By Charles T. Joyce
The Adams County Courthouse in Gettysburg had been erected just a few years before the war with great expectations. According to Fannie Buehler, a resident in town, the Italianate designed edifice with its distinctive tower was a public building “of which we were all very proud, for we had anxiously awaited its coming.”
During the three-day battle that raged in and around the town in July 1863, the Courthouse became a teeming hospital. A volunteer aid worker observed “soldiers lying on the bare floor, covered with blood, and dirt, and vermin, entirely naked having perhaps a newspaper only to protect their festering wounds from the flies.” One man among the many lay in the sweltering heat “with a great cavern in his side, from which the lungs protruded several inches.” Another soldier suffered five wounds and the loss of his eyes.
“Limbs,” Fannie Buehler noted, “were amputated amid the cries and groans” of the wounded, “and often I stopped my ears that I might not hear,” as the “arms and legs of these poor soldiers were carted outside of the town, and were either buried or burned.”
In the midst of the torment and suffering, love blossomed between a lonely bandsman in the Iron Brigade and a pious daughter of a former tavern owner.
This is their story, told through letters they wrote to each other after the battle that changed their lives—and those of living and future Americans.
The bandsman, Jacob Friedrich Gundrum, had seen enough of war by 1863. Jacob confessed how he, “had lost confidence in myself, in mankind, and even my own creator.” Forlorn, he “had nobody to care for, and nobody ever cared for me, no friends, in whom I could confide.”
Jacob did not start out in such a funk. He had emigrated from Darmstadt, Hesse, (near today’s Frankfurt, Germany) in 1856 and journeyed to Wisconsin to live with his sister, who had arrived earlier. A 24-year-old music teacher at the start of the war, he promptly enlisted in the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry as a musician. When the Army of the Potomac dispensed with regimental bands in the summer of 1862, he helped form the Iron Brigade Band, which won nearly as many plaudits for its music as the muskets in the Brigade earned respect in battle.
The former tavern keeper’s daughter, Susanna “Susie” Herr, was 19 when the war came to the streets of her town. The youngest child of Frederick Herr, 77, and Susan Lind, 69, she lived with her parents in a home built by her father on West Middle Street, a little less than two blocks from the new Courthouse. He had owned and operated a tavern on a ridgeline a few miles west of Gettysburg from 1828 until the mid-1850s, when financial woes forced him to let his license lapse and sell the property. Nonetheless, the place was still known as Herr’s Tavern and the sloping ground on which it sat Herr’s Ridge. The Herr family moved to a farm in Cumberland Township, but eventually gave it up and settled into the Middle Street house.
Susie preferred urban living “for one reason, and that is we are near to church, and can go in all kinds of weather.” The youngest of four sisters and the only unmarried daughter in the Herr clan, she lived alone with her elderly parents. She wrote, “I get so lonely sometimes.”
Battle comes to the Courthouse
On July 1, 1863, the men of the Iron Brigade beat back repeated rebel attacks from Herr’s Ridge and stubbornly withdrew to the outskirts of town. Here they resisted the onslaught at the cost of scores of wounded from Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin. The injured dragged themselves or were carried to Brigade hospitals located in the Adams Express Office near the Railroad Depot, and the Courthouse.
Growing numbers of bloodied soldiers soon strained the capacities of the shelters. In the Courthouse, courtroom chairs were tossed out of the windows and a central row of desks became a massive operating table. Men writhing in agony screamed and cried as surgeons busied themselves with the tools of their grim trade.
One of the wounded who made his way into the Courthouse, Charles C. Bushee of the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry, collapsed into a chair that did not get thrown away. While he awaited treatment, a young woman fanned his face in the July heat—Susie Herr. She had apparently hurried from her nearby house to administer aid the Midwesterners.
Susie’s whereabouts for the rest of the day are not exactly known. She likely remained at the Courthouse until it fell into enemy hands. At some point she may have rejoined her parents and hunkered down until the conflict ended and the Confederates retreated. She probably joined other townspeople who brought food to the wounded left behind in the Courthouse and assisted medical personnel as needed.
Jacob’s exact location during these three days in which the life of the nation hung in the balance is likewise unclear. Unlike musicians in other units, no hard evidence establishes that he assisted wounded on July 1. There is one anecdote left behind by an Iron Brigade bandsman who recorded his capture—an indication that he and others, perhaps Jacob, performed some duties.
