The Homestead is 150 years old!

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We often refer to our museum as Civil War Tails Diorama Museum, but the full name is Civil War Tails at the Homestead Diorama Museum. But what is “the Homestead”? Why is that part of our name? “The Homestead” refers to the building itself, which was built 150 years ago as part of the National Soldiers’ Orphans’ Homestead.

The National Homestead at Gettysburg opened in 1866 in response to the story of Sgt. Amos Humiston (killed during the battle) and his family. You can find their story on our “The Homestead” tab here. Originally, the orphanage was in the brick building that now houses Ghostly Images next to us. In 1869, our house was built to expand the orphanage, which approximately 70 children called home by then. Built as the girls’ dormitory, the house stood beside the original building and was set back from the street. The two buildings formed an L shape, connected by the side porch of the original building and the front porch of the new. A schoolhouse sat behind the girls’ dormitory.

When the orphanage closed in 1878, the buildings were sold. It seems that in the 1880s they were used as a boarding house. In 1903, the owners decided to make the buildings residential. The schoolhouse was demolished, and the girls’ dormitory building was moved southward and up to the street. At that time, the house was made into a two-family dwelling by widening it down the middle and adding a duplex wall. An addition added to the rear of the building allowed for kitchen space. Another plus was the addition of “the latest modern conveniences; furnaces for heat, hot and cold running water, bathrooms and closets”!

In 1915, the building became the first B&B in Gettysburg. It remained in the same family for the next century, operating primarily as lodging for tourists. In 2013, we bought the property with the intention of opening our diorama museum. Still hanging outside was the old sign for tourist lodging. It read “The Homestead—Lodging for Tourists—Former Civil War Orphanage 1869-1878.” Since we like historic houses, old wallpaper, antique light switches, and so forth, and since we met many people with fond memories of staying in this house, we decided to incorporate elements of the old sign and the house’s former use into our business name and sign. So, our diorama museum is “at the Homestead,” and we shaped our new sign in the exact outline of the old sign.

In the six years that we have owned the building, we have enjoyed keeping as much the same as possible. Some things had to change, but it has been rewarding to incorporate the older styles into our new construction. This is best seen in our styling of the handicap ramp railing to match the porch railing. We are also working to replace the modern K-gutters with half-round gutters, which are more accurate for older houses.

It is thrilling to house our museum in a building with such a rich history, tied to the battle but also full of stories in all of its 150 years. Hopefully, under our watch, the building can continue to stand strong into the next century!

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War Horses, Part I

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Today, we take a look at the personalities of some Civil War horses. Most of the horses below are unnamed, but the stories all show their individual characters. We might be surprised at how much goes on inside a horse’s head, if all we see is the animal dozing in the pasture. But as we read the stories of men and officers of the Civil War, we can see the sensitivity, courage, and personality of their horses. As with the men, the war brought out the mettle in the animals, showing the cowards and the heroes, the stoic and the sensitive.

2019-08-03 20190803_170917Horses might seem to just plod through life, wherever we lead them, but in fact they are highly sensitive and observant animals. Henry Kyd Douglas, an aide to “Stonewall” Jackson, recalled his horse’s distress while passing through the Antietam battlefield during the night, after the fighting had ended.

The dead and dying lay as thick over it as harvest sheaves.  The pitiable cries for water and appeals for help were much more horrible to listen to than the deadliest sounds of battle.… My horse trembled under me in terror, looking down at the ground, sniffing the scent of blood, stepping falteringly as a horse will over or by the side of human flesh; afraid to stand still, hesitating to go on, his animal instinct shuddering at this cruel human misery.

On the other end of the spectrum, horses could grow used to the chaos of war, giving them what seemed almost a philosophical outlook on life. Gen. John Gibbon noted such stoicism among the artillery horses of Cushing’s batteries while the bombardment raged and some 150 Confederate cannons focused on their location.

2019-08-03 20190803_160606One thing which forcibly occurred to me was the perfect quiet with which the horses stood in their places. Even when a shell, striking in the midst of a team, would knock over one or two of them or hurl one struggling in his death agonies to the ground, the rest would make no effort to struggle or escape but would stand stoicly [sic] by as if saying to themselves, “It is fate, it is useless to try to avoid it.”

But sometimes, even cool-headed horses could lose it. When the bombardment began pounding Gen. Hancock’s II Corps before Pickett’s Charge, the general decided to ride along his corps’ line, to inspire the men and give them confidence. He was mounted on his usual black horse, a horse that had carried him in battle before. This time, the magnitude of the cannonade was too much for the animal and he began acting up. Unfazed, the general dismounted and switched to an aide’s tall, white-faced, light bay. With his coat flapping open to show his signature white shirt, Hancock calmly rode along his lines. Seeing their general’s example, a staff officer recalled, Hancock’s men “found courage longer to endure the pelting of the pitiless gale.” Hancock continued using the tall bay throughout the rest of his involvement in Pickett’s Charge.

