Caught in the Cross-Fire – Remembering Jennie Wade

Honoring Jennie Wade

Georgia McClellan’s home south of town, on Baltimore Street, was supposed to be safer than Jennie Wade’s home on Breckenridge Street. The town was overrun by men with rifles chasing other men with rifles.

Jennie fled to the McClellan House to help her mother and sister, who had given birth to a baby boy a few days earlier. Days before that, Jennie’s mother, Mary, marched into enemy territory to demand the release of Mary’s 12 year old son who had been arrested for trying to flee town on a horse. (The boy was released!)

By the end of the day on July 1, 1863, the battle shifted to high ground south of town that protected roads to Baltimore and Washington. Men to the north (from the South) were fighting men to the south (from the North). The world was turned upside down.

At the Battle of Gettysburg, the Wade-McClellan family was caught between two armies firing between the town and its southern hills. Since the soldier’s route through town two days prior, Jennie had been providing food, water, bandages, and words of comfort to soldiers who knocked on her sister’s door.

More than 150 bullets would riddle the mostly brick McClellan house. One bullet struck Jennie dead while baking bread for Union soldiers.

The Men Had Fled Town

At Gettysburg, civilian women were in-charge. Half of the town’s men, including Jennie’s brother (John) and brother-in-law (“Lou”), were serving their country at some distant location. The remaining half abandoned the town while moving family livestock and businesses to safety, ostensibly on the recommendation of Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin.

Women and children stayed behind to protect family homes, and there was no exception in the Wade family. Jennie’s father (James) was absent, imprisoned first for theft and then institutionalized for being “very insane”. Her (rumored) fiancé, Union Corporal Jack Skelly, was in a Confederate army hospital in Virginia, soon to die of his wounds, but Jennie did not know any of this.

Jennie Wade – Honor and Dishonor

Jennie Wade has been called a heroine, a martyr, a prostitute, a traitor, and the daughter of a thief and pauper. She died for her country, and U.S. soldiers adored her, but East Coast tongue-wagging caused her sister, Georgia McClellan, so much pain that she moved to Iowa.

A woman’s great kindness was repaid with a bullet and – as we will see – years of unkind, ignorant talk.

Slander

Rumors of prostitution have no basis in fact. We only have her boyfriend’s letters complaining that he suspected that she socialized too late in the evening, or something like that. A woman of lower class economic status, Jennie – now dead – was an easy target for people who resented her early fame.

The Pierce family is alleged to have questioned Jennie’s patriotism, thinking her too sympathetic to the Confederacy. This might be revenge for Jennie’s harsh words about James Pierce, who endangered the life of her twelve-year-old old brother, Sam, by instructing him to ride one of James’ horses out of town, to secure the horse’s safety. (Sam was captured by Confederate cavalry on June 26, and rescued by his mother, who confronted Confederate General Jubal Early directly, according to the story.)

John Burns, a sixty-nine-year-old civilian famous for joining the 150th Pennsylvania Infantry on the first day of the battle, told a New York City newspaperman that the Jennie Wade story was “all of fiction”. But Cindy L. Small’s book documents many tributes to Jennie’s service by Union soldiers.

Saint?

Jennie Wade Grave Statue

Equally distasteful, perhaps, are the martyrdom stories that cast Jennie as a saint. Outside of the McClellan home, she is memorialized as a big-breasted woman holding a large loaf of bread. Some people have described her life as a Eucharistic sacrifice. Her statue on her gravestone shows her wearing flowing clothes like the Virgin Mary. Famously, Jennie is said to have read the Psalms aloud during the Battle of Gettysburg, and said to her mother, If there is anyone in this house that is to be killed today, I hope it is me, as Georgia has that little baby.

Some Final Thoughts

I wonder whether –  despite all the progress that women have made over the decades – we still vilify or sanctify the historical memories of women unfairly.

In the act of reconstructing history, we risk imposing unhelpful paradigms on today’s generation of women. As a young person, I embraced a male paradigm of military history, and as an adult I fell-into the same patterns in defining my role in the workplace and in society.

