May/June 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 4
The storm broke over their small town and changed their lives forever
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.
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.”
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.”
William Bayly arrived at the farm to find a lot of “extremely apprehensive” relatives and neighbors. His father was not home, and so, being the oldest male on hand, he took charge of protecting the women and concealing livestock (most of which was eventually stolen). “But the question was: How could I look after a number of hysterical women and at the same time feel the joy that warriors feel?” When at last his father returned, he was “glad to grasp the hand again and feel the security that its pressure brought.” It was not until the evening of the second day that he was able to act like the thirteen-year-old he was. He climbed onto the portico roof and “fixed myself undisturbed, to get the feelings of things.” All day it had been: “ ‘Do this or get that,’ and I was not getting my money’s worth of the show.” He was too far away to see details: “It was simply noise, flash and roar. … I had the sensation of a lifetime.”
When injured soldiers began to appear in town on that first afternoon, Leander Warren and his sisters answered their cries for water by fetching buckets from the well to fill a dishpan on the windowsill. Soon every large building was filled with wounded men. Daniel Skelly carried pails of water to hospitals. He went to the courthouse accompanied by a young woman. “Some of them,” he said, “were so frightfully wounded that a lady could not go near them. These I gave water to, while she cared for those not so severely wounded.” On that day and for a week or more to come, many of the children’s mothers and older sisters summoned courage to nurse wounded from both armies. They were unanimously horrified at the suffering and exhausted themselves trying to alleviate it without really having the resources to do so. In the accounts children gave afterward, none of them complained about their mothers’ absence, fatigue, or preoccupation, but those too young to understand must have felt abandoned.
Residents reacted with despair to the Union retreat from the ridges west and north of town that first day. Daniel Skelly said, “When our forces were being driven back through the town in the afternoon, I went home feeling that everything was lost and throughout my life I have never felt more despondent.” By seven o’clock much of the town was occupied by Confederates. Their line stretched all along Middle Street. A Georgia brigade was stationed around the Jacobses’ house. Henry said of them, “They were very courteous and affable, and, while exultant at the result, had too much consideration for us to be defiant.” However, he slept little that night. “Who knew what was yet to come, or whether we would sleep again in that house?”
A Confederate general took possession of Mary Warren’s house. The family stayed in the cellar and asked the general not to use the front room, for they had a new carpet. He complied. Before daylight the next morning Mary’s grandfather appeared and offered help. “My Father said, ‘You might take Mary along, we may have to leave here.’” The elder Warrens lived on Baltimore Street. “I will never forget that walk in the early morning,” Mary said. “Men and horses were lying in the street.”
Townspeople had little sense of where events would be taking the soldiers. The first day’s action had put residents in the northern and western parts of town at risk, but the long stretch of Baltimore Street to the south seemed safer, and Mary was one of the many who sought refuge there. It was on that street that a stray bullet killed Jennie Wade, a young woman baking bread. She was the only civilian to die in the battle. The fighting on the second and third days took place primarily to the south, and it was so fierce that even Henry Jacobs abandoned his telescope and took to the cellar. Sharpshooters occupied some town buildings. Afterward many a resident could display shells and bullets embedded in fences, siding, even bedsteads.
Tillie Pierce found herself in a hot spot. She had gone along with neighbors to the supposed safety of Jacob Weikert’s farmhouse on the eastern slope of the Round Tops, near the southern end of the Union line. Fierce fighting erupted on the far side of the ridge, and with shells whizzing overhead, a soldier told Tillie and her friends to go eastward to another farm. On arrival they were “told to hurry back to where we came from; that we were in a great deal more danger, from the fact that the shells would fall just about this place….”
Henry Jacobs’s father was at the telescope on the afternoon of July 3. He watched the cannon fire and then the beginning of the disastrous Confederate charge across open fields between Seminary Ridge and the Federal line. He summoned his son, and Henry saw the Confederates in retreat after the gray tide got as far north as it ever would, then broke against the Union defenses on Cemetery Ridge.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
The day after Lincoln spoke, Susan Holobaugh White, who was in Gettysburg visiting her cousin, wrote a letter to her husband. In the midst of descriptions of the excitement she inserted this: “…the news just came to the door that a little boy was openeing a shell and it exploded and cut him into and shot the arms off a man and both his eyes out. … I heard the nois and thought they was fireing.” Albertus McCreary described what was probably the same accident, with slightly different details. Walking along High Street near Powers’s stoneyard, he heard an explosion and turned to find a younger schoolmate lying on his back with his bowels blown away. Near him was a stranger almost torn to pieces, his hands hanging in shreds. The battlefield visitor had found a shell and wanted to open it. A witness said the boy ran from the stoneyard to warn the man of danger. “Just as he spoke, down came the shell on the stone and exploded.” Albertus placed this event a year after the battle, but perhaps his memory played tricks. Cemetery records state that on November 20, 1863, Allen Frazer, thirteen, was killed by the explosion of a shell.
Although the battle itself took only one civilian life, during the twelve months afterward the town cemetery keeper recorded ten deaths from diphtheria and twelve from typhoid, numbers much greater than usual.
Years later Charles McCurdy reflected: “The battle was too big for a little boy. Had I realized that the noise and tumult, the confusion and excitement … meant that 140,000 [it was actually 160,000] men were trying to kill each other … my emotions might have been more in keeping with the great tragedy.” Like Charles, the rest of Gettysburg’s children would struggle for the remainder of their lives to make personal peace with their memories.