The Sherfy Peach Orchard


Between May 13 and May 23, 2013, I co-taught a study tour of Civil War battlefields with a colleague. While this was the sixth time I have offered this study tour for undergraduate students, I decided at the outset that I would use this opportunity to gather information about orchards on Civil War battlefields.  I was aware of the “famous” peach orchard where many men died on the field at Gettysburg, and was aware of a few other references to battlefield orchards, but was surprised at the abundance of information I uncovered on the eleven day trip.  This is the first in a series of blog posts on battlefield orchards.

Joseph Sherfy, peach grower and minister in the Marsh Creek Church of the Brethren

Joseph Sherfy, peach grower and minister in the Marsh Creek Church of the Brethren

Joseph Sherfy purchased land along the Emmitsburg Road, south of the town of Gettysburg, in 1842. Sherfy was a striver, and decades later his obituary declared that “he made out of sterile acres a most productive farm [and] deservedly stood in the front rank of intelligent and successful agriculturists.” Planting much of his land in peach trees, by the eve of the Civil War Joseph Sherfy’s peaches, which he sold fresh, dried, and canned, were locally famous, and his orchard appeared on an 1858 map of Adams county. The business supported Joseph, his wife Mary, and their six children.

When the Union army reached Gettysburg on the first of July 1863, Joseph Sherfy and his family were ready to help, providing water and bread to thirsty and hungry soldiers. The next day they were forced to evacuate their home, and did not return until the battle was over.

The vulnerable Union salient in Jospeh Sherfy's Peach Orchard. From Bradly Gotffried's Maps of Gettysburg

The vulnerable Union salient in Jospeh Sherfy’s Peach Orchard. From Bradley Gotffried’s Maps of Gettysburg

On days two and three of the battle, the Sherfy farm was in the midst of the conflict. A decision made by Union General Dan Sickles, against the orders of his commanding officer, ensured that Joseph Sherfy’s Peach Orchard would never be forgotten. Ordered to hold his men in a line that extended south of the town of Gettysburg to a hill called Little Round Top, Sickles’ decided instead to move his men forward to another spot of high ground in the middle of Sherfy’s orchard, a position he believed would be more defensible. By doing so, Sickles created a sharp bend in the line, a vulnerable “salient,” in the language of war, which could be attacked by the Confederate army from two sides. By the time Commanding General Meade realized what Sickles had done, easy retreat was not possible, and the soldiers in Sherfy’s Peach Orchard faced withering fire for several hours before those not killed were able to retreat. The fighting in and around the peach orchard salient is remembered as among the fiercest of the three day battle.

One of the few surviving images of the original Sherfy orchard, in William A. Frassanito, Gettysburg, Then and Now: Touring the Battlefield with Old Photos, 1865-1889.

One of the few surviving images of the original Sherfy orchard, in William A. Frassanito, Gettysburg, Then and Now: Touring the Battlefield with Old Photos, 1865-1889.

What the Sherfy’s found when they returned to their home after the battle surely disheartened them. Their barn had been burnt to the ground, the exterior of their home was riddled with bullets, and the interior had been ransacked by Confederate soldiers. The soils in the orchard and elsewhere on the farm had been hastily dug up, with the corpses of soldiers buried wherever they had fallen, while forty-eight dead horses remained strewn about the orchard, swelling and decomposing in the summer heat. The Sherfy’s estimated their losses as $2500, but like most residents of the village, were awarded little or no compensation from the government.

Yet the peach trees in the orchard where so many men and beasts fell, rattled by canister and rifle fire, mostly survived. In the ensuing years, Joseph Sherfy’s peach orchard became a popular stop with returning veterans and curious visitors. Veterans shared their stories with the Sherfy’s and Mary Sherfy collected pictures of these men, displaying them on a wall in her home. Veterans of the battle, as well as tourists, were eager to view and touch a large cherry tree which stood alongside the Sherfy home, which had a 12 pound ball lodged deep within its trunk. “Soldiers and veterans saw trees (and their fragments) . . . as objects that provided access to the past, a vital link to the landscape of war they had created,” Mary Kate Nelson reminds us in Ruin Nation, her fascinating study of the war’s aftermath. Before they departed, both veteran and tourist to the Sherfy farm took away with them a souvenir of another sort–canned or dried peaches from the Sherfy’s surviving orchard.

Joseph Sherfy died in 1881, but his famous peach orchard survived him, and drew more visitors with each passing year. Just when and why the Sherfy orchards was uprooted I do not yet know. But for decades, the land remembered for the bloody fighting at “the peach orchard,” contained no peach trees at all.

The new Sherfy orchard at dawn, May 2013

The new Sherfy orchard at dawn, May 2013

The battle of Gettysburg was waged on the many family farms which surrounded the village, and most of these farms had orchards in 1863.  The Sherfy’s peach orchard is the most remembered of these, but all across the battlefield, soldiers sought shelter from unrelenting fire beneath the trunks of fruit trees. In recent years the National Parks Service has begun an effort to restore many of its preserved battlefields to their condition on the eve of the battles fought there. In line with those efforts, the NPS has

T-shirts, peach taffy, and aprons, adorned with the Sherfy Peach Orchard logo, are now for sale at the Gettysburg Visitors Center.

T-shirts, peach taffy, and aprons, adorned with the Sherfy Peach Orchard logo, are now for sale at the Gettysburg Visitors Center.

partnered with local volunteer organizations to replant and maintain many of the fruit orchards which dotted the landscape of war.  Gettysburg National Battlefield Park has perhaps done more than any other battlefield, and today dozens of young orchards are rising out of Gettysburg’s soils. New orchards also appear on the Trostle and Rose farms, adjacent to the Sherfy’s Emmitsburg Road farm. Many of the Confederate soldiers who assaulted Sherfy’s Peach Orchard did so from the Rose Farm’s apple orchard, which witnessed destruction as bad or worse than that inflicted upon the Sherfy Orchard. One early postwar visitor to the Rose farm declared that “No one farm on all the widely extended battlefield probably drank as much blood as did the Rose farm.”

William Kerrigan is the Cole Distinguished Professor of American History at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio and the author of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard.  He is currently working on orchards in American History.  Other posts in this series on Civil War Battlefield Orchards include:

The Apples of Antietam

Orchards and Slavery on the Rappahannock

The Perils and Promise of Restoring Battlefield Orchards

Johnny Appleseed and Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley

Sherfy from Air

 

The Apples of Antietam


Between May 13 and May 23, 2013, I co-taught a study tour of Civil War battlefields with a colleague. While this was the sixth time I have offered this study tour for undergraduate students, I decided at the outset that I would use this opportunity to gather information about orchards on Civil War battlefields.  I was aware of the “famous” peach orchard where many men died on the field at Gettysburg, and was aware of a few other references to battlefield orchards, but was surprised at the abundance of information I uncovered on the eleven day trip.  This is the third in a series of blog posts on battlefield orchards.

Two cannon sit on the southern edge of the new Piper Orchard at Antietam

Two cannon sit on the southern edge of the new Piper Orchard at Antietam

An Army marches on its stomach.” This old adage, commonly attributed to Napoleon, was certainly one every Union and Confederate soldier understood. Soldiers spent a great deal of time thinking about their stomachs: what last went into them, and what might next go into them. Even when rations were plentiful, they were nonetheless dependably monotonous—salt pork, hard tack, and desiccated vegetables were standard fare. When opportunities arose to satisfy their stomachs with something different, soldiers could go to extraordinary lengths to seize them. This truth was perhaps no more dramatically demonstrated than at Sharpsburg, Maryland in the Fall of 1862, on the bloodiest single day of the war. The battle of Antietam has long been remembered for the fierce fighting which occurred in the cornfield, the West Woods, along Bloody Lane, and at Burnside’s Bridge, but actions that day in the Piper Orchard were also worthy of commemoration.

Four fierce-looking members of the 22nd Georgia. Some believe the object in the hand of the soldier on the left is a confederate grenade, but I'd like to think it's actually an apple.

Four fierce-looking members of the 22nd Georgia. Some believe the object in the hand of the soldier on the left is a confederate grenade, but I’d like to think it’s actually an apple.

The Piper apple orchard sat on a hill just south of the Sunken Road, where on the morning of the battle Confederate forces were entrenched in what appeared to be an impregnable defensive position. But once flanked by Union forces, the Sunken Road quickly became a death pit now memorialized as Bloody Lane. To the South of the Sunken Road on a hillside resided the Piper cornfield and orchard, and it was to this ground that Robert E. Lee sent a division of 4,000 men in an effort to rescue their trapped comrades. While this high ground allowed the Confederates to fire upon Union forces north and west of the Sunken Road, it also left the soldiers in that orchard terribly exposed to both Union artillery and rifle fire. Caught at the highest, most exposed part of the orchard, Georgia’s 22nd Infantry hunkered down, as minie balls flew over their heads and canister shot rattled the apple trees around them. Private W.B. Judkins, a member of that Georgia regiment recalled “the company was in the thick of the fight there in the apple orchard and cornfield. The ground was covered with apples where we fought, shot off the trees.” Judkins himself was wounded by schrapnel, but he and his fellow Georgians wasted no opportunity and instinctively grabbed as many fallen apples as they could.

Major Thomas Hyde, whose 7th Maine suffered more than 50% casualties in the Piper Orchard that day.

Major Thomas Hyde, whose 7th Maine suffered more than 50% casualties in the Piper Orchard that day.

Later that afternoon, the focus of the battle shifted south to Burnside’s Bridge, but the scene near Bloody Lane and the Piper Orchard was far from peaceful. Confederates continued to use the high ground of the Piper farm and orchard to fire upon Union forces now firmly in control of the area around Bloody Lane. At this point, seizing the high ground of the Piper Orchard had no strategic importance, so Major Thomas Hyde was a bit shocked to receive orders from Colonel William Irwin to send his 7th Maine regiment—diminished by earlier fights to only about 200 men—to take the Piper Orchard from a Confederate force at least four times as large. The Maine men did so, but soon found themselves pinned down in the hilltop orchard, with no support coming from other regiments behind them. Thomas Hyde remembered “how the twigs and branches of the apple-trees were being cut off by musket balls and were dropping in a shower.” Another member of the regiment recalled how  “bullets, men and apples were dropping on all sides.” Nonetheless, in a fight so fierce that Captain John B. Cook declared it was in the Piper orchard that he “learned how thickly bullets could fly,” the fearless and hungry men of the 7th Maine were reaching up into the branches of the trees to gather apples.

When the fighting finally ended that evening, more than one in three of Georgia’s apple-gathering soldiers were casualties, while Maine’s second-harvesters lost more than half their regiment.

One of the heritage varieties planted in the new Piper Orchard was the McLellan, which has no connection to the Union's Commanding General at Antietam, George McClellan. Image from S.A. Beech, Apples of New York.

One of the heritage varieties planted in the new Piper Orchard was the McLellan, which has no connection to the Union’s Commanding General at Antietam, George McClellan. Image from S.A. Beech, Apples of New York.

The Piper Orchard at Antietam, like the Sherfy Orchard at Gettysburg, survived the war but not the century. When the Congress acquired the battlefield at Antietam and established a national park, there were no more apple trees on Piper hill. In 2002, as part of a wider effort to restore National Battlefields to their pre-battle landscapes, Antietam National Battlefield replanted 6.5 acres in apple trees, selecting 19th century varieties; five years later, they planted an additional 13.5 acres, this time including some modern disease-resistant varieties. Protecting the young orchard from the ravages of deer has been a challenge, and today about half of the trees in the orchard are surrounded by sturdy deer-proof fencing. Slowly but surely, the Piper Orchard is returning to something looking a bit like its 1862 appearance.

long.road.antietamA detailed description of the 7th Maine’s fateful charge into the orchard can be found here.  For a thrilling description of the entire battle, including the experience of the Georgia 22nd in the Piper Orchard, pick up Richard Slotkin’s The Long Road to Antietam.  More about the efforts of Antietam staff and volunteers to restore the Piper Orchard can be found here and and also at the Save Historic Antietam Foundation website.

Excellent, detailed maps of the entire battlefield, including the locations of the Piper and other orchards can be found in Bradley Gottfried’s The Maps of Antietam.

The new Piper Orchard at dawn, May 2013.

The new Piper Orchard at dawn, May 2013.

Battlefield Orchards


The peach orchard at Gettysburg.

The peach orchard at Gettysburg.

In a few weeks I will be taking students on an eleven day biennial Civil War tour of eastern theater battlefields and sites.  We visit Gettysburg, Antietam, Harper’s Ferry, and a whole host of sites in Virginia.  While orchards have been the focus of my research for the last decade or so, I have been teaching courses on the Civil War and leading tours to eastern battlefields for the last fifteen.  I have decided to use this trip as an opportunity to gather information on a subject at the intersection of these interests–orchards on Civil War battlefields.  Of course, most students of the Civil War are familiar with the infamous peach orchards of Gettysburg and maps of antietamShiloh, but orchards were ubiquitous on the mid 19th century American landscape, soldiers waged war in the midst of them, and filled their bellies with their fruit in season.  I have a few resources to get me started.  Bradley Gottfried’s excellent Maps of Gettysburg, Maps of Antietam, and Maps of First Bull Run mark the locations of orchards on those battlefields.  Susan Dolan’s Fruitful Legacy: A Historic Context of Orchards in the United States contains information on orchards on many national parks.  But this seems like a perfect subject to crowd source.  Have you stumbled across restored orchards on visits to Civil War battlefields? Do you have any information to share about battlefield orchards that are now gone?  Even references to soldiers’ memoirs, letters, and diaries which discuss orchards on the battlefield, or those they may have raided during marches across the countryside are encouraged.  I will share anything I find during my upcoming tour on this blog.

This map from Gottfried's Maps of Gettysburg indicates locations of woods, fields, and orchards.

This map from Gottfried’s Maps of Gettysburg indicates locations of woods, fields, and orchards.