- 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
The whole town turned out to greet the soldiers as they marched along Washington Street. Tillie Pierce and other glory-struck girls joyfully sang “Our Union Forever” to cheer the Union troops. That night she and her sister stayed up preparing bouquets, intending to show the soldiers “how welcome they would be.” The next morning, in their eagerness to watch the procession, they forgot to present the flowers. Daniel Skelly characterized the town’s reaction to the arrival of Union cavalry: “I well remember how secure this made us feel. We thought surely now we were safe.” That night Union troops camped on ridges west and north, between the town and the enemy.
By early morning of July 1, Daniel was perched in an oak tree near the railroad cut on Seminary Ridge. “The ridge was full of men and boys,” he said, “all eager to witness a brush with the Confederates and not dreaming of the terrible conflict that was to occur on that day….” Leander Warren, fifteen, was in the Union camp, helping out by riding cavalry horses to a creek for water. Charles McCurdy was there too.
With a few friends William Bayly had walked to town from his farm. They saw the soldiers, then started home. Temporarily they forgot about the war, until they were startled by a cannon discharging. It seemed very close. At first they ran. “But to me as a boy it was glorious!” William recalled. “Here were my aspirations for months being gratified … here it was right at home—and evidently going to be a bang-up fight at that.” They perched on a rail fence. When Confederate troops appeared “in clouds, wave after wave,” a few hundred yards from the boys, they “departed for home, not riotously or in confusion, but decorously and in order, as became boys who had preempted seats to see a battle but found conditions too hot for comfort.”
In fact, most of the watchers departed from their vantage points. Charles McCurdy’s father came after him, and they ran, the boy dropping a sword he had found into a cornfield. He intended to retrieve it. “But the next day,” he said, “swords were no longer a novelty.” Not only did Daniel Skelly and the crowd on Seminary Ridge hear cannons, but “shot and shell began to fly over our heads. There was then a general stampede toward town.”
Henry found the Georgia brigade that was stationed around his house to be “very courteous and affable” and considerate, although “exultant.”
Military guards rode through, warning citizens to take to their cellars. During the three days of battle, most residents obeyed, at least while shelling was going on, and those with inadequate cellars joined relatives or neighbors. Some fled the town.
Henry Jacobs noted that when his family was joined by another household, “It became a problem as to how we were to be fed. For bread, we had depended on the baker; but his establishment had been cleaned out. There was some flour on hand, but no yeast or baking powder. The ladies managed to make some biscuit, and to make a batter of flour and water as a substitute for bread, which with raspberries which I picked when there was no firing, formed a good part of our subsistance.” Charles McCurdy became tired of eating ham.
When word came early in the first day’s fighting that the Union general John Reynolds had been killed, twelve-year-old Mary Warren’s mother told her to pray. Mary went to the garret window of her house, the westernmost dwelling on Middle Street. Afterward she could not recall whether she prayed or not, but she saw Union men retreating with shells bursting over them.
Two girls wrote letters later in July. Annie Young confessed in hers that on July 1, with the battle raging, “all I could do was sit in the cellar corner and cry.” Seventeen-year-old Jennie McCreary was in an alien cellar. “If ever I wished myself at home I did then. There I was, the only one of our family shut down in a damp, dark hole with crying children and a poor young soldier who had received three wounds which had not yet been attended to. … To know the rebels were in town, to hear the shells bursting and expecting every minute they would fall on the house, was indeed horrible.” By contrast, on that first day, Leander Warren, living by the railroad, was intrigued: “They fought so we were just between the armies with dead men and horses lying along the street. During this time we were … peeping out of the cellar windows.” Daniel Skelly’s sister Annie, seven, focused on events inside the cellar. Her principal memory was of a German man sitting on a barrel that collapsed under his weight. “We did not know whether a shell hit him or what. When we pulled him out by the head he said in broken English, ‘I believe I fell in the barrel,’ and then we all laughed.”