The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Currents

October 25, 2011

The Peter H. Watson legend

Was the Battle of Gettysburg planned in Ashtabula, or is it a case of embellishing facts?

The stranger walked into the Ashtabula shop of Willard, Wells & Co. and asked to see George Willard, one of the partners.

“What is the price for your home?” the well-dressed man asked Willard.

“It’s not for sale,” Willard replied, anxious to return to his work.

“Name your price,” the stranger countered, with the confidence of a man with the money to match his inquiry.

Willard analyzed the situation and the fine clothing of the nervous, 40-some male before him, paused, processed the situation and tossed out a figure that was completely ludicrous.

“$10,000,” Willard said, certain that no sober or sane man would agree to drop that kind of money on his abode, even though it was the best in the village.

The stranger reached into his vest pocket, pulled out his billbook and started dropping the $1,000 bills onto the counter.

“There, $10,000,” Willard said, placing the last bill on the stack. “Now, when may I and my wife move in?”

Planning a battle

The stranger was Peter H. Watson, assistant secretary of war under Edwin Stanton and a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln. Watson’s Ashtabula legend, however, would suggest that Watson was no stranger to Ashtabula and George Willard when the real estate transaction was completed on Oct. 4, 1864. Indeed, if you believe many of the fantastic stories written over the years, Peter H. Watson practically ran the War Department from Ashtabula and convened a gathering of Union generals here to plan the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3 1863.

One might even locate a souvenir Ashtabula sesquicentennial (1803-1853) plate at a garage sale or flea market that claims as much.

“Never heard of (the Ashtabula claim),” says John Heiser, a historian with the Gettysburg National Military Park. He said it is a safe bet that Watson, who was indeed one of the two assistant secretaries of war at the time, would have been at Stanton’s side in Washington, D.C., during the Battle of Gettysburg. Further, as most eighth-grade history students will tell you, the Battle of Gettysburg was not planned.

“Nobody plans a battle,” Heiser says. “It just happens by chance ... in the case of Gettysburg, it was a battle by chance.”

Nor would generals leave their armies in the field and take off to some far-flung location to conference with an assistant secretary of war.

“I don’t think it would be (the assistant secretary’s) job to do any planning at all, except to take notes,” Heiser said.

It was common, however, for government workers to escape the oppressive summer heat of Washington for a few weeks. But the concept of Peter Watson holding session with military leaders in Ashtabula, far from the theater of war, is absurd.

Or is it?

According to the guest register of the Fisk House, one of Ashtabula’s popular hotels, P.H. Watson was a guest there in August 1861. He returned in June 1862 and was a guest on numerous dates in July, August and September of 1863. But these visits appear to be in conjunction with  railroad, oil company and war materiel business, not planning battles with generals who came to the city incognito, as some have suggested.

On Oct. 4, 1864, he and his wife Roselle were guests at Fisk House, which aligns with historical fact.

Legend persists, however, that Watson was a resident of the city during the Gettysburg battle and even had a special telegraph line strung to his home so he could stay in contact with Stanton and the generals. This legend is perpetuated in newspaper columns and history books, including the otherwise reliable Moina W. Large’s “History of Ashtabula County, Ohio,” published in 1924.

Problem is, the real estate records don’t line up with the story. The sale of George Willard’s palatial home on Park Avenue came 15 months after the Battle of Gettysburg and at a time Watson was said to be suffering from a “softening of the brain” as a result of the grueling schedule he kept as assistant secretary.

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