- Historic Sites
The Children Of Gettysburg
The storm broke over their small town and changed their lives forever
May/June 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 4
Beside [our] little front porch … lay two dead Union soldiers. I had never before seen a dead man, yet I do not recall that I was shocked, so quickly does war brutalize.” Charles McCurdy of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was ten years old in July 1863 when he came upon those corpses. Later in his life he reflected with surprise at “the matter of fact way I looked on this tremendous event” despite the terrible scenes he witnessed: “The church yard was strewn with arms and legs that had been amputated and thrown out of the windows, and all around were wounded men for whom no place had yet been found. I remember very little about the events of this day, for there was the same dreadful monotony of sound and awful sights of suffering.”
Although some of Gettysburg’s children were more aware and some less, every one of them was profoundly affected by the battle.
Thirteen-year-old William Bayly, who lived on a farm three miles north of town, had been expecting action. For more than a year frequent reports of Confederate forays into Pennsylvania had spurred William’s family into exciting activity. Recalling those times, he wrote, “We skedaddled on various occasions with a view of saving our horses.” Once he and his father joined a procession of farmers headed for Harrisburg, about thirty-five miles to the north. All that night William rode one horse and led another. The Baylys stayed with a farmer friend and helped him harvest wheat. When they got home, they found their own wheat cut and stacked by a party of Maryland skedaddlers.
William barely understood the fear and dread that adults seemed to have. Then, late in June 1863, tired from a morning of haying, he was taking an after-lunch nap when word came. “‘Rebs are coming’ … I stood not on the order of my going, but ran [to the barn] barefooted and coatless.” He mounted Nellie, and he and his father were off. His mother chased them with coat and shoes, which he took but did not stop to put on. Soon they saw soldiers. He used the clothing to “forcibly urge Nellie to more rapid motion.” They were captured by Confederates but managed to escape and return home with the horses.
Henry Eyster Jacobs, a precocious eighteen-year-old town resident who had just graduated from Pennsylvania (now Gettysburg) College, observed that the horse skedaddlers were “followed by refugees in wagons with household goods, reminding one of gipsy nomads.” Many were blacks, afraid of capture and a return to slavery. Daniel Skelly, age eighteen, a clerk at the Fahnestock Brothers store, was called upon several times, day and night, to pack up merchandise and send it off via chartered railroad car. Merchants would simply go out of business until their goods came back.
Nervous though the people were, most of them did not believe the Confederates would come to their town. Henry Jacobs wrote that his grandmother “had been spending some weeks with us, but, as the crisis approached, insisted on returning to Harrisburg, as she thought it the point of attack, and she must look after her children and property. My mother suggested that she did not seem to care as to what became of us. With a look of scorn, she answered: ‘Why, Julia Ann, what would the rebels ever want to come to Gettysburg for!’ We secretly agreed with her.”
But come they did, on June 26. Henry’s father, Michael, a science professor, used the garret of their house as an observatory. Through the telescope Henry saw the Confederate cavalry “dashing into Chambersburg Street.” His family closed the house securely and made the shutters “as tight as night.”
Fifteen-year-old Tillie Pierce was frightened: “What a horrible sight! There they were, human beings! clad almost in rags, covered with dust, riding wildly pell-mell down the hill toward our home! shouting, yelling most unearthly, cursing, brandishing their revolvers, and firing right and left.”
Small boys were delighted. Charles McCurdy and his friends had been hoping for a battle. He joined a group of men and boys assembled at the end of Chambersburg Street. One boy fired a little homemade cannon, but only once before prudent grown-ups stopped him. As soon as the riders crested the ridge, Charles ran home to the safety of his porch. The Rebel yells and pistol shots were “not as thrilling as I had expected. The pistols were fired into the air, the yelling sounded halfhearted and altogether it lacked dramatic effect.” He thought they and their horses looked tired.
Henry Jacobs wrote, “The town is in the enemy’s hands, but after all it is the same town.” Little Charles McCurdy’s parents could not have been unduly worried, for “no restriction was placed on my goings and comings.” Charles followed the Confederates to the town square. They showed him “the feeling of protective comradeship that nice men show to little boys” and sent him on errands for things to eat. He failed to carry them out because “I could not waste the precious moments of their stay for anything as humdrum as bread and butter.”
Soon the Rebels moved on toward York, but during the next few days Henry Jacobs saw through the glass that more Confederates were gathering in the mountains to the west. On June 30 Union troops arrived. Unfortunately Henry had the telescope aimed westward, and so he missed the appearance of the army on the Emmitsburg Road to the south.