- Codie Eash
“A Terrible, and Yet Glorious Reality”: The Adams Sentinel on the Immediate Meaning of Gettysburg
When Robert G. Harper returned to his printing press on Tuesday, July 7, 1863, he felt the need to publicly express regret. After all, subscribers to his newspaper, the Adams Sentinel, had not received an issue since June 23.
As editor of the weekly Gettysburg periodical, Harper deduced that his largely Republican, south-central Pennsylvania readership would understand why a fresh copy of the paper had not reached their doorsteps: Confederates had assaulted their Commonwealth since the final week of June, the bloodiest battle in American history had crested their ridges from July 1 to 3, and more than 20,000 wounded soldiers flooded their homes in the days that followed.
Nevertheless, Harper determined that Adams Countians deserved an explanation for his (and his reporters’) journalistic absence. “We need scarce apologize to our readers for not making our usual visit to their homes last week,” he wrote. It was only those “who, with indifference to surroundings, pursued the even tenor of their way, and met and discharged their accustomed duties, may consistently find fault,” he explained in a 19th-century equivalent of the modern colloquialism, “hiding under a rock.”
The number of locals guilty of such ignorance “will be low,” Harper predicted. “But yet we owe, in the room of the Sentinel for last week, this statement of our reason for its non-appearance. The unusual interest of the present number, owing to the glorious news contained therein, will more than make amends.” In the Sentinel's last story, published two weeks earlier, “we spoke of the possibility of the invaders visiting our own neighborhood, and a great battle being fought before they would be allowed to return to Virginia,” Harper recalled. “Little, it must be confessed, did we realize what we then included in that possibility.”
As dozens—eventually hundreds, even thousands—of journalists entered Gettysburg from across the United States and around the globe to report on the newly famed battle, Harper’s insight offered a valuable glance at homegrown impressions on the engagement and its aftermath. Perhaps most remarkably, while outsiders reflected almost solely on Gettysburg’s grotesqueness, Harper saw a silver lining. “The fortnight past has developed from it a terrible, and yet glorious reality,” he stated.
On the one hand, he reasoned, it was “Terrible in the desolation of our homes, our fair farms and friendly firesides, the slaughter of thousands, and the mangling of tens of thousands of our fellow men, our friends, and many of them our own kindred, our fathers, our brothers, our husbands, our lovers, our sons. Terrible in the din, the dread, the dire destruction of war in its most appalling form.”
Viewed from another angle, the Union's Army of the Potomac forced the Rebels to retreat, and thus the Battle of Gettysburg resulted in a conquest for the American republic and emancipation—in other words, wrote Harper, it was “Glorious in the fruits gathered, the vindication of truth, the triumph of right, the victory achieved for Liberty, Justice, the Union and good Government.”
Harper lamented the loss of several local civilian casualties, including Virginia “Ginnie” Wade, killed “by our own sharpshooters” amid crossfire at the south edge of town; young Edward M. Woods, “shot accidentally by his brother, while playing with a gun picked off the battle-field”; John Burns, a 69-year-old former constable “who shouldered his gun and fell into the ranks with our men” and in turn “received three wounds from balls”; as well as a Lutheran seminarian, a Pennsylvania College student, and another resident, each of whom was wounded in the foot or leg.
“Reviewing the scenes of the past week, we can do nothing less than gratefully and reverently acknowledge the Divine favor which had watched over our lives and our homes,” Harper prayed. It would do well for all readers, he said, to keep maimed locals and soldiers alike in their devotions. “The suffering and afflicted need not be assured that they have the hearty sympathy of the entire community,” for all knew that “our town was the dividing line between the two opposing forces, and that shot and shell, grape and canister from both, darkened the air in every direction.”
With extraordinary immediacy, Harper was cognizant of the Battle of Gettysburg’s central role in the fate of the nation as it suffered through its costliest conflict.
Following a long paragraph on some intricate aspects of the ebb and flow of military affairs, the Sentinel editor rhetorically placed his town’s recent tragedy into the grand scheme of the war’s seemingly endless butcher’s bill—a bloodletting he felt was absolutely worth the cost in bodies. “Many brave officers and noble men have fallen, but praised be God, not on our side in vain,” he penned. “It is the universal testimony that ‘Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville were skirmishes as compared with this.’”
“Our own loss is frightful to contemplate,” Harper assured his audience, “but much less than that of the enemy in killed and wounded, and comparatively none in prisoners. The enemy is terribly punished for his reckless villainy in thus attempting to make the North the future battle ground....Thus we hope, upon our own soil, and at our own homes has been given the death blow to the rebellion. One feature of this invasion has been peculiarly gratifying to every lover of the Union: Those who have been notorious sympathizers with the enemy, have been required to give tangible and practical evidence of their sympathy. They have been by great odds the heaviest sufferers.”
“Truly there is a God in Heaven,” Harper concluded. “Instead of mourning and repining at our misfortunes let us thank God and take courage.”
 “Our Apology,” Adams Sentinel (Gettysburg, PA), July 7, 1863, 2.
 “Our Apology,” Adams Sentinel, July 7, 1863, 2; “Gettysburg and the War,” Adams Sentinel, July 7, 1863, 2.
 “Gettysburg and the War,” Adams Sentinel, July 7, 1863, 2.
 “Killed and Wounded,” Adams Sentinel, July 7, 1863, 2.
 “Killed and Wounded,” Adams Sentinel, July 7, 1863, 2; “Gettysburg and the War,” Adams Sentinel, July 7, 1863, 2.
 “Gettysburg and the War,” Adams Sentinel, July 7, 1863, 2.