On the first day of July 1863, war came to Gettysburg, a tiny town in Adams County in southern Pennsylvania only a few miles from the state line with Maryland.
Many Gettysburg residents were of German descent and loyal to the Union, but when the two sides fought that desperate three-day battle in and around the town, the women of Gettysburg cared for them impartially, taking many of the wounded into their homes.
At Gettysburg, 3,155 Union soldiers were killed and 14,529 were wounded; 3,903 Confederates were killed and 18,735 wounded. Many men on both sides were missing.
How many more would have died had they not been cared for by the women of the town - unskilled in nursing and unfamiliar with the horrors of war - will never be known. The Civil War brought out the best in many people, and this was never illustrated more clearly than at Gettysburg.
It was a daring gamble for Confederate commander Robert E. Lee, and had it come off, the outcome of the war might have been in doubt, but Gettysburg was a disaster, and although he had many Union prisoners when he finally marched away, Lee left behind a third of his army. It was a shattering blow to Southern morale, and when Vicksburg surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on July 4, the future of the faltering Confederacy looked dark.
Volumes have been written about the military aspects of the Battle of Gettysburg, but much less about the hapless civilians caught up in the struggle. Their courage and compassion entitle them to a book of their own.
Among them was a young girl who may have been the only noncombatant to die; she was hit by a bullet sped on its way by a rifleman who could not see her. She has her own little niche in Civil War history as "Jennie Wade."
But Jennie was not her name - her nickname was Ginnie. Mary Virginia Wade was 20 when Northern and Southern troops ended the tranquillity of her small town and gunfire brought its own brand of hell to streets down which she no longer dared to venture. She had spirit, though, and before long she was taking badly needed water to Union troops near the house in which she was staying. Risky it certainly was: Northern sharpshooters on a slope above the town and Southern ones in the street were firing constantly at any target.
Virginia Wade was engaged to Johnston Skelly, a Union soldier from Gettysburg, and they hoped to marry in September, but neither would see that month.
Young Skelly was with the 87th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry and fought at the second Battle of Winchester on June 13, 1863, when Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell's Confederates launched an attack on a garrison commanded by Maj. Gen. Robert Milroy. The battle lasted three days and proved to be a decisive victory for Ewell. On the third day, Skelly was wounded badly. It is not known whether his fiancee learned this. In all probability, she did not.
Virginia's married sister, Georgina McClellan, had had a baby a few days before the battle began, and Virginia and her mother had moved temporarily to Georgina's home to take care of her and her baby. It was from the side door of this house, giving access to the kitchen, that Virginia used to slip out when carrying water to thirsty soldiers.
Situated on Baltimore Road, the house was hit sometimes by stray bullets, but until then, none had entered. At 8:30 in the morning of Friday, July 3, Virginia was kneading dough, her hands busy in a bowl, when a bullet ripped through the side door. It struck her in the back, and she fell to the floor.
Mrs. Wade was in another room. Hearing the sound of the bullet shattering the door, followed by Virginia's brief, agonized cry, she ran into the kitchen, but by then her daughter was dead. At great peril, Union soldiers, grieving for a gallant girl who had risked her life to give them comfort, entered the house and carried her to the basement.
Because of the constant firing, the body had to lie there until late the following day, when a hasty interment took place in the back yard. Virginia was laid to rest temporarily swathed in a Union flag. Six months later, her body was moved to a church burial ground and in November 1865 given a permanent grave in Evergreen Cemetery. A statue can be seen there.
Virginia "Jennie" Wade symbolizes the courage of a civilian in time of war, but most historians make no mention of her. As he lay dying, Johnston Skelly probably never knew that his fiancee was dead, and on July 12, 1863, nine days after she was killed, he died too.
Peter Cliffe lives in Hertfordshire, England. A retired administrator for a multinational company, Mr. Cliffe became interested in the Civil War while stationed in this country.
Today: A tour of Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign will be led by several historians. Proceeds benefit Kernstown Battlefield Association and historic Opequon Church. For full information on this program, go to www.blacktreehistory.com or call 540/337-8471.
Museum of the Confederacy:
Today: A living-history program titled "Stonewall Jackson's Death (Lying in State at the Capitol)" will explore this historic event and its impact on Richmond.
May 20: "Richmond Becomes Confederate Capital - Davis Arrives." Interpretation of the event with re-enactors. The museum is located at 1201 E. Clay St. in Richmond. Call 804/649-1861, Ext. 19, for starting times.
May 20: Edview Plantation reopens after three years of renovation. Located in Newport News, Va., the building is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. Call 757/887-1862.
May 20: Dedication of plaque to Cpl. John Mackie, Medal of Honor recipient, for his actions at Drewry's Bluff. Program will be held at Drewry's Bluff, Richmond National Battlefield, beginning at 2 p.m.
May 30: Historic Decoration-Memorial Day 1871 Re-Enactment begins at 5 p.m. in Arlington National Cemetery. After entering the cemetery, the procession will visit the Custis-Lee Mansion and then the Tomb of the Unknown Dead of the War Between the States. Events are free. Call 202/244-3722.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA Tuesday: The Lincoln Group of the District of Columbia holds its monthly meeting beginning at 6 p.m. in the Fort McNair Officers Club, Fourth and P streets SW. Cost is $23 and includes dinner. Call 703/451-2496 or 301/593-5960.
Thursday: The Montgomery County Civil War Round Table holds its monthly meeting. Guest speaker will be author and Lincoln expert Edward Steers, whose topic is "The Making of West (by God) Virginia" and that state's claim to statehood, including some lesser-known rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, and Lincoln's bold leadership. Call 301/593-0006 for reservations or see (www.cwrt.org/mc).
The National Museum of Civil War Medicine:
Tomorrow: Mother's Day Tea will be held from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. to benefit the museum's educational programs. The event will be held in the Tyler Spite House in downtown Frederick. Refreshments will be served by volunteers in period attire. Tickets are $10.
May 21: "Medicine for the Soldier": Historians Glenn and Gloria Baugher will discuss Confederate medicine and civilian contributions during the war. Program begins at noon. The museum is located at 100 Adventist Drive in Frederick. Call 301/695-01864.
Today: Harpers Ferry National Historic Park hosts "John Brown 2000" with a variety of activities, including commemorative, educational and dramatic interpretations in the bicentennial year of the birth of abolitionist Brown. A specially designed bicentennial postal cancellation will be presented by the U.S. Postal Service. Events will start at approximately 2 p.m. Call 304/535-6298
Information excerpted in part from "The Civil War News," Tunbridge, Vt. 05077, by permission. Information for the calendar may be sent to The Washington Times by fax to 202/269-1853.…