Enter the Bloody Wheatfield

Maker:  Charles E. TownCirca:  1853-1859 Dimensions:  14.5”(h) x 16”(dia.)

The ground must certainly still have been soaked from the recent rain as a young 16 year old named John H. Rosensteel ventured out from his home in the vicinity of the Round Tops south of Gettysburg.  Along with many other local residents, he was there to start the gruesome task of burying the dead.  It was Sunday, July 5th 1863. The Confederate Army had quit the field late the day before. They started the long journey back to Virginia during the night in a drenching downpour that had washed away the blood but could not hide the destruction of three days of savage fighting.  John’s home had become part of a nightmarish scene caused by the destructive power of over 170,000 battling soldiers.  One of the first of the dead that he encountered was a young Confederate soldier about his own age.

John picked up the gun lying beside him and decided to keep it as a souvenir.  This gun was the first piece of what would become the famed Rosensteel Collection; a collection that would become the family’s legacy and would eventually number well over 43,000 pieces.

As John continued to collect the debris of the battlefield, he eventually came across an abandoned eagle drum somewhere in the vicinity of the Wheatfield and back toward Little Round Top.  The drum belonged to one of the drummers of the U.S. Regular Army.  The Fifth Army Corps had within its ranks of the 2nd Division two brigades of U.S. Regular Army Infantry battalions commanded by General Romeyn B. Ayres, which were brought up in support of General Daniel Sickles Third Corps line.  The Third Corps was being pummeled by Longstreet’s sledgehammer attacks during the evening of the second day.  Ayers two brigades of U.S. Infantry Regulars contained elements of the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 14th, and 17th Regiments.  These two brigades were commanded by Col. Hannibal Day and Col. Sidney Burbank.

Around 5:00 p.m. on July 2nd, the two brigades crossed Plum Run in an area of what would soon become known as the Valley of Death, moving west to the crest of a rocky wooded ridge, and then advanced through the woods to the edge of the Wheat Field.  They initially took position behind a low stone wall, just as units from the U. S. Second Corps were being pushed out with heavy losses.  The U.S. Regulars then entered the fray and engaged the veteran legions of Confederate General Wofford’s Georgia Brigade.  Both sides suffered frightening losses, but it was the Regulars who took the brunt of it, suffering 50% casualties.  Their exodus was no rout; the Regulars marched from the field in good order taking heavy losses, turning to fire at the Georgians as they were pushed back over rough terrain to the Little Round Top line.  Sometime during this encounter with the enemy this drum was lost for some unknown reason, only to be picked up a few days later and added to what would become the largest private collection of Gettysburg relics.

Ten years before this bloody exchange, Charles E. Town of Bath Maine, received the first of two contracts during the 1850s to make drums for the United States Army.  The contract of 1853 was for 100 drums for the Infantry.  Then in 1859 he received a second contract for 19 drums for the Artillery and an additional 56 drums for the Infantry.  This drum is one of the 156 drums Town made for the U. S. Infantry during the 1850s.  Inside the drum, opposite the vent hole, is a paper maker’s label in very good condition which simply states:  “DRUMS / Made and Sold by / Charles E. Town, / Bath, Maine.”

Sitting on the blue field for infantry is a primitive, hand painted version of the United States Arms…..sometimes known for the central figure as an “eagle” or “eagle drum.”  In comparing this version of the Arms with other known Town drums, it seems quite plausible that Town used a stencil for the outline and had the rest hand painted by a skilled painter.  The style of the Arms certainly dates this drum to the 1850s.

The shell is made of a single ply of ash wood which retains much of the original stain and varnish.  Town reinforced the seam, formed by a scarf joint, with his own unique brass tack pattern of a rectangle with a vertical diamond-circle-diamond within and centered on the unreinforced vent hole.  The maple counter hoops also retain much of the original red sponged paint.  Interestingly, there are severe water stains on the back portion of the shell that give evidence of the acrid nature of the rain that fell on the 4th of July as this drum sat quietly where it fell on the field only days prior to its retrieval by Rosensteel.  There is no evidence that this drum ever had a mechanical snare adjuster mounted to it; the snares were simply run between the head and the lower counter hoop and pulled by hand to increase the tension.

Since this drum was in very good overall condition, it was decided to make it a player.  With the addition of new gut snares and a leather snare butt, one leather rope washer and a metal ring secured by a black leather lace to attach to a drum sling, only a light cleaning was in order.  The drum had been partially restored some years prior by an able, unidentified person who installed new skins, 10 leather ears and linen rope.

This drum has an enormous sound that carries the distance when tensioned up and played with the proper sticks - obviously heard above the din and roar of battle.

In 1888, John Rosensteel started the Round Top Museum in honor of the 25th Anniversary of the Battle.  John eventually passed custody of his collection to his nephew, George Rosensteel, who also remained dedicated to educating the public about the epic battle.  After the 50th Anniversary of 1913, George expanded with the National Museum.  By 1921 he had moved it all to the location of what would become the now former National Parks Service Visitor Center and Museum, located across the road from the Cemetery.  Within this building which was built on the premises of the old Gettysburg town dump, the Rosensteel family lived and housed the museum containing the huge collection, which was open to the public.  It was George’s son, Joseph Rosensteel, who created the famous Gettysburg Electric Map in 1938, which used small light bulbs to show the flow of troops during the three day battle.  Joseph died the following year from cancer.

In 1971, the Rosensteel family sold the property to the National Park Service for $2.6 million.  The bulk of the artifact collection was given to the “people of the United States.”  Touring the Visitor Center’s Museum at Gettysburg, one can see the core of the old “Rosensteel Collection!”  However, the Rosensteels did retain a portion of the collection they deemed as “special.”  This drum was one of those “special” pieces held by Larry and Angi Rosensteel Eckert, George’s daughter.  The Eckerts passed the drum to friend and collector John Fenstermacher, Esq. and his wife Peggy for legal services he performed for them while working with the National Parks Service.  With Johns passing, Peggy sold the drum to the Hill Collection.

With the history of this drum’s incredible collection status and the events leading up to the Battle and its retrieval from the southern end of the Gettysburg Battlefield, the details surrounding this drum are epic and monumental to say the least.  The shell still bears testimony to this with the numerous scars that are visible.  The identity and ultimate fate of the anonymous lad who carried it on to a field which changed hands six times in a matter of only a few hours will remain unknown. It was a field so violent that it transformed into a “whirlpool of death.”  One veteran of the battle later remarked of the U.S. Regulars who fought in the Bloody Wheatfield, “for two years they showed us how to act like soldiers... at Gettysburg, they showed us how to die like soldiers.”

From Lancaster County, PA... thoughts from the shop.

Brian Hill brisoundperc@yahoo.com