"Tell it not to Gath": A Brief Biography of George Alfred Townsend

Located in the Maryland hills, nestled on the ridge of South Mountain lays the remains of the Gapland estate. The estate was built by a writer simply known as “Gath.” George Alfred Townsend was his given name, and he added the H to his initials for his pen name due to the biblical passage of II Samuel, 1:20 where it read “Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askalon.” Today, many people are unaware of George Alfred Townsend. Those who do take the time to learn about him either like his personality or despise of the man. Some of his works have been compared to Walt Whitman, and to several journalists of today.

George Alfred Townsend was born on January 30th, 1841 in Georgetown, Delaware. As a child, he spent a great deal of his time in Pennsylvania, Maryland, as well as in Delaware attending various schools wherever his father, Reverend Stephen was assigned to. His parents were highly religious and strict. This was a no nonsense type of family. The first theatrical play he attended was “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” After a gunshot in the theater rang out, he quickly hurried out, thinking that this was a sign from above that he shouldn’t be attending such things as theatrical performances. This was a reflection of his very strict upbringing.

Some of the schools that George attended were Newark Academy, which is now the University of Delaware. In February of 1860, George graduated from Central High School with a Bachelor in Arts degree. As a child, George was interested in writing, and had a love for nature, as well as an interest in art. At the age of 16, he published a small magazine.

The night before his graduation, George received some news that would change his life. He was told to contact the Philadelphia Inquire. He began working there as a news editor, and then became an editorial writer. Shortly afterwards in early 1861, George became a city editor for the Philadelphia Press. There he wrote about current events, poems, and then became a traveling correspondent. During this period he wrote a play called “The Bohemians.”

Upon graduating, he developed a love for travel. Using the book entitled “Fields of the Revolutionary Battlefields,” he visited many of the battlefields of the Revolutionary War. After his visit, he would write about his personal experiences there.

During the outbreak of the American Civil War, George worked for the New York Herald as a reporter in Philadelphia. Shortly afterwards, he took on a new position as a war correspondent and his first Civil War article was about the death of Lieutenant Greble during the Battle of Big Bethel. However, during the first year of the Civil War, George found himself writing more about local events in Philadelphia as they related to the war.

By April of 1862, George was a war correspondent. He got his break when General George McClellan rode through Philadelphia on his way to Washington. George became a war correspondent with the army where he wrote a piece on the Battle of Cedar Mountain. George was forced to suspend his career when he came down with Chickahominy Fever. By the end of the year, George was recuperating and decided to travel to Europe.

While in Europe, George wrote several pieces about the Seven Days’ Battles for the New York Herald, and wrote a book that was never published. The articles he wrote were good, but they were often outdated due to the time it took to get that information across the Atlantic Ocean. While in London he traveled the circuit, lecturing about some of his experiences. He studied European literature and developed a fascination for it. Although he enjoyed Europe, he grew dissatisfied with European journalism, and by 1864, he returned to America.

Still a war correspondent, he would see the Civil War end with Grant as overall commander. While still covering the war, he experimented with his writing, but found that America had no market for literary works. George’s first touch of fame came during the closing of the Civil War, when he wrote about the battle of Five Forks. This was the article that launched his career and helped him to achieve fame. Some of his best works came from his reports while covering the events following the assignation of President Abraham Lincoln.

Townsend also covered the news stories about the Lowrie Band in North Carolina while working for the New York World. Henry B. Lowrie was the leader of the North Carolina gang who was viewed as the “Robin Hood” of his day. He fought for the civil rights of the Lumbee and Tuscarora people. Lowrie was described by Townsend as “one of those remarkable executive spirits that arises now and then in a raw community without advantages other than those given by nature.” In one of his articles Townsend enraged a gang member to the point that he threatened to kill the journalist who wrote the article.

On December 21st, 1865, George Townsend married Miss Bessie Evans Rhodes of Philadelphia. Heading into the New Year, things were going well for George. During the year he managed to have his book entitled “Campaigns of a Non-Combatant” published.

In 1866, Townsend and his wife left America to travel to Paris where he covered the Austro-Prussian War. In October of that same year in Paris, his first child was born. He visited one of the Prussian camps where more than a 100,000 soldiers encamped, and felt that a war with France was inevitable, a feeling that came true in 1870 with the Franco-Prussian War. By 1867, George would see the end of the Austro-Prussian War while still in Paris.

George Townsend and his family moved to Washington DC shortly after returning to America. George wanted to study government. As a young writer, George became a major success, being employed by just about every major newspaper in the U.S. This career spanned for almost forty years. In 1868, in the Chicago Tribune, George Alfred Townsend used the penname GATH. This would have an influence once he began building his estate later on.

George was a successful man. He had several books published including “Katy of the Catoctin” and “Tales of the Chesapeake.” You can still buy many of his books today. Life was good for George. He spent most of his money in his early years on books, travel, and experiences. In his honor he even had a cigar named after him, and then race horses, and post offices, to the point where GATH became a sort of trademark.

Even though he was a writer, he often turned down jobs, hoping to leave journalism in the past and begin exploring more along the literary style as a means to earn his living. He was also a successful lecturer among the high society Washington bureaucrats. While living in Washington, he found that his writing schedule was very harsh. He was always busy, and shortly after his 40th birthday, he found he needed a place where he could go and get away from the stress of his work. George found that place in late 1884.

On October 17th, 1884, George was taking a buggy ride with a friend and happened upon the Crampton’s Gap Battlefield. He fell in love with the area due to the surroundings of nature, and knew this was where he wanted to have his retreat from Washington. On December 18th, he owned one hundred acres of land and named this estate Gapland. By late December of 1884 and early 1885, he built the first building, naming it Askalon.

With his passion for nature and art, he began constructing several buildings. By the time it was finished, there were over nine buildings in total, including the Gapland Hall, library & den, the lodge, barn, and out buildings for his children and guests. One of the buildings was a toll house that he built to keep up improvements of the public road, an idea unpopular with local residents. Aside from the buildings, there were over ten structures on the property, two of those structures still stand today. They are Gath’s empty tomb and the War Correspondent’s Arch.

The estate was built during a period known as the “Resort era”. Many estates were built along the ridge of South Mountain from Gapland to Blue Ridge Summit. Although there is no connection to the time period of Gapland, these communities witnessed inner city bureaucrats traveling to these places for the cooler weather in the summertime.

Upon visiting the battlefield of Antietam in 1895, George noticed that there were monuments being constructed, itinerary markers, and battle lines being memorialized. He felt that the non-combatant would be a forgotten. So Gath took on the project, and in my opinion, erected one of the most unusual monuments that have ever been constructed. This is the War Correspondent’s Arch.

In Decmeber of 1895, plans were being drawn for the monument. During the initial drawing stage he incorporated something that he had seen at Hagerstown on his way to Gapland. These features were a horseshoe arch on a railroad station, and watch tower at the fire house. Gath contacted several war correspondents, and after their blessing, he began to raise the money needed to construct the monument. He had created flyers and sent them to every newspaper agency that he had worked for. Donations soon came in including donations from his friends Thomas Edison, JP Morgan, and George Pullman. Soon Gath had $5,000.00 to build his monument. John Smithmeyer volunteered his architectural experiences, and construction of the monument began.

Completed in 1896, at fifty feet tall and forty feet wide, this monument has many architectural themes that were incorporated into the drawing stage. Looking at the monument today, you can see how Gath also incorporated his love for art and nature. In her book “George Alfred Townsend,” Ruthanna Hindes describes the monument best:

“Above a Moorish arch sixteen feet high, built of Hummelstown purple stone are super-imposed three Roman arches. These are flanked on one side with a square crenellated tower, producing a bizarre and picturesque effect. Niches in different places shelter the carving of two horses’ heads, and symbolic terra cotta statuettes of Mercury, Electricity and Poetry. Tables under the horses’ heads bear the suggestive words “Speed” and “Heed”; the heads are over the Roman arches. The three Roman arches are made of limestone from Creek Battlefield, Virginia, and each is nine feet high and six feet wide. These arches represent Description, Depiction and Photography.”

“The aforementioned tower contains a statue of Pan with the traditional pipes, and he is either half drawing or sheathing a Roman sword. Over a small turret on the opposite side of the tower is a gold vane of a pen bending a sword. At various places on the monument are quotations appropriate to the art of war correspondence. These are from a great variety of sources beginning with Old Testament verses. Perhaps the most striking feature of all are the tablets inscribed with the names of 157 correspondents and war artists who saw and described in narrative and picture almost all the events of the four years of the war.”

The unusual arched monument was dedicated by Maryland Governor Lloyd Lowndes on October 17, 1896. This was the beginning of the downfall for George Alfred Townsend. In 1903, his wife Bessie, passed away, and instead of being buried in the tomb on the Gapland Estate property, she was buried in Philadelphia.

In 1904, George turned over the arch to the National Park Service, to be maintained as a National Monument. Soon afterwards, George’s age caught up with him and it seemed as if he spent more time in Washington rather than traveling to Gapland. While visiting one of his children, Gath became sick and soon passed away. After Gath’s death on April 15, 1914, he was buried next to his wife, and his daughter sold the Gathland estate. The empty tomb at Gathland simply states “Goodnight Gath,” a reminder to him where life’s journey will take you in the end.

Today less than one-third of the Gapland estate still stands, and is part of the Maryland Park Service simply called Gathland State Park. Gapland Hall is only a fraction of what once stood and serves as a museum dedicated to the man. You have a small portion of the lodge that still stands as well as ruins of the barn. The lodge also serves as a Civil War museum dedicated to the Battle of South Mountain with special exhibits on the Battle of Crampton’s Gap. Two of the other houses still stand, but are private residental homes. One of those houses was the tollgate and is located at the intersection of Townsend and Gapland Roads. Today the monument fall’s under the care of Antietam National Battlefield and stands as a reminder to those who risked their lives to bring the civilian population the news from the battlefields of the American Civil War.

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4 thoughts on “"Tell it not to Gath": A Brief Biography of George Alfred Townsend

    • John A. Miller February 9, 2013 / 11:36 am

      The post card image comes from various online resources, but the image I used is from the Friends of South Mountain State Battlefield in their archives. If you are interested in Gath, you should visit the new museum at Gathland State Park dedicated to the War Correspondant as well as Gath himself.

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