The Jennie Wade Story came into sharp focus for me in 2015 when I was bicycling Gettysburg. I had heard the story before, but this time was different. After about forty-five years of visiting the town, I was surprised that this story struck me as being newly important and meaningful.
Remembering Jennie Wade
Jennie Wade lived in Gettysburg when the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac squared-off to fight the largest and bloodiest battle of the western hemisphere on July 1-3, 1863 – in Gettysburg.
She was caught in the cross-fire. On the morning of July 3, a stray bullet pierced two doors to bury itself in the chest of this young woman – barely twenty years old – who was doing everything that she could to protect her family.
Jennie collapsed, dead in front of her mother, at the house of her sister, Georgia, with young boys and a newborn in adjoining rooms. It is hard to imagine the horror. The women were exhausted from two sleepless nights that rained bullets on their house, and two days full of baking and providing water to soldiers who had lost the hills to the north of town. And now a young woman’s life was extinguished and a family devastated.
There were no men in the house. Union soldiers rushed to the family’s help after hearing Georgia’s screams. Jennie’s body was wrapped in a quilt and transported by soldiers to a cellar. Jennie’s mother, Mary, finished the batch of dough that her daughter had started. Within weeks, Georgia Wade McClellan became a Civil War nurse, initially volunteering to work in temporary military hospitals near Gettysburg.
After the battle, Jennie was buried and reburied, until her final burial in Evergreen Cemetery, Gettysburg, thanks to the efforts of her sister and the Woman’s Relief Corps of Iowa. Since 1901, an American flag flies at her grave, an honor shared by only one other American woman, Betsy Ross.
Mary Virginia (“Jennie”) Wade was the only civilian killed during the Battle of Gettysburg.
Within three days, the small town that was home to about 2,400 people would be littered with the bodies of 7,000+ dead men and 3,000+ dead horses, plus the refuse of two armies (165,000+ men), rotting in the hot sun. The battle claimed 51,000+ total casualties (dead, wounded, or missing). The rain on July 4 made an even bigger mess of things.
Those numbers make it all the more notable that there was only one civilian death during the Battle of Gettysburg. It was a young woman, killed by a stray bullet while baking bread for Union soldiers.
But What Does It All Mean?
Over the years, I have had different feelings about the Jennie Wade Story, all of them influenced by my own particular (and unavoidably narrow) life experience. More to the point, my willingness to hear the story has changed. Some of that is age. But also, there is something liberating about bicycling through history that opens my mind to new things.
In the next three sections, I share my thoughts on how the Jennie Wade story means something very different to me as a grown woman and mother than it did as a child.
A Child’s Perspective of Jennie Wade
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