Gettysburg Off the Beaten Path: Messersmith’s (or Shetter’s) Woods

Messersmith’s Woods. The Historical Marker Database.

Part of a series. 

Travelers that make the pilgrimage to Gettysburg via Route 30 East may not know that they are driving atop the very road traversed by Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia before the battle. As Lee moved north into Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863, he used the Cumberland Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains to shield his movements. On June 26, Lee and the main body reached Chambersburg. There, he established his headquarters, south of the Chambersburg Turnpike (modern-day Route 30) and just east of the town, in an area known as Shetter’s Woods. The woodlot, also known as Messersmith’s Woods, was a “beautiful location” with a small grove of trees flanked by open fields. It was also a popular picnic destination for locals to gather on the Fourth of July and a perfect spot for Lee to establish army headquarters during the campaign.[1]

But 1863 was not the first time the war had come to Shetter’s Woods. In October 1862, almost a year before the Gettysburg campaign, a regiment of Vermont soldiers occupied the woodlot after Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s raid through Chambersburg. The Vermonters arrived just as Stuart’s men were fleeing but made camp under the grove of trees. One of the Vermont men returned to Shetter’s Woods in the 1880s to visit and mark the site of his regiment’s encampment.[2]

Less than a year later, Gen. Robert E. Lee selected the woodlot as his headquarters site on his way to Gettysburg. Much of the Confederate army had already passed through Chambersburg in June 1863 when Lee arrived, and he likely saw Shetter’s Woods as a central location between his three corps that were strung out across the Pennsylvania countryside. He was somewhat equidistant from Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s Second Corps (located between Carlisle and Harrisburg) and Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s First Corps (located south of Chambersburg in the Cumberland Valley.

Lee remained at Shetter’s Woods for four days, issuing orders, watching his troops march past, and pondering the whereabouts of the Union Army of the Potomac. On the night of June 28, Gen. Longstreet arrived at Lee’s headquarters with valuable intelligence. Longstreet’s scout, Henry Thomas Harrison, had observed that the Union army was moving rapidly in pursuit of the Confederates. He also noted that Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade had replaced Joseph Hooker as the Union army’s commander.[3] Though Lee did not admit Harrison to his headquarters and instead conferred with Longstreet, he took heed of the scout’s information. Under the canopy of Shetter’s Woods, Lee deliberated his course of action. He quickly ordered the concentration of his army between Cashtown and Gettysburg so Meade could not destroy it piecemeal.[4]

Lee kept his headquarters at Shetter’s Woods until the morning of July 1 when he broke camp and joined Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill’s column at Cashtown. From there, he could hear the distant sound of artillery from the escalating battle at Gettysburg and rode on to destiny. After the battle, the woodlot became known as Messersmith’s Woods when Chambersburg lawyer George R. Messersmith acquired the property.[5] Since then, the trees and fields of that property have been swallowed by suburban development. On August 20, 1973, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission erected a historical marker along Route 30 just east of Chambersburg, denoting the location of Messersmith’s Woods. The marker reads:

Name of grove selected by Gen. R.E. Lee for his headquarters, June 26-30, 1863. Here he issued the order for the concentration of troops near Gettysburg. Site of woods is just south of this point.

To Reach Messersmith’s Woods:

From the town square.

-Follow Chambersburg Street west for three blocks.

-At the Y intersection bear to the right onto the Chambersburg Pike-Route 30 West.-Follow Chambersburg Pike-Route 30 West for 23.8 miles.

-Turn left and park in the Pizza Hut parking lot.

-Exit your vehicle, walk along the sidewalk to the front of the restaurant to find the Pennsylvania historical marker to Messersmith’s Woods.


[1] Jacob Hoke, Historical Reminiscences of the War In and About Chambersburg (Chambersburg, PA: M.A. Foltz Printer and Publisher, 1884), 61.

[2] Hoke, Historical Reminiscences, 32.

[3] James Longstreet, Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1896), 347-348.

[4] Edward J. Stackpole, They Met at Gettysburg (Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1956), 101.

[5] Hoke, Historical Reminiscences, 61; James Longstreet, From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America, (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1896), 347.

7 Responses to Gettysburg Off the Beaten Path: Messersmith’s (or Shetter’s) Woods

    1. Great question. The marker is west of I-81, between the I-81 interchange and the town of Chambersburg.

  1. Interesting! I was wondering where the mass of Union prisoners captured on July 1 were kept? I suspect somewhere in the area of Lee’s headquarters but there is little information on this aspect of the battle.

    1. That’s a good question. I can’t say I’ve found much about it either, but Col. Arthur Fremantle talks about encountering a horde of Yankee prisoners marching back down the Chambersburg Pike, so I would assume it was somewhere between Gettysburg and Chambersburg.

  2. I have noticed the sign as I drive east, but never felt the desire to get out the car. My goal, Gettysburg, lies only 30 minutes ahead!

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