That summer, more than 50,000 wartime veterans of the armies of the United States and the former Confederacy—as well as their family members and other participants—gathered for the great Peace Jubilee, the largest and most famous Blue-Gray reunion in history.
On that occasion, the Lutheran Theological Seminary, situated on a ridge overlooking downtown Gettysburg from the west, served for several days as the temporarily titled “‘Seminary Hotel.'” Throughout the space which was used by seminarians and faculty as early as 1832, in early July 1913 “more than a hundred guests each day” filed through and lodged there as guests representing the Pennsylvania Commission, historian Abdel Wentz stated in an official chronicle of the seminary published in 1926. “Here where such havoc had once been wrought by the surging forces of war, the families of Union and Confederate officers now slept under the same roof and ate at the same table,” wrote Wentz.
By 1913, this place for observing battle in the war years became a genteel location from which grizzled veterans could together see the tangible effects of reconciliation. “From the Seminary cupola…,” Wentz observed, “now Union and Confederate veterans, standing side by side, looked out upon a tented city stretching peacefully from Seminary Ridge to Cemetery Ridge and inhabited by nearly sixty thousand honored guests of a loyal State and a grateful Nation.”
Yet, just six weeks after the exhilaration of the battle's Golden Anniversary, misfortune quite literally struck, and on Aug. 18, 1913, destroyed this key Gettysburg landmark.
"Gettysburg went through the experiences of a wonderful electric storm on Monday evening," reported the Gettysburg Compiler on Wednesday, Aug. 20. "The storm broke over the town about five o'clock. It seemed to be one continuous performance of thunder and lightning, crash after crash. With it came great gusts of wind that tore up trees and the rain fell in blinding sheets. There were frequent intermissions of hail throughout the storm."
According to the Compiler, "The first lull of the storm over the town came as it reached Seminary Ridge." There stood William G. Weaver, Gettysburg's eventual mayor from 1851 to 1871, who was just a child during this storm-of-the-century-like atmosphere. "As I stood on Seminary Ridge with my brother and sister," Weaver recorded in 1966, "we counted seven barn fires to the west."
Fortunately for the seminary, the Gettysburg Fire Department responded in a timely manner. Several decades later, firefighter Rufus Bushman described the company's arrival at Seminary Ridge with a Silsby steam-powered fire engine "and 'two large reels of hose.'"
"I remember one fire when lightning struck the cupola at the seminary," Bushman said during an "'Old Timers Night'" program at Gettysburg's Fire Prevention Week in 1957. "The reels got there first. The manpower pulling the Silsby couldn't get it up the hill on Spring[s] Ave.," a roadway near the seminary's southern entrance. "We hitched up and the water went about as high as the first floor of the seminary building," Bushman continued. Shortly thereafter, another firefighter, John Slonaker, pulled up in "a truck and drove down to pull the Silsby up and finally we got the fire out."
"I was on hand to watch...the burning of the cupola of the old dorm at the Seminary," young William Weaver later wrote in his Gettysburg Times column "Reminiscences of Gettysburg," a sight which he forever felt "was very spectacular." As he watched the "severe storms" and "very heavy rains," he noticed severe flooding at the bottom of the ridge in front of the seminary.
"The hose reels and ladder wagon got through O.K. but the Silsby had to be pulled through by horses, which delayed its arrival at the fire...," Weaver wrote. "After horses were secured the Silsby was pulled to the top of the hill to the...hydrant and pumped the water to the height of the cupola." Though it took some time, Weaver remarked, "Finally when the Silsby was hooked to the hydrant and the lines transferred to it, the fire was quickly extinguished."
The Compiler commended the first responders. "When the Gettysburg firemen arrived their work proved effective in preventing any spread of the fire beyond the cupola," opined the paper, which also presented its idea of the reason the cupola alone suffered: "The building was protected with a slate roof preventing a spread of fire." Likewise, Weaver noted, "A copper floor in the cupola saved the building." Rufus Bushman chimed in on the matter, as well, with his suggestion that "the town is lucky that there was a copper bottom under the cupola or the entire seminary building could have burned down."
The Compiler felt the loss of the cupola was unfortunate, but was thankful that the seminary building was not demolished in its entirety. "There was great consternation at first when it was feared that that old historic landmark might be destroyed," the Compiler reported, "and it was a relief to discover at an early moment that only the cupola was doomed."
Among those stories published nationally, virtually all of them suggested that the cupola was the observation post of Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederacy's Army of Northern Virginia. However, despite many secondary sources' suggestion that Lee used the cupola sometime after July 1, there is scant contemporary historical evidence that it happened. Nevertheless, these excerpts were reprinted time and time again to the possible detriment of historical accuracy, as well as the more accurate (yet curiously then-unreported) example of the cupola serving as Buford's lookout, as reported by his divisional signal officer, First Lt. Aaron B. Jerome.
On May 21, 1914, the seminary's board of directors discussed the renovation to the cupola that had taken place in the nine months since the lightning strike and fire.
"The site of the Seminary was the scene of several unusual and terrible storms last summer," the board reported. "In one of these a great oak was completely destroyed and other trees greatly injured." The cupola only "burned down to the deck," in the board's words, due in large part to the "willing hands both of the families of the professors and of the employees and of the town fire department arrested the conflagration and saved the building."
According to the board, the seminary's building insurance policy covered $764.25, which amounts to approximately $19,259.56 in modern terms when adjusted for inflation. This amount, said the board, "enabled us to restore the cupola to its former appearance," though unfortunately, "incidental loss and repairs amounted to several hundred dollars in addition."
Despite its replacement, the shape, size, and design of the restored cupola appears to match the original structure almost identically. Regardless of its present age, the cupola stands as a timeless monument. From its heights, men witnessed the worst of humanity wage war on one another in the killing fields of July 1863, and fifty years later, the worst of nature in the fateful lightning of August 1913.