Ample evidence exists that Jacob and his fellow bandsmen served after the shooting stopped. According to Fannie Buehler, the resident who had gushed with pride over the new Courthouse before the battle, Jacob and his comrades visited “every afternoon and played patriotic airs in front of the hospital, and what an inspiration this music was to these boys can only be known by those who suffer as wounded men suffer after a battle. ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ ‘Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys are marching,’ ‘Rally Round the Flag Boys,’ brought again hope and courage into their hearts.”
The Iron Brigade Band remained in Gettysburg for several weeks after the armies departed, providing moral support with their music to the multitude of wounded in town.
A handkerchief marks an unlikely courtship
At some point during the early fighting or its immediate aftermath, Susie and Jacob met. During this period, Susie marked a handkerchief with her initials and gave it to a neighbor, Rachel Newport, to deliver to Jacob. He later wrote, “when Mrs. Newport gave it to me, I really was vain enough then, to think, that you cared for me.” After that, he told her, he often “looked up to your windows, trying to catch a glimpse of your sweet face. There it was, my own, darling Susie, that I learned to love.” When the Band decamped from Gettysburg on July 29, he left her a carte de visite of himself taken in Madison. He inscribed the back, “Jacob Gundrum to his dear friend Susie Herr.”
He had ‘strange spells of melancholy, and the only way to cure them is to take out your picture and kiss it over a thousand times. I am afraid in a short time I shall have it kissed away, and you will be obliged to send me a new one.’
In the months that followed, Susie cherished the portrait more and more. On November 20, the day after the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery, she wrote to Jacob. “I do not know what I would do, if I had not your dear likeness. I spend many hours looking at it.”
Susie reciprocated with her own portrait. She visited the Tyson Brothers studio in Gettysburg, stood for her likeness, and gifted it to Jacob. He reported that without her presence, he had “strange spells of melancholy, and the only way to cure them is to take out your picture and kiss it over a thousand times. I am afraid in a short time I shall have it kissed away, and you will be obliged to send me a new one.”
The pair corresponded through the rest of 1863. By the beginning of the New Year, Susie had grown restless and asked Jacob to secure a furlough and visit her in Gettysburg. She teased him about another gentleman who wanted to take her on a sleigh ride: “Of course I could not comply with his wish, when I had such a severe cold.” She added, “I am waiting for you,” and continued, “with the utmost impatience. Please excuse the shortness of the letter but I hope to see you soon. Therefore, I will not write on paper what I have to say.” She signed it, “I am yours with the greatest affection, Susie.”
Jacob obtained a leave in early 1864 and made a beeline to Adams County. The visit was a success. Upon his return to the Iron Brigade’s camp near Culpeper Court House, Va., he wrote, “God knows, it was hard for me to tear myself away from you, but duty, stern duty called me, and would you, my own Susie, have your lover neglect his duty even for love’s sake? It is hard, to think so, but the first commandment of a soldier is to do his duty, and sooner would I prefer death, than to stand before you as a man branded with the dishonorable name of a deserter. Could you, who I worship almost as much as my creator, could you love me anymore?”
In the same letter, he expressed relief that her parents had met him and found him acceptable as her suitor. He also mentioned the enclosure of a “photograph of the whole Iron Brigade Band,” which included not only him but two other members with whom she had become acquainted during their sojourn after the battle.
By the end of April 1864, Jacob believed that Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s spring offensive against Gen. Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia was imminent. He used the coming fight to discourage her suggestion of marriage. “Susie, my own darling,” he wrote, “I do love you too dearly, than to connect your life with the uncertain life of a soldier. I may be killed, or die, or be crippled, then it is better for you to be single, than a widow of a soldier. Don’t you think so too, darling?”
On May 8, Susie wrote to him about local newspaper accounts of fighting in The Wilderness: “There are so many reports that a person scarcely knows what to believe. We are kept in continual excitement and fear, at least I am.” Susie reassured him that she would be “one who is ever ready to relieve your sorrow, or share your joy; one who intends as long as life remains to love you first as a lover, then as a husband should be loved, and of course expects the same love, and kind treatment in return.” She observed, “Too many marriages, my dear, begin like the rosy morning, and then fall away like a sun wreath. And why is it? Because the married pair neglect to be as pleasuring to each other after marriage as before. God forbid, that such should be the case with us. If it should be so, it shall be my fault.”
