With many antebellum structures that remain in Gettysburg, it is unusual that a building that was built after the Civil War would carry such historic significance. That is the case with the GAR Hall, located at 53 East Middle Street. The red brick structure, however, boasts pre-Civil War roots, in that it housed Gettysburg’s Methodist Episcopal Church, and was the second building constructed by the congregation to house its growing popularity.
Although the original structure no longer stands, the Gettysburg Episcopal Church was founded in 1815. In 1822, at 55 East Middle Street, church members built their first church. It stood through the Civil War, and like all buildings in the town, it was used as a hospital for the suffering and the dying. The original building was destroyed by fire in 1968.
The Methodist church was one of the newer faiths during the early 19th century in the United States. A goodly portion of the congregation was young, and membership included people of color.
After the battle, the original church building was used as a guard house for Confederate prisoners of war. In the back lot is a cemetery, where about 45 graves remain – many of them the original members of Gettysburg’s Methodist Episcopal Church.
After the war, the nation mourned the terrible sacrifice endured during the four year conflict. As a result, many people turned to church to console their grief. Gettysburg’s Methodist congregation was one that also grew, and members realized the need for a larger building. The current brick edifice, at 53 East Middle Street, is the result.
After the war, Union veterans formed what became a nation-wide organization known as the Grand Army of the Republic, or GAR. By 1868, war veterans in Gettysburg established GAR Post #9, and named it after a beloved Gettysburg man, Corporal Johnston “Jack” Skelly, who died from infection from a battle wound in the summer of 1863.
Jack Skelly is also known for the strange fate of his sweetheart, Jennie Wade, Gettysburg’s only civilian who was killed during the battle. When she was buried, a picture of Jack Skelly was found in the pocket of her apron.
Local veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic felt that it was a fitting epitaph to name their post after Corporal Skelly.
GAR members hosted many who came to Gettysburg for reunions, and by the early 1870s they saw a need for a permanent location for their headquarters. When Gettysburg’s Methodist congregation outgrew their building on Middle Street, they sold the building to Gettysburg’s GAR post, and moved their church to West High Street, where it remains today.
As long as Civil War veterans survived, the GAR was a popular, and politically powerful force. The GAR is best known for the many reunions organized and attended through the years at Gettysburg. The GAR also did much more.
When the headmistress at the orphanage at Gettysburg fell under suspicion for abuse of the orphans under her care, under the influence of the GAR she was ousted from her position. When, during World War I, over 70 soldiers died of influenza at Gettysburg’s Camp Colt, the members of the GAR offered the use of their GAR Hall to house the many coffins until they could be sent home.
In spite of the ending of slavery that the war brought about, segregation still existed in the North as well as the South. But the GAR made great strides to desegregate. If a man was a veteran of the war, he was a brother; and skin color did not figure into the equation. There were many veterans of the United States Colored Troops in Pennsylvania – and the local GAR posts welcomed men of color, just as the Methodist congregation in Gettysburg had done earlier.
When Gettysburg hosted the Grand Reunion for the Blue and Gray in 1913, and the Last Reunion in 1938, the GAR was in charge. Planning well in advance, these veterans saw to every detail; and ensured housing, healthy meals, and events for the veterans of both sides of the historic war.
There has never been a time in history, where former enemies reunite at such a sanguinary field to reminisce as friends. The Gettysburg GAR Hall is a continual reminder of the amazing ability of Americans to unite again after that terrible war. Students of history recognize that the many thousands of members of the GAR were a driving force for reconciliation.
When Albert Woolson, the last Union soldier, died in August 1956, the GAR no longer existed.
Inside Gettysburg’s GAR Hall there are numerous reminders of the rich history of that post-war organization. There are also traces of the old Methodist church, with its pulpit and gallery.
The building is currently owned by Historic Gettysburg/Adams County, a preservation society. On the third Tuesday of every month, the organization hosts a monthly meeting, free to the public, which includes a guest speaker on historic events – almost always connecting to historic Gettysburg.
Many thanks to the Adams County Historical Society, Gettysburg National Military Park, and Historic Gettysburg/Adams County for the information used in this article.