline sought a warmer climate and a fresh start. They had previously lost three other children, Amanda (1824-1846), James (1830-1835) and an infant son (1837).

War came uninvited to their doorstep in the summer of 1863. Late on July 1, a knock on the door proved to be Laura (21) and Carrie (18) McMillan, their neighbors who lived on Seminary Ridge, just to the northwest. It was decided that the two girls, together with Sarah and Frances, would be safer at the Weikert house east of the Round Tops (either Jacob Weikert’s or Jacob Weikert Jr.’s place, both located on the eastern slope of the Round Tops, along the Taneytown road). It’s not clear where William and Adeline wound up, but they abandoned their home, leaving the doors open and the table set. Perhaps it was a gesture of hospitality with the hope their home would be spared intentional damage.

Between July 2 and 5, the Bliss buildings (barn and house) changed hands at least nine times. The “bank” barn happened to be ideally positioned and oriented to serve as a coveted elevated platform for Confederate marksmen, who could shoot through existing openings or make their own. They could readily target Federal skirmishers and even personnel moving along the main line, extending from Ziegler’s Grove southward toward the Angle. This area was principally the purview of the Third Division, Second Corps, under Brigadier General Alexander Hays. By mid-morning on July 3, after repeated unsuccessful Federal attempts over the previous 24 hours to suppress the enemy around the Bliss buildings, Hays ordered the structures to be burned.

At that hour, eight companies of the 14th Connecticut (excepting B and D on the skirmish line) were holding the house and barn, under the command of Major Theodore G. Ellis. They were experiencing the usual increasing pressure from the displaced Confederate skirmishers now in the adjacent orchard to the west, northwest and southwest – namely five companies of the 16th Mississippi of Brig. Gen. Carnot Posey’s brigade. The latter were augmented by Georgians of Brig. Gen. Edward Thomas’ brigade, sent from Long Lane just to the north.

Meanwhile, back on Cemetery Ridge, Sergeant Charles A. Hitchcock of the 111th New York volunteered to communicate the order from Hays to burn the buildings. Hitchcock equipped himself with matches and paper taken from discarded cartridge boxes. He ran directly out to the barn, using what little cover was available along the way to improve his odds of survival, and he made it unharmed. Perhaps to ensure no misunderstanding, the brigade commander, Colonel Thomas Smyth, also dispatched his staff officer, Captain James P. Postles, on a harrowing ride to the barn to personally deliver the same order to Maj. Ellis. While preparations were made to set the fires, a handful of dead and wounded found within the buildings were removed. Simultaneously, a few Confederate cannon were targeting the buildings, which gave rise to their (incorrect) claim of having burned them.

Captain Samuel A. Moore of Company F and the men under him were tasked with setting the barn on fire. They ignited some loose hay and straw in several places. At the same time, First Lieutenant Wilbur D. Fiske of Company F joined the group that proceeded to the house, where they applied a match to a bed of straw emptied on the floor, then they returned to the shelter of the barn as the fire rapidly spread. Chickens fleeing the barn were gathered by the soldiers for a future meal, after permission was granted by Maj. Ellis. When it became too hot to stay, the eight companies of 14th Connecticut fell back to the Emmitsburg road, taking their wounded with them. Just as they reached the skirmish line a few minutes later, the house collapsed and the “boys set up a cheer and howl.” Soon afterward, the roof of the barn fell in. The men of the 14th were ordered back to the main line and took up a position behind the 1st Delaware. Within a few hours they would help repulse the grand Confederate infantry charge made against Cemetery Ridge.

During the cannonade that preceded the charge, Sergeant Hitchcock was painfully wounded in the forearm by a rail splinter. He took refuge in the Leister barn and was sitting down with his back leaning against a beam, when a 12 pound solid shot crashed through the barn and struck the opposite side of the same beam. It tossed him for some distance, leaving him stunned and breathless. Fortunately he was not seriously hurt. Three months later he was commissioned a lieutenant on Hays’ recommendation. Hitchcock survived the war and recounted the episode to John B. Bachelder in 1866.

William Bliss and his family lost all of their livestock and all of their possessions during the battle and fire, although they were alive and safe. His daughters rode out the battle at the Weikert place, where they kept busy baking bread for the soldiers and helping care for the wounded who sought shelter there.

Soon after the war ended, William Bliss filed damage claims of up to $3,500, nearly all of it sustained at the hands of “friendly” Federal forces. He never received any compensation. In 1865, he sold what was left to neighbor Nicholas Codori for $1,000. Bliss reportedly said, “Let it go. I would give away twenty farms for such a victory.” If so, he proved that not everyone who displayed great courage at Gettysburg carried a musket or a sword. The family returned to their former abode in New York. Today, William, Adeline and their five children all lie buried in Evergreen Cemetery, Sinclairville, Chautauqua County, New York.

Sources:
- https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/21716698/william-bliss
- http://gettysburg.stonesentinels.com/battlefield-farms/bliss-farm/
- http://civilwartalk.com/threads/the-historic-families-of-gettysburg.81329/#post-661191
-Theodore G. Ellis, Bachelder Papers, 1: 407
-Charles A. Hitchcock, Bachelder Papers, 2:1183, 1188
-Alexander Hays, Bachelder Papers, 3:1737
-Wilbur D. Fiske, Bachelder Papers, 3:2008
-Gettysburg Compiler, 21 July 1863
-Souvenir of Excursion to Battlefields by the Society of the Fourteenth Connecticut Regiment, by Chaplain H. S. Stevens, Washington: Gibson Bros. Fronters and Bookbinders, 1893
 
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JPK Huson 1863

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Thanks for this! It's tough finding much on the family and I've never seen anything on their battle. JPK was killed when the 126th New York sent Co. B to clear snipers out of the barn July 2nd. I've always wondered about the dead men around those buildings after 3 days of fighting, has to have been a lot of casualties by the time it burned.

It's still unfathomable civilians received almost no compensation and families like the Bliss's lost everything. Read where all the churches received 500 bucks to divide between all of them, blood soaked pews and floors added to battle damage forced them replace everything. Drop in the bucket. Since ' Gettysburg ' became so famous over night and the stream of tourists began July 4th, 1863, seems crazy. A lot of cash was made from the tourists, you'd have thought a few bucks could have been forked over.

Haven't been out there, @pamc153PA , any chance you'll arm yourself against those ticks and make the trek?

Thanks again @Tom Elmore, as always incredible stuff.
 

Northern Light

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It's still unfathomable civilians received almost no compensation and families like the Bliss's lost everything.
Well, I guess when you think about all the costs of the war that the government had to pay, it doesn't seem so unfathomable, just unfortunate. These people were not young, and to start over yet again must have been a real blow.
 

pamc153PA

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I walked out once from Cemetery Ridge. That was enough for me.

Ryan
I have been out there a couple times, @JPK Huson 1863. Unlike @rpkennedy, I went once as a detour off the Pickett’s Charge path, and another time from Long Lane. There’s not much to see except a couple markers and the pile of dirt left from the barn’s “bank,” although it might also be left from when the Camp Colt tanks needed hills and ditches to practice on. If you go in from Long Lane, it’s surprisingly difficult to walk in—stickers and ruts and brush. It’s kind of hard to get a sense of what was there originally since we only have that one drawing to go by.
 

pamc153PA

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That is a location where it would be nice if there was some way to make it more accessible.
I agree, but I think the NPS is already stretched thin as far as funds and manpower, so they tend to focus on the “popular” sites on the battlefield. And unfortunately for the Bliss Farm, it’s not one of them at the moment.
 

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