I’ve always loved American history, in particular the Civil War. And when it comes right down to it, I admit…I’m obsessed with Gettysburg.
Not just the battle fought by soldiers in blue and grey— but the one forged by some incredibly brave people. The civilians of Gettysburg. Since we are smack dab in the middle of the anniversary of the battle (July 1-3, 1863) I'd like to introduce you to some of the heroes you may not have heard of.
Some fast facts before we meet our civilian heroes:
The town of Gettysburg consisted of 2,400 civilians.
When the armies moved out, they left behind 22,000 wounded men.
In all 51,000 men were reported killed or missing.
And let’s not forget the hundreds of horses, mules and livestock killed during the battle.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t even imagine having my hometown turned upside down by a battle of that scale and then being left to deal with the results of said battle.
While John Burns and Jennie Wade are arguably the most famous civilians of Gettysburg, there are other unsung heroes and heroines who quietly did what needed to be done.
Elizabeth Thorn. German immigrant who was acting as caretaker of Evergreen Cemetery, a job normally performed by her husband, Peter. But Peter was with the 138th Pennsylvania, and during the Battle of Gettysburg, he was stationed at Harper’s Ferry and Washington, D.C. Elizabeth moved her family, which consisted of her elderly parents and three sons ages 7, 5 and 2 from their little gatehouse out of harm’s way and back again more than once during the three-day battle. She also dug graves for more than 90 dead soldiers during those three days. Elizabeth was six months pregnant during the battle of Gettysburg.
Salome Myers. Salome “Sally” Myers was a schoolteacher and assistant to the principal in Gettysburg. She lived at home with her family during the battle. Her father was a justice of the peace and the Myers’ were one of the wealthier families in town. She admitted to being squeamish at the sight of blood, yet got over this quickly and cared for many wounded men from both sides of the battle. She risked her life many times by traveling back and forth from her home to makeshift hospitals. In the early days of the battle she cared for a badly wounded soldier by the name of Alexander Stuart, sitting with him for days until he succumbed to his injuries. In late July of 1863 she received a thank you letter from his mother. A year later Stuart’s mother—along with his brother Henry—traveled to Gettysburg to personally thank Miss Myers. A romance developed between Sally and Henry and they married in 1867.
Matilda “Tillie” Pierce. Tillie was only 15 years old at the time of the battle. Her parents sent her to a neighbor’s farm to wait out the battle. The farm sat behind what we now call “Little Round Top” and Tillie became an eyewitness to some of the fiercest fighting of the Battle of Gettysburg. Tillie provided food and water for the wounded and assisted surgeons and nurses caring for the wounded. Twenty six years later she wrote of her experiences during those three days in July, 1863.
Virginia “Jennie” Wade. Jenny, as most people know, was the only civilian killed during the battle. The twenty year old was baking bread to feed the Union soldiers when she was struck by a single bullet that traveled through two doors on the third day of the battle.
John Burns. Much like Jennie Wade’s story, Mr. Burns’ story has been told and retold so many times it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. Nearly 70 years old at the time of the battle, John Burns was a veteran of the War of 1812. When the rebels invaded his hometown, the elder patriot took up his trusty musket and joined the Union soldiers in battle. He fired 18 of his 25 rounds of ammunition before he was wounded, and claimed to have killed three rebels.
Elizabeth Butler, AKA “Old Liz”. 53 year old Elizabeth Butler was a washerwoman in Gettysburg. Her husband Samuel was a wagon maker. They owned their own home and enjoyed a comfortable standard of living compared to most African-Americans in 1863. In the earliest days of the battle Old Liz was taken captive by the Confederate army, with plans to be returned to the south and sold into slavery. She escaped her captors and returned home the day after the Confederate army retreated.
Daniel Skelly. Daniel was a teenager during the battle. While confederate troops camped in the street outside his home on Baltimore Street, Daniel and his mother hid union soldiers in their cellars and outbuildings. Later during the battle he helped his mother care for wounded soldiers.
Daniel also went on to write about his experiences.
Catherine Garlach. Catherine and her 12-year-old son, Will also lived on Baltimore Street. Since their house was in direct line of fire for Union sharpshooters, they hid in their basement. Several times Confederate soldiers tried to commandeer the Garlach home –and each time they were driven back by Mrs. Garlach herself.
Albertus McCreary. First young Albertus was nearly killed by Confederate sharpshooters while peeking out a rooftop door of his home. Then a short while later, while standing on the porch of his family home, wearing a Union kepi given to him by a solider, a Confederate officer tried to take him captive, assuming he was a soldier. It was only over the protest of his father, and after questioning several neighbors as to whether or not the boy actually lived in town, that the officer let him go.
Agnes Barr. While other townspeople hid inside their homes on July 3, avoiding the fetid smell of decaying men and animals, Mrs. Barr left her home on Baltimore Street—darting between buildings to avoid the sharpshooters—many times in order to take food and supplies to the makeshift hospitals and care for wounded soldiers.
Source: When the Smoke Cleared at Gettysburg, George Sheldon; Days of Darkness: The Gettysburg Civilians, William G. Williams; What A Girl Saw and Heard by Tillie Pierce Allman; A Boy’s Experiences During the Battle of Gettysburg by Daniel Skelly.