Dan Sickles and the Trostle Outhouse

PREFACE:  As readers of this blog know, I’ve spent a lot of time recently at Gettysburg documenting the markers, tablets and monuments.  I’ve come across several interesting items.  Most were well worn subjects.  However there are some, such as the 120th New York’s flank markers, that are new to me at least.  But in one case, I may have stumbled across something entirely fresh.  An artifact which I believe dates to the time of the battle, which may provide insight into a key event. 

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When examining the Second Day at Gettysburg, perhaps the single instance that stands out is the advance of III Corps into the Peach Orchard salient.  Some will debate that General Dan Sickles was wrong to advance without orders.  Others will argue that the advance broke up the Confederate assault.  Regardless of the angle one takes, the decision by Sickles to move his Corps out of line to an advanced position must be seen as the proximate cause that set in motion the chain of events which left the entire Federal line ablaze into the evening of July 2.

When examining Sickles decision making, I feel it is best to gain an appreciation for how HE saw the battlefield.  Regardless of how we might think he should have acted, we have to consider the terrain he viewed and the tactical situation he confronted.  With that in mind, I took some time recently to study the ground around the Trostle Farm.

Trostle Farm from the East
Trostle Farm from the East

At first, the Farm appears a good site to observe the line.  It is after all on a slight rise just west of Plum Run with open ground in the direction of any expected attack.  However the ground to the east and west gradually rises.  Any observer at the barn might have a clear view of the back of the Federal lines, but that is about it.

Trostle Barn
Trostle Barn

Sickles headquarters worked around the Trostle Barn.  The artillery chest in the foreground is a actually a monument to the 9th Massachusetts Battery, which made a memorable stand here later in the battle.

But where exactly was Sickles when the fighting was going on, and what could he see?  Well a monument on the opposite side of the barn indicates the spot at which Sickles was wounded.

Sickles Wounding Monument
Sickles Wounding Monument

Illustrating the issue pointed out above about line of site, here’s a view from that point toward the Peach Orchard:

Looking at the Peach Orchard
Looking at the Peach Orchard

One can make out the observation tower on Seminary Ridge, but only the top of it.   And the monuments visible here are those on the near side of the knoll where the Peach Orchard stands.

But was Sickles standing at this point through most of the battle?  I’m skeptical.   Sickles strikes me as somewhat a relaxed type.  He would not have stood out in the hot sun unless absolutely necessary.  Perhaps sitting in the shade of the trees, while his staff bustled about the business of relating orders or collecting reports.  While on site, it struck me that the back yard of the Trostle House offered just such a “sheltered” area.

Back Yard of Trostle House
Back Yard of Trostle House

You can see the wounding monument on the rise just to the right of the barn.  While standing at this point, I started wondering if I could narrow down even more precisely where Dan Sickles would have stood.   And if I could perhaps capture a line of site from that point.  So I inquired with the residents and obtained permission to stand in the area within the white fence.  Almost immediately my attention was drawn to the small white building to the left of the photo above.  Its something familiar, but ancient to us 21st century types.  Perhaps the eloquent term to use is “out building.”  Curiosity got the better of me, and I opened the door just to confirm that indoor plumbing had indeed arrived at the historic Trostle House.

However, I found more than expected. Inside the front door, carved on one of the walls was this scrawl:

Carvings in the Outhouse
Carvings in the Outhouse

Sort of like a wisp of cigar smoke from Sickles himself, right?  Hard to read, but it says “Historicus” at the top.  And at the bottom, upside down “D. Sickles – July 2 – 1863.”  Now that’s interesting, I thought.  So I collected several photos, some with flash, some with just the natural lighting (and the residents were rather concerned about my “interest” in their outbuilding).  But I just knew I was on to something.

First, I hit the books looking for any other references to such wood carvings.  Pending any revelations I forwarded the photographs on to a partner who works at the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) – sort of calling in an old favor.  He put me in touch with Dr. Leonard Carleson, an expert in wood degradation.  After looking at the photos he offered several points to consider.  First, the wood is oak, likely original growth based on the grain, with a white paint which has worn off with time.  Second, the carvings show enough aging to be at least 100 years old.  He also pointed out the orientation is curious.  One carving, upside down, certainly could not have been carved at the same time as the upper one.  He also pointed out the last line in the upside down carving, the year, appears hurried and shallower than the other portions.  The carvings lack the refinement or quality of someone familiar with wood working.

Lastly, I asked Dr. Carleson to make an estimate as to how long it would take to carve such in the rather dense wood.  His guess was the upper carving might take only twenty minutes.  But the lower carving would require at least an hour’s solid work.

Given these points, here’s what must have happened.  General Sickles, relaxing in the back yard of the Trostle House, felt a “call of nature.”  Perhaps the General needed to pass the time while attending personal needs, and started to carve.  Sensing the significance of the impending action, he put his name and the date into the side boards of the outhouse.  However, he was hurried and did not complete the last portion.  Was it the Confederate advance?  Or was it General Meade’s inspection of the lines at around 4 p.m.?  Regardless, something disturbed Sickles with his artwork.

Lower Carving
Lower Carving (Inverted for Viewing)

Now how did the carving become inverted?  I’d guess due battle damage, or perhaps just part of routine maintenance, the board was at some point removed.  Being a rather stout piece in good disposition, I guess it was pulled from the scrap heap and used again.

But how about “Historicus?”  Well anyone who has studied Gettysburg knows of the article submitted to the New York Herald, possibly written by Sickles himself, which cast Meade in bad light.

Is it far fetched to consider General Sickles returned to Gettysburg to finish his wood carving?

Sickles Visits the Battlefield 1895
Sickles Visits the Battlefield 1888

Here General Sickles poses with Generals Carr and Graham.  The outhouse of course was just yards away from this point.  This certainly gives Sickles opportunity.   Perhaps in 1888 he once again requested the use of the facilities of the Trostle House.  When noticing and recalling the unfinished carving, Sickles did what any man would do – attempt to complete the work.  However with his disability, such work might be awkward.  Clearly he opted instead to salt an old wound and simply add “Historicus” above his earlier work.  It is at an angle, implying the writer had difficulty making even this straight.

Upper Carving
Upper Carving

So what I would offer for speculation is that General Sickles had an rather impaired view of the battlefield in the afternoon of July 2.  His sense of the tactical situation was limited as he spent about an hour in the small outbuilding seen here:

Trostle Outbuilding - A "Witness Outhouse"?
Trostle Outbuilding - A "Witness Outhouse"?

In other words, Dan Sickles took an extended bio-break in the Trostle family’s outhouse, and because no Sears & Roebuck catalogs were available, did some wood carvings.  This kept him out of touch with the battlefield until either Meade stormed up or the sound of Longstreet’s artillery disturbed Sickles “private time.”  Thus the Third Corps was deprived of senior leadership when needed most.  I know, it is not enough to take to court.  A lot of suppositions and presumptions.  But perhaps when Sickles said “The whole battlefield is a monument to Dan Sickles,” he added under his breath “and I left a note of it in the outhouse.”

Or if you a have gotten this far without realizing it, look at today’s date, smile and say “April Fools!”