- 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
Families formed strong, lasting bonds with their wounded. The Cunninghams, living by Marsh Creek south of town, had a barnful of soldiers from both armies. According to stories told to Frances Cunningham, a daughter born after the war, her siblings loved visiting the homesick, bored men, who played endlessly with them and carved them toys. “When Mother would go to the barn to take milk to the wounded, she would sometimes find a soldier asleep on the hay with a sleeping child on each arm.” This close contact had adverse results: “The children broke out with sores, were infested with vermin and all of them had itch.” Five-year-old Willie died, and the family blamed “blood poison from being about the wounded men.”
Daniel and Gus borrowed ten dollars each to buy tobacco, sold it to the soldiers, and got richer than they’d ever been in their lives.
The chaotic nursing situation was gradually brought under control by the Christian and Sanitary commissions and by many volunteer nurses. Albertus McCreary noted that the Sanitary Commission sent a wagon from door to door with supplies of food, for private stocks had been given away or stolen. Albertus went to the commission’s kitchen for meals: “We thought hardtack and bacon fried together a great treat.”
Visitors descended on Gettysburg by the thousands. It is unlikely that any child slept in a bed for many weeks, for the town opened its houses to relatives of the wounded, politicians, and curiosity seekers. Some adults took pride in not asking payment for rooms or even food.
Children were not so scrupulous. On July 5 Daniel Skelly and his friend Gus heard of a cache of tobacco hidden in Hollinger’s warehouse. Each of them borrowed ten dollars from his mother to buy large plugs, which they cut into ten-cent pieces. Sentries stopped them at the edge of town, so they sneaked past the Rock Creek swimming hole to Gulp’s Hill southeast of town. Soldiers camped there were so willing to buy that the boys made several trips. “After paying back our borrowed capital,” said Daniel, “we each had more money than we had ever had in our lives.”
Visitors wanted relics of the battle. These were supplied by Albertus McCreary and other boys, who were always on the lookout for things to sell. Pieces of tree with embedded bullets were in great demand, and boys combed the woods with hatchets.
Because lead was scarce, the boys could get thirteen cents a pound for it. The best source was unexploded shells, according to Albertus. “We would unscrew the cap-end and if we were careful, fill the shell with water before we undertook to extract the bullets.” He saw what happened when an impatient friend struck a shell on a rock. Spark. Explosion. “With all my familiarity with horrors, I nearly fainted when I saw the surgeons probing his wound.” Albertus did not give this boy’s name, but the record shows that James Gulp, sixteen, was killed by a shell on September 9.
Albertus told of other hair-raising activities. Almost every boy had a can of powder hidden in house or barn, with rifles or carbines to shoot. The boys would fire into the air, leaving the ramrods in. They never knew where the rods went. Also, they would go into the woods and “place 5 or 6 Whitworth shells among dry leaves and sticks, set fire to the pile, and run off a safe distance and wait for the explosion. It made a racket that put the Fourth of July in the shade.”
Although confiscation of townspeople’s horses by soldiers had been almost complete, Leander Warren’s family still had theirs; a Confederate officer, grateful for a meal of shortcake, had given them protection. Leander got a job. Working for Basil Biggs, who had a contract to “raise the dead,” he used his one-horse team to help take 3,360 coffins to the cemetery, six at a time.
The soldiers’ cemetery was dedicated on November 19. Little Annie Skelly went to the parade. “I remember vividly of a man who lifted me up to see Lincoln. This was opposite the Court House. The street was crowded with people leaving only enough room for him to pass on his horse. He would turn from side to side looking at the people on either side when he passed with a solemn face. He looked rather odd on such a small horse.” Everyone agreed about the horse. Annie’s brother Daniel said the President was “the most peculiar-looking figure on horseback I have ever seen.”
Daniel was at Lincoln’s side for part of the procession, then lost his place. At the cemetery he dodged through the crowd and managed to climb “up on the side of the platform with my feet on the floor of it and left arm over the railing.” He thought Edward Everett’s oration was interesting. Then Lincoln “spoke in a quiet, forcible and earnest manner with no attempt at oratory….”
And so, for the rest of the nation, the battle was over. Gettysburg would be henceforth a national shrine. For the people of the town it was far from finished.
Daniel Skelly caught something of that in his observation that Lincoln’s speech “was received with very little if any applause.” He went on to describe the mood of the listeners. Those people had lost sons and brothers and sweethearts. They saw no prospect for ending the terrible war that by accident of location they had come to know so intimately. “Could there be much applause from such an audience?” he asked.