Gettysburg Off the Beaten Path: The Eagle Hotel and Christ Lutheran Church

The Eagle Hotel in Gettysburg.
The Eagle Hotel in Gettysburg.

Part of a Series.

Contrary to popular belief, Old Dorm (also known as Schmucker Hall) at the Lutheran Theological Seminary was not Brigadier General John Buford’s headquarters on the night before the battle of Gettysburg. Buford actually stayed in downtown Gettysburg at the Eagle Hotel. Opened for business in 1834, the Eagle Hotel was a large three story hotel, which operated until 1960. The hotel gave Buford a more central location for his brigade commanders to contact him and was much more comfortable than the Seminary building would have been, as the college planned to hold classes on July 1 since few knew that the most famous battle of the Civil War would erupt the next day.

As the Federal 1st and 11th Corps fell back through town, fighting erupted in the block around the Eagle Hotel.  Captain Francis Irsch, with four companies of the 45th New York, fell back through the grounds of Pennsylvania College (today Gettysburg College). With Confederates filling the streets Irsch ordered his men to take up residency in the buildings along Chambersburg Street, he was going to make a perfect fort of the buildings.

Francis Irsch was born on December 4, 1840, in Saarburg, Germany. His family immigrated to the United States and settled in New York. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Irsch joined Company D of the 45th New York as a 2nd Lieutenant. By the time of the battle of Gettysburg, Irsch was captain of the Company D and was deployed on the Gettysburg plain near the McClean farm on the 11th Corps skirmish line. In fact, Irsch commanded the 45th’s skirmish line which consisted of four full companies. The afternoon fight north and west of town was ferocious, and the Federals fell pell-mell back into the town of Gettysburg.

As Confederates approached Gettysburg they quickly realized that flushing out Irsch’s force would be a bloody task. The Rebels sent forward a flag of truce and Irsch came out and was given a short tour of the Chambersburg Street area. Common sense prevailed as the Federal witnessed the precarious nature of his position and Irsch returned to his command and informed them they were to surrender, but before they did they were to dump all equipment into the wells around the hotel. After doing so the men surrendered. Irsch was offered parole but refused (it should be noted that George Meade declined an offer from Robert E. Lee to exchange prisoners after the battle). He was sent to Libby Prison in Richmond. In February of 1864, he and a large group of officers managed to escape, but he was recaptured near Williamsburg, Virginia, while attempting to reach Union lines. Irsch was then was sent to a few other prisons. One account claims that he escaped prisons four times, and was recaptured each time, though only the Libby Prison escape seems to be verified.  He was exchanged in March of 1865, and survived the war, dying in 1906. For his actions along the Mummasburg Road and in the town of Gettysburg Captain Irsch was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Christ Lutheran Church in Gettysburg. Photo by Dave Roth; Blue and Gray Magazine
Christ Lutheran Church in Gettysburg. Photo by Dave Roth; Blue and Gray Magazine

Christ Lutheran Church sits caddie corner to where the Eagle Hotel once sat on Chambersburg Street. The cornerstone of the church was laid in 1835 and was opened in 1836 (its bell dates from 1778). The church was used as a hospital during and after the battle. On the steps of the church is an open book atop a podium. This monument is to Chaplain Horatio Howell of the 90th Pennsylvania, who was shot dead by Confederates on the evening of July 1st. One account states he was aiding the wounded and came out of the church only armed with his sword, and was shot in cold blood. Another account states that the Chaplin picked up a rifle and aimed it at the oncoming Confederates. Either way, the chaplain was killed on the steps of the church. Some local civilians witnessed the action from a window across the street. The placement of the monument is not where Howell fell, rather it notes the location of where the Rebel who killed him fired the fatal shot.

Fast forward to May 3, 1915. On the annual senior “Firstie” class trip to Gettysburg, the cadets posed for a picture on the steps of Christ Luthern Church. The class of 1915 is known as the “class the stars fell on.” Of the 164 graduates that year, 59 attained at least the rank of brigadier general. More generals came out of the class of 1915 than any other class in West Point’s history. Seated on the steps of Christ Lutheran Church that day was a future president of the United States and two future five-star generals— Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar N. Bradley.

The West Point Class of 1915 seated on the steps of Christ Lutheran Church on May 3, 1915.

To reach these spots make your way down Chambersburg Street from the town square. A half block down on the left is the church. A half a block farther down on the right is a 7-11, this is the site of the Eagle Hotel. Feel free to stop in and have a John Buford Memorial Slurpee or head across the street to Ernie’s Hot Texas Lunch. They have great hot dogs and the building was used as a morgue after the battle; insert joke………here.

Eagle Hotel Map

4 Responses to Gettysburg Off the Beaten Path: The Eagle Hotel and Christ Lutheran Church

  1. If I recall correctly, there was some suspicion that the owners of the Eagle Hotel during 1863 may not have been the most “loyal of Union citizens.” There was later reason to suspect that Confederate spies had been in the vicinity during the spring and had stayed at the hotel – during the Gettysburg campaign, they returned and openly (in CSA uniform) revealed their previous acquaintance with the owners!

  2. Love the story about how the tavern keeper at the Eagle Hotel supposedly recognized a few of the Confederates that came through there on July 1st. Makes one wonder if Lee had scouts/spies in Gettysburg before the armies were there.

    1. Rob, I wanted to let you know that I double checked the story I mentioned in “Firestorm at Gettysburg: Civilian Voices” by Jim Slade and John Alexander. The incident with the spies was at the Globe Inn. The owner of the Globe Inn was known to have Democratic sympathies and he later admitted that he suspected CSA spies stayed at his establishment. Where the story really gets crazy is on June 26, when a staff officer with Early tells the owners he stayed there 3 weeks earlier. Hmm….

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