Vacancy on the battlefield

Preservation: In Gettysburg, demolition of the Home Sweet Home Motel has begun to clear the area where the 8th Ohio helped fight off Pickett's Charge in the Civil War.

March 06, 2003|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

GETTYSBURG, Pa. - Heavy equipment tore into a brick motel at the edge of a Gettysburg battlefield yesterday, removing the last commercial enterprise from the site of one of the best-known, if disastrous, maneuvers in the history of war.

The demolition of the Home Sweet Home Motel - for years a goal of the National Park Service and preservation groups - began when a 40-foot backhoe dodged piles of snow to knock the back off one of the five buildings that make up the motel. Sinks and shower stalls were hauled onto the asphalt lot.

And a logger cleared trees lining the path of Pickett's Charge, the bloody, hourlong Confederate attack that ended the Battle of Gettysburg - and, in the view of many historians, marked the beginning of the end of the Civil War.

Eric Uberman, owner of the American Civil War Museum down the block on Steinwehr Avenue, has been critical of preservationists and the Park Service. But he said the motel had to go.

"I think it's very nice that that part of the battlefield is going to be restored," he said. "The motel was a Class C. It needed to come down."

The Home Sweet Home, a group of red brick buildings with green shutters and white cupolas, sits at the end of the heavily commercial Steinwehr Avenue. The road is home to a string of shops, tourist attractions, motels and fast-food restaurants that some say make for an unfortunate contrast to the park's solemn setting.

As the motel began to come down yesterday - the start of a process that is expected to continue into next week - a documentary filmmaker and residents of the town wandered by to watch.

Among them was Paul Funt, 60, a maintenance man at a tour center next door that is home to the General Pickett's Buffets. Funt remembered when he was a boy combing the field for bullets after a rain.

"That thing was there for a long time," he said of the motel, watching the backhoe claw rip at its brick and glass. "But I can remember when it was houses all along here with big trees. ... I've seen a lot of things come and go."

The Home Sweet Home was built in the late 1950s, when most of the strip was commercially developed in anticipation of the 1963 centennial of the Gettysburg battle, said Katie Lawhon, spokeswoman for the Gettysburg National Military Park.

How close is it to the scene of the action? Memorials and markers honoring the 8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry brigade were set in the motel's front yard.

On July 3, 1863, more than 200 Ohio men stood on what became the motel site, isolated from the main Union line on Cemetery Ridge and expecting to be overrun by the left flank of Pickett's Charge from Seminary Ridge.

About half the brigade was killed or wounded that day, said Richard A. Baumgartner, 49, author of the recently published Buckeye Blood: Ohio at Gettysburg.

"Oh, the 8th Ohio was there during Pickett's Charge, all right," said Baumgartner, who said he stayed at the Home Sweet Home during one of his 60 trips to Gettysburg. "From 4 p.m. July 2, until an hour or so after Pickett's assault failed, the 8th Ohio was stuck out there."

8th Ohio stayed

They never received any order to pull back - so they stayed, even as the Confederates advanced.

Soldiers rested their rifles on the fence rails near where the motel would be built, said Becky Lyons, a Gettysburg park ranger.

"They drove back two brigades of advancing troops," she added. "The reason that area ended up playing a significant part in the battle is that it allowed them to fire into the Confederate flank - which has a tendency to unnerve one."

Two decades later, Pvt. Thaddeus Potter of Company H of the 8th Ohio, wrote: "It was a fearful ghastly sight to see men slaughtered so," according to Baumgartner.

More than 5,000 soldiers were killed or wounded in Pickett's Charge, which ended Robert E. Lee's invasion of the North and eventually led to the Union victory.

The effort to acquire the motel property began in earnest in 1998, when a board member of the nonprofit Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg learned that the owner might sell.

After years of starts and stops, the group worked with the Conservation Fund and other groups to buy the Home Sweet Home for $1.2 million.

In announcing the acquisition in May, Vickey Monrean, the group's president, called the motel site "some of the most historically significant land within the park."

Sold to government

On July 3, the 139th anniversary of Pickett's Charge, the groups turned the deed over to the government for $930,000.

Demolition of the brick structures will cost $82,901 under the park service contract with Pennington Tree Expert Service of Orrtanna Pa., said Lawhon, the park spokeswoman.

Company owner Jim Pennington said he also worked on another project to rid the park of intrusive commercialism: the removal in 2000 of the widely hated observation tower.

By the 140th anniversary of the end of the battle this July 3, the park service hopes to have the 1 1/2 -acre motel site restored to the way it looked back then.

"We are going to essentially return the 1863 appearance of the property, when it was open agricultural fields, so we won't do anything much for the short term except plant some grasses," said Lawhon.

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