Blaze at the Bliss Farm

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Gettysburg, PA July 1, 1863 – The marching columns of two Union army corps were hurrying to the north and west of Gettysburg. Called to engage Confederates descending on the town, these soldiers passed the farmstead of William and Adaline Bliss.   The Bliss Farm included a Pennsylvania bank barn with walls of mortared stone and brick. “Expensively and elaborately built… a citadel in itself.” The farm’s two story frame and log house of weatherboard siding “stood 90 paces to the north”.

Moving quickly up from Taneytown was the 2nd Army Corps. Tested and proven formidable, it hurried to support Union remnants forming a defense line on Cemetery Hill and Ridge. Among the marching columns were the men of the 14th Connecticut. Assigned to Alexander Hays’ division, its 160 soldiers soon took their place in the west facing line.  Fatefully located equidistant between the opposing forces, the farmstead was soon contested. Its barn, first occupied by Rebels, had numerous eastward facing windows and doors. The many ventilation openings and its 20 foot height were ideal for sharpshooters, who “busied themselves with picking off our battery men, officers and skirmishers”.

Pawns in a deadly back and forth, the barn and house had seen Union men stream repeatedly off Cemetery Ridge and successfully evict the Southern tenants; only to watch the men in blue pushed back in their turn. By midmorning on July 3rd, the combative Hays dispatched elements of the 14th Connecticut who briskly covered the 600 yard distance to the farm and soon controlled the barn. But with the farmhouse still occupied, and Long Lane on the northern flank bristling with Southern skirmishers, another reversal loomed. So in went the last four companies of Connecticut men to seize the “damned white house”. It was soon taken but its captors found it no place for defense, with “bullets piercing the thin siding and windows”.

With growing Confederate pressure presaging another costly reversal, Hays sent orders to burn the buildings and “wisps of hay and straw were soon on fire in the barn and in the house a straw bed was emptied on the floor” and set alight.  Recovering their dead and wounded the fighting New Englanders again crossed open field; and looked back at the all-consuming flames.

There are no photographs of the Bliss farm – so it was a challenge to try to visualize what that scene must have looked like.  The image of the barn and house that I drew was taken from a 19th century primitive watercolor.  With that watercolor, the house was described as a “double house”.

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