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Lt. Haskell on Dick

Lt. Frank Haskell, one of Gibbon’s aides, described his experiences during Pickett’s Charge in a letter to his brother after the battle. In it, he recalled the reaction—or lack thereof—of his horse, Dick, when the cannonade opened.

The General at the first had snatched his sword, and started on foot for the front. I called for my horse; nobody responded. I found him tied to a tree, near by, eating oats, with an air of the greatest composure, which under the circumstances, even then struck me as exceedingly ridiculous. He alone, of all beasts or men near was cool. I am not sure but that I learned a lesson then from a horse.

2019-08-03 20190803_160855 crop Dick vignetteDick remained steady throughout the following fighting. Despite a serious wound to his right thigh and three bullets in his body, Dick carried Haskell back and forth at the gallop as the lieutenant urged men forward and summoned reinforcements to repulse Pickett’s men. Not until their duty was over did Dick lie down and finally succumb to his mortal wounds. “Good conduct in men under such circumstances,” Haskell wrote, “…might result from a sense of duty—his was the result of his bravery.” Haskell finished by expressing his wish that, if there be a Heaven for horses, “in those shadowy clover fields [Dick] may nibble blossoms forever.”

Our First To-Scale Diorama–20 Years Ago

20190718_170133Today we take a look at our first to-scale diorama, “I Want You to Prove Yourselves,” which shows the 54th Massachusetts Infantry charging Battery Wagner in Charleston, SC, on July 18, 1863.

Built twenty years ago, “Wagner” remains an example of how we got started in building dioramas. We used our Ramagon plastic construction set to build the walls of the fort, and then covered the surface with clay to represent sand and sandbags. The fort was protected by a 5-foot-deep moat; we used a sheet of blue paper to portray the water.

This is actually our second version of “Wagner.” Originally, the cats were larger, but we remade the diorama with the intention of making the soldiers to-scale. To do this, we “shrank the cats” by making new 1½-inch tall cats and reusing the old 2-inch tall cats in a different diorama. But there were a couple of cats that we especially liked, so we saved them in their own little vignettes. One gazes up the imposing 30-foot wall of the fort, while the other is lying on the slope tending to his wounded leg.

Twenty years after the remake, these two cats are the only reminder that we ever had a 2-inch-cat version of Battery Wagner. In fact, Rebecca completely forgot about that earlier version!

20190718_165254 crop Cat 3KWhile some of the cats on the diorama represent identified historical officers and men, there is one cat whose importance is related to the history of Civil War Tails instead. At midnight on January 1, 2000, we installed Cat 3000. His number means that at the time he was made, we had 3,000 cats on our census. (Currently, we have 8,723.) To make him recognizable, we gave him a white feline (not human) “mustache” nose and a white tip on his tail.

Someday we hope to make a new version of “Wagner” in 1:96 scale, with updated materials and research. But this diorama will always hold a special place in our hearts and museum. For us, it is an old friend, showing the story of one of our favorite regiments. For the museum, the old “Wagner” shows how far we have come over the decades.

Finally, even an older diorama retains its value. On the one hand, it serves as an example to kids of how they can use anything they have on hand to build a diorama. On the other hand, the old modeling clay cats have a character and pathos that brings to life, as it were, the story of the difficult mission and the courage of the 54th Massachusetts. Ultimately, telling that story has always been their purpose, from the original 2-inch cat version, to the present “shrunk” version, and someday to the future 1:96 scale version.P1240605

2020 CWTH Calendars now available!!

If you’re in Gettysburg this summer, stop by Civil War Tails to pick up a special souvenir that you’ll enjoy all next year — our BRAND NEW 2020 calendar! It’s not too early to start thinking about Christmas gifts, either!

Can’t make it to Gettysburg? Check out our Merchandise tab here (calendars are under “More“).

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Desperation at Skull Camp Bridge

Next Thursday is the anniversary of a little-known action that inspired one of the more striking dioramas at Civil War Tails. “Desperation at Skull Camp Bridge” is a good example of how our dioramas come to be. While reading a biography, we came across a few paragraphs describing a rear-guard action in Tennessee. While the action may not be significant in the course of the Civil War, we could not pass up the diorama idea! Read on to learn just what happened at Skull Camp Bridge.

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Gen. Joe Wheeler

On June 27, 1863, Confederate Gen. Leonidas Polk evacuated Shelbyville, Tennessee, so the Union army would not cut off his command as the Northern troops surrounded Gen. Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee. Gen. Joseph Wheeler’s small force of cavalry formed Polk’s rearguard, fighting Union Gen. David Stanley’s cavalry in the streets of Shelbyville through the afternoon to buy time for the wagon trains to escape. Wheeler also fought hard to hold back the Union cavalry because he expected Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s command to either join him or cross the Duck River over Skull Camp Bridge.

Forrest and Wheeler had a bit of a history. Less than six months before, at Fort Donelson, Forrest had served under Wheeler and lost approximately half of his command in two futile charges. That night, Forrest had declared that he would never serve under Wheeler again. Instead of ending their friendship and accepting Forrest’s offer to resign, Wheeler made arrangements so that Forrest would not have to serve under him.

2019-06-22 IMG_0163Now, Forrest rode to join Polk, but although he heard the firing, he could not catch up with the fight because Stanley’s cavalry pushed Wheeler’s men back so quickly. As the afternoon wore on, Wheeler decided Forrest was not coming and withdrew over Skull Camp Bridge. Just as the Confederates were about to burn the bridge, Maj. Rambaut of Forrest’s staff galloped up and said that Forrest was in sight of Shelbyville and would cross at the bridge.

2019-06-22 IMG_0030Wheeler and his second-in-command Will T. Martin took 400 volunteers back across the bridge. They put up a short, hand-to-hand fight with sabers and carbines, and pistol butts as clubs, but the Union cavalry broke through Wheeler’s line and overran the two cannons he had brought with him. A caisson overturned on the bridge, blocking it. Union cavalry now stood between Wheeler’s men and the river.

Some Confederates scattered up and downstream in the growing dusk. Others were captured. Sixty, with Wheeler and Martin in the lead, cut their way through the Union line and leaped at full speed into the river 15-20 feet below.

Despite being startled, the Union soldiers quickly recovered and fired at the bobbing heads in the water. Wheeler, Martin, and about 20 others made it across the river. Forrest, hearing the firing, judged that the way across Skull Camp Bridge was closed, and crossed four miles downstream.





Gettysburg Monuments—Memorials to the Fallen

This Memorial Day, we decided to “mews” on the monuments here at Gettysburg, specifically those that were designed, raised, and dedicated by the veterans in honor of their comrades who fell during the battle.

While not every monument was dedicated by a unit’s veterans, most of them were, and as such they bear various features with special meaning: the shape of the corps badge, the equipment the men carried, or symbols like laurel for victory. Often, there is even more to a monument. Many locations were chosen because they held special meaning, such the place where a beloved colonel fell or a specific boulder that sheltered the wounded. Sometimes a statue or bas relief carving shows an individual whose acts of courage remained engraved in the veterans’ memories. While we will look at a few of the monuments’ stories today, you can find more in Gettysburg: Stories of Men and Monuments as Told By Battlefield Guides by Frederick W. Hawthorne.

Just past the edge of town along Chambersburg Pike (Rt. 30 W), the monument for the 149th Pennsylvania sits near the McPherson Farm. During the fighting on July 1, their color guard took the flags fifty yards away from the regiment in order to draw away the heavy artillery fire. The granite soldier on the monument gazes toward the spot where the color guard risked (and, for several of them, sacrificed) their lives to protect their comrades.

The 38th Pennsylvania’s monument stands on Warren Avenue, at the base of Little Round Top. The solemn bas relief of a soldier standing “By a Comrade’s Grave” honors all of the men of the regiment who fell during the war. It is a simple but sobering reminder to all of us of the cost of protecting our great nation and the freedoms and rights that we enjoy.



As Sykes Avenue begins to ascend Little Round Top, on the left stands the monument for the 83rd Pennsylvania. Forbidden by the Pennsylvania State Monuments Commission to include inscriptions regarding specific individuals, the 83rd topped their monument with “a Union officer.” However, the figure is clearly Col. Strong Vincent, their original commander and, at Gettysburg, their brigade commander. On the afternoon of July 2, Vincent was mortally wounded while trying to rally the 16th Michigan on the right of his brigade. More than twenty-five years later, the veterans of the 83rd could think of no one more deserving of a memorial than their beloved colonel whose blood stained the hill that day.


On the crest of Little Round Top, the veterans of the 140th New York raised their monument in honor of their fallen comrades. In particular, they unanimously chose to honor their commander, Col. Patrick O’Rorke, who was killed while leading the regiment into the fray on July 2. Not only does the monument bear a bas relief of his face, but it stands on the place where he fell.

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2019-05-25 5th NHOne particularly interesting monument is that of the 5th New Hampshire on Ayres Avenue along the edge of the Wheatfield. It is quite memorable, formed by three large boulders supporting a massive slab on which another boulder sits. But even more striking is the choice of the veterans as they designed and located their monument. Commanding their brigade during the battle was Col. Edward Cross. While he was a fine officer who took good care of his men, his manner—including a highly critical personality and a strict sense of discipline—did not endear him to others, even prompting the officers of one regiment to view him as a tyrant. During the fighting near the Wheatfield on July 2, he fell mortally wounded. His last words were, “I think the boys will miss me. Say goodbye to all.” Mixed as feelings may have been of him on July 2, 1863, in 1886 the veterans of the 5th New Hampshire chose to honor him with their regimental monument. Not only is Col. Cross’ name included on the slab’s plaque, but the monument stands where he fell.

It is easy for us, a century later, to gloss over the thousands of monuments on the battlefield. But each one has a story, spoken in written words and symbols and often telling of those who paid the ultimate price for their country. To the veterans, the monuments did not mark the places where nameless soldiers stood and fought; they marked where comrades were killed or where a friend’s bravery was noticed by all—even the enemy. This Memorial Day, take a moment to ponder what the monuments of Gettysburg represent—maybe even take a drive around the battlefield if you can. We might not recognize a lot of the symbolism, but this can be a chance to reflect on the men who gave their lives for our country, no matter the decade or century.

Mother Bickerdyke

Last November, we looked at women in the Civil War who served as laundresses for the armies. Today, we are Mewsing about nurses, who cared for the wounded as though the men were their own family. Women who served as nurses had to be brave—and not only if they went on the field during battle. It took spunk and gumption to serve in hospitals, far from the firing line but alongside surgeons who might not like to have women helping, since women were not supposed to work like men. In honor of Mother’s Day, we look at just one nurse, Mary Ann Bickerdyke, who cared so much for her wounded men that she was known, quite fittingly, as “Mother Bickerdyke.”

Mother Bickerdyke

Mother Bickerdyke was a fiery lady who made sure she had things her way. She worked at the hospital in Cairo, Illinois, but when a new one was built, the surgeon in charge told her that she should leave. She went to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and complained. When she returned, she carried a note from Grant suggesting that she be made matron of the hospital.

As matron, Mother Bickerdyke was in charge of supplies and laundry, but she was told to stay out of the kitchen. At one point, she learned that supplies were being stolen. After trying various ways to stop the thievery, she finally baked some pies with unripe peaches. She hid and kept an eye on the pies. Before long, the culprits lay on the floor with stomachaches. When they didn’t learn from their lesson and kept stealing food, Mother Bickerdyke complained to Grant again. He had the hospital staff transferred and allowed her to pick a new staff.

Mother Bickerdyke did what she had to to help the wounded soldiers, ignoring rules and regulations. Once, when asked if she had ever heard of insubordination, Mother Bickerdyke replied, “You bet I’ve heard of it….It’s the only way I ever get anything done in this army.” Another time, when asked under whose authority she worked, she retorted, “I have received my authority from the Lord God Almighty; have you anything that ranks higher than that?”

Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman would have agreed with her on that point. Once, Mother Bickerdyke learned that a surgeon was arriving late at the hospital, leaving his patients without breakfast. She promised to have him removed from the hospital.

The angry surgeon stormed over to Sherman, ranting that false charges had been made against him. Asked who was accusing him, the man replied, “It was that spiteful old woman, Mrs. Bickerdyke.”

“Oh, well, then,” Sherman said. “If it was she, I can’t help you. She has more power than I…she outranks me.”

Another time, as some men marched past one of her hospitals on their way to the front, Mother Bickerdyke asked the captain to stop so she and her staff could give the soldiers something to eat. He refused. As the men marched on, someone shouted, “Halt!” Confused, the men slowed to a halt. Immediately Mother Bickerdyke and her staff served soup and coffee and gave the men more food to take with them. By the time anyone realized that Mother Bickerdyke had given the order to halt, the men had all been served.

Mother Bickerdyke served through the entire war, earning the respect of Grant and Sherman—who gave her anything she asked—and winning the hearts of the soldiers she served. Nevertheless, she continually butted heads with surgeons. Once, she served at a field hospital where the temperature was so cold during the night that the wounded began freezing. The surgeon was not allowed to send men out for more wood until dawn, but the fires died down. Mother Bickerdyke ordered that the breastworks nearby be torn down. The surgeon came over and told her she was under arrest. She replied, “All right, Major! I’m arrested! Only don’t meddle with me ‘till the weather moderates for my men will freeze to death if you do!”

When Mother Bickerdyke died in 1901, she was given a full military burial. In 1943, during World War II, a hospital ship was launched in California to take supplies to the American soldiers fighting in the Pacific. It was named the S. S. Mary A. Bickerdyke.