- 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
Only gradually did residents come to realize that the battle had ended. They continued to see Confederates and to hear shooting. Spunky Mary Warren, still on Baltimore Street, heard Union soldiers “hurrahing for the Fourth of July. I as a child thought all danger was over and, I judge, homesick. Anyway, I started for my home.” She was near the Jacobses’ house on Middle Street when “I heard something whistle past my ear, evidently a bullet from some sharpshooter on the Ridge west of town. Just then someone called, ‘Mary.’ It was my Father. … He took me into the Minnick family and asked them to take care of me till [it was] safe to go farther.”
The night of July 3 Daniel Skelly was in bed, unable to sleep through the puzzling sounds outside. He was unsure of the outcome until he heard a noisy demonstration at about 4:00 A.M.: “I looked out. Ye Gods! What a welcome sight for the … people of Gettysburg … the Boys in Blue.” He said it was raining “quite briskly.” Adults told Liberty Hollinger, who was sixteen, that the storm had been brought on by the heavy cannonading.
The rain was over by morning. People emerged, not to celebrate the national holiday but to look upon scenes far more gruesome than anything they could have imagined during their imprisonment. In fields all about the town and even in the streets, corpses of men and animals had been cooking in the sun for up to three days. Dreadfully wounded men, barely alive and croaking with thirst, had been lying unattended for as long. Fifteen-year-old Albertus McCreary went onto the battlefield with his father to look for a missing cow. They found “dead soldiers lying around thick, dead horses, and cow skins and heads. … In one place there were as many as forty dead horses … the bodies were much swollen, the feet standing up in the air.” The smell was “so bad that every one went about with a bottle of pennyroyal or peppermint oil.” The stench wafted over the town for weeks, and it worried people, for they believed bad air caused disease.
The children could not have helped but see ghastly sights, but as though they could not bear to remember, some avoided describing them in their accounts. Henry Jacobs was one who confessed reluctance to write about it. In fact, he may not have seen the worst, for he said that for days “we could scarcely do anything but sleep.” When finally he awoke, he and his father went out on the battlefield with surveying tools. From emblems on equipment and parts of uniforms strewn about they determined the locations of various units. The book Michael Jacobs wrote was the first to be published about the battle.
Two girls recorded what they saw. On July 5 Mary Warren heard her mother say she wished she had dried fruit to bake pies. Wanting to surprise her, Mary set out for McMillan’s farm on Seminary Ridge. “I had to go through a lane and over the same spot that I had seen the shells bursting…. I saw three dead men—I thought they were colored men—they were killed the Wednesday before.” She was stopped by farmer McDonald, who ordered, “‘You go right home.’ I went. But he never knew how afraid I was to pass those dead ‘colored’ men again.” Their skins had been blackened by the sun, as other people noted.
Tillie Pierce saw more. Still at the Weikert farm, she watched amputations, with chloroform administered in cattle horns placed over the face. “The whole scene was one of butchery,” she said, and “just outside the yard I noticed a pile of limbs higher than the fence.” She was taken to the crest of Little Round Top to see the litter of battle, including dead Confederates who had not yet been buried. On July 7 she walked home through fields near the Taneytown Road. Fences had disappeared, monuments in the town cemetery lay smashed, and buildings were ruined or gone. “The whole landscape had been changed, and I felt as though we were in a strange and blighted land.” About a week after the battle, Liberty Hollinger walked the fields. She found hands and feet protruding from shallow graves. “To conceal skeletons from view I would collect army coats lying about and place them over the bones.”
The town of about twenty-five hundred coped with some sixteen thousand injured men. All public buildings were filled, and barns for miles around. Charles McCurdy described a hospital in a barn: “They lay on the threshing floor, each on a single blanket, without covering of any kind. It was too early for organized relief. They had received no care and were a pitiful and dreadful sight.”
A Confederate general took over Mary’s house. The family stayed in the cellar and asked him not to use the front room. He complied.
Townspeople nursed wounded soldiers in their homes. Liberty Hollinger assumed the daily duty of cleaning and dressing the wound of a man whose arm had been amputated at the shoulder. While most of those taken in were Union men, the McCurdys had a Confederate general. He was a “delightful and appreciative … elderly man, fond of children, and my little sisters were frequent visitors to his room.” In Charles’s view, the best aspect of the general’s stay was his aide, who had been a sailor. “One day in the privacy of the stable he took off his shirt and showed me his back on which a full rigged ship was tattooed, a very unusual and thrilling exhibit.” Some citizens objected to an enemy’s getting such good treatment, and after two weeks the general was taken, protesting, to a hospital.