Local Landmarks in Literature (6/14)

BY LINDA CLARK / JUNE 2014

The Cumberland Township countryside comes to life in the writings of local author Elsie Singmaster Lewars. She spent most of her adult life living in the Lewars House on the campus of Gettysburg Lutheran Theological Seminary. Her office overlooked Cumberland Township, the scene of the first day’s Battle of Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. She authored over 40 books and hundreds of magazine articles. Tragically, her husband died just three years after their marriage, two months before the death of their infant son.

Readers around the world were introduced to our famous landscape and inhabitants in her 1934 book entitled Swords of Steel. It won a John Newbery Honor Book Award as a significant contribution to American Children’s Literature. The setting is Wildwood Farm on Seminary Ridge, today known as “The McMillan House,” which lies near the borough line. The endcovers of the book include a map of Gettysburg and the surrounding areas of battlefield. Geographic features include the Round Tops, Devil’s Den and Devil’s Kitchen, Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Ridge as well as Marsh Creek and Rock Creek (the boundary lines of Cumberland Township). Situated near the Emmitsburg Road are the homes of the Bliss, Codori, Rogers, Sherfy, and Wentz families.

To create her well-crafted fiction storyline, she changes the name of the owners of Wildwood from McMillan to Deane. In doing so she is able to place her main character, young John Deane, at John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry (where he sees young Union Colonel Robert E. Lee) as well as at the end with U.S. Grant accepting the surrender of Confederate General Lee. But most of the action of the story is within Cumberland Township from 1859 through1865. The Deane (McMillan) family processed fruit produced in their orchards. Their house, which now boasts a more modern front addition, was hit by cannon shells and used as a hospital for the wounded of Pickett’s Charge. Causal readers may miss the amazing history lesson that Singmaster presents within the plot. Many facts about the real McMillan family were gleaned from an account by granddaughter Margaret McMillan which is still available at the Adams County Historical Society. Margaret mentions that Singmaster utilized the McMillan family papers as well as newspaper articles. No wonder she mentions local residents gazing westward toward the Blue Ridge as the war began in 1861 at the Great Comet!

The residents of Wildwood were abolitionists who were loyal to their country, the U.S.A. In contrast, Henry Wentz, an actual township resident, joined the Confederate Army and ironically fought here at Gettysburg. Singmaster emphasizes the great number of local men who left their homes to join the Union army, and mentions the charge of Company K (The Boys Who Came Home to Fight) near Devil’s Den. Her characters include several freed African American citizens of the township who were captured prior to the battle and returned to slavery. This provides the opportunity to share information about the local Underground Railroad system.

Singmaster’s earlier book, A Boy at Gettysburg, features a station on the Underground Railroad along Rock Creek.

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Curt Musselman will be presenting the next program of the Cumberland Township Historical Society on the topic of McAllister’s Mill. All are invited to this event on Monday, September 8, at 7 p.m. at the Church of the Brethren, 1710 Biglerville Road.

Linda Clark is a member of the Cumberland Township Historical Society board and author of several books on local civilians.