Gettysburg College students played role in battle

Constitution Daily contributor Benjamin Brown looks at the role that college student in the town of Gettysburg played in the crucial Civil War battle in 1863.

After classes let out one summer, Gettysburg College students took to the fields to fight in an epic battle.

That was in July 1863, however.

A prestigious liberal arts school, Gettysburg College, then-called Pennsylvania College of Gettysburg, played a pivotal role in the battle for both the Union and Confederate armies.

According to National Park Service employee and Gettysburg College alumnus John Rudy ’07, students put down their books and rose to the governor’s call for emergency troops to defend the state and the town.

The men were placed at Harrisburg as Company A of the 26th Pennsylvania Emergency Militia Regiment. By this time, the Confederate army was hot off a victory in Chancellorsville and it had to be stopped from punching a hole into Union territory. The students’ participation was vital.

Upon their return to Pennsylvania College, the militiamen made a brave stand against experienced Confederate troops, but they were forced to return to Harrisburg after losing 160 men as prisoners.

Just miles away from the slave-holding state of Maryland, Pennsylvania College was in the heat of the slavery conflict. Out of fear of being captured and enslaved by the invading Confederates, many African Americans fled Gettysburg, including college janitor John “Jack” Hopkins. Hopkins was well-known among students and held a number of responsibilities, including ringing the college bell. Incidentally, Hopkins’ home was captured and utilized by the Confederates for refuge.

Also due to Gettysburg’s proximity to the Mason-Dixon Line, there was likely a degree of Confederate sentiment and support in the town.

Pennsylvania College was a battlefield in its own right as both armies sought control of Pennsylvania Hall, the academic center of the college.

On the morning of July 1, the opening day of the battle, the Union Signal Corps mounted the cupola to survey the land and track Confederate movements. Michael Jacobs, a professor of chemistry and mathematics at the college, led Union officers to the cupola.

After getting out of class, students bravely rushed to the fields to aid the wounded of both armies. Penn Hall was used as the main hospital.

For a month after the battle, the college was used as a Confederate hospital and prison camp. However, there was not enough space in Penn Hall and bodies were scattered outside. When classes resumed in late September 1863, human remains were still visible to students and faculty. Even years after the battle, bodies and bullets were still found around Penn Hall.

Despite heavy losses, the Union army and Pennsylvania College students managed to ace the Confederates’ test in Gettysburg.

Rudy’s research can be seen here: http://www.gettysburg.edu/dotAsset/291295.pdf.

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