A Young Woman of Quiet Bravery Dies

By Cliffe, Peter | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 13, 2000 | Go to article overview

A Young Woman of Quiet Bravery Dies


Cliffe, Peter, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


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. …

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