Jacob survived the brutal engagements of what became known as the Overland Campaign, the Battles of Petersburg and the Siege of Petersburg.
On a cabin cupboard
In November 1864, Jacob reported to Susie that he and his bandmates had built a winter cabin “of split and hewn pine logs, and covered with our common shelter tents.” For the fireplace, they had “invented a new plan.” He described that “instead of brick and mortar or sticks of wood, we take tin cans, oyster cans, such as thrown away by the men, fill them with sand, and build them up.”
They papered the cabin walls with pages from Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s magazines. A cupboard displayed “all the pictures in our possession.” Jacob added Susie’s carte de visite—a new one, also taken at Tyson’s and affixed with a green revenue stamp. “You will not be angry, dearest,” he wrote, “for exposing your portrait to the views of so many, but I love to look at it, and sometimes in the evening, when I lay down, and the fire in the fireplace is still burning, and it shows me your picture so plain, I lay looking at it, until I fall asleep only to dream of you.”
By now, Jacob had grown heartily sick of the struggle between North and South. He relayed to Susie the sad news that Cpl. Bushee, whom she’d help nurse at the Courthouse, had been taken prisoner and died in Andersonville.
Any hesitation Jacob had about marriage earlier in the year had by now disappeared. He hoped for another furlough. “If I succeed in getting one,” he assured her, “believe me, my dearest, I shall not make my appearance in this despised uniform of blue,” hinting to her that he’d obtain civilian clothes with the help of friends in Baltimore.
Jacob also informed Susie he had voted for the Democratic candidate, George B. McClellan, in the presidential election—the only member of the band to cast his vote for the former general who commanded the Army of the Potomac. He did so because “if L. should be again elected, there is a good prospect for another 4 years of war.”
Though Jacob’s choice for Chief Executive and Commander-in-Chief did not prevail, the war was winding down. In late January 1865, he secured a 20-day furlough and returned to Gettysburg. On Feb. 5, 1865, Jacob and Susie were united in holy matrimony by Rev. William R.H. Deatrick at the Herr home on Middle Street. The bride’s parents and Samuel R. Collins, a student at Gettysburg’s Pennsylvania College who had served in the 26th Pennsylvania Emergency Militia during the Gettysburg Campaign, witnessed the ceremony.
As the young lovers had fueled their romance through photographs, it was perhaps fitting that their marriage certificate was also affixed with a tax revenue stamp, cancelled by Rev. Deatrick.
Jacob returned to the front and survived the final weeks of the war. He soon returned to Susie, and the couple settled in Hanover in adjoining York County. Jacob returned to his occupation of teaching music. Susie kept house and bore him three sons before her death in 1882 at age of 38. Jacob did not remarry. He lived another 22 years, passing away in 1904. They lie buried together at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Hanover.
Special thanks to John Heiser, who recently retired as Historian, Division of Visitor Services at the Gettysburg National Military Park, for making available the Park files containing transcriptions of the love letters between Jacob Gundrum and Susan Herr.
References: Coco, A Vast Sea of Misery: A History and Guide to the Union and Confederate Field Hospitals at Gettysburg, July 1- November 20, 1863; Martin, “Gettysburg: The Town Fight,” Blue & Gray Magazine, Vol. XXX, Issue #3 (2014); Sickles, “History of the Adams County Courthouse,” The Gettysburg Times, Jan. 25, 1974, in GNMP Vertical File “Adams County Buildings”; Buehler, Recollections of the Rebel Invasion; Fahnestock, Recollections of the Battle of Gettysburg; Gilbert, “Mrs. Gilbert’s Story,” The Gettysburg Compiler, Sept. 6, 1905; Interview with Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guide Ken Rich, July, 2019.
Charles Joyce, of Media, Pa., is a Senior Editor of MI. He has been a lifelong student of the Civil War and started collecting images about 25 years ago. He currently focuses on photographs of soldiers killed, wounded, or captured at the Battle of Gettysburg, and on original stereoviews taken of the battlefield.
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