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Civil War Blog

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How Far Was the Battle of Gettysburg Heard?

Posted By on July 6, 2013

Multiple stories have been passed down over a century and a half related to the Battle of Gettysburg. The stories go that citizens of Pennsylvania from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia heard the sound of cannon fire from the battle in south-central Pennsylvania. These distances vary from dozens of miles to over a hundred miles distant from the source of the great sounds.

At first glance, some of these stories sound perfectly reasonable. The number of cannons at Gettysburg exceeded 350, with an astonishing variety of types. Most were the traditional 12 pound Napoleons, favored by both sides since the war began. These are the same cannons that dot the battlefield today, with their greenish hue.

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Fighting on July 2 and 3 exhibited some of the heaviest cannonading of the war, involving a majority of the pieces mentioned above. As Confederate attacks on the Union right and left flanks intensified throughout the 2nd day of the battle, so too did the number of batteries involved.

This cannonading reached its crescendo in the afternoon of July 3, when over 150 Confederate cannons opened on the Union center on Cemetery Ridge south of Gettysburg. Historians consider this barrage to be the largest display of firepower ever exhibited in the Western Hemisphere.

So does it not seem reasonable that this mass collection of artillery would have created sounds likely to be heard hundreds of miles away?

Unlikely, says experts quoted by author Sandy Allison in a Lancaster Online article from 2007. They point out that under the correct conditions, sound from the pieces may have the ability to travel great distances. However, most of the time the blast from the mouth of the cannon rises and dissipates quickly in the atmosphere. Only specific atmospheric conditions would carry the sound that great distance.

So there you have it. We may never know for sure whether citizens across the Keystone State were really hearing the cannonade from Gettysburg, or just wished to be a part of history. Either way, it makes for a great story.

And speaking of great stories, a local tale came out of this time period as well.

As a boy, I was told the story of a small farmstead in Clark’s Valley that had a connection to the Battle of Gettysburg. The version of the story I heard went something like this:

On the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, several men were placing a new roof on the home of a farmer located in the area just above the present site of the Dehart Dam. The day was among the hottest of the year, and the men had been at work all morning. They had surely heard of the great battle occurring at Gettysburg, or at least knew that the Rebels had invaded their state and may not have been too far away. Suddenly, a sound like distant thunder began to pelt the men on the rooftop. Fearing that the battle had crept closer, the men hurriedly finished the roof, leaving it quite crooked.

The chances this happened as it has been told are unlikely, at best. The distance from Gettysburg to the mouth of Clark’s Valley above Harrisburg stretches to nearly 40 miles. The sound of the guns would need to carry this distance, plus another 20 miles up the valley to the area of the farmhouse today. That isn’t even mentioning the range of mountains that sits squarely in the way.

However, as with all folk tales or oral history, a grain of truth may exist in this story. A small battle was fought just across the river from Harrisburg in the days before Gettysburg that may have generated enough sound to be heard at that distance. It may also be possible that citizens feared a Confederate invasion, as rumors swirled throughout the month of June that Rebel soldiers were attempting to cross the river and invade eastern Pennsylvania.

Whether or not these stories are true, we cannot discount their importance to local lore!

 

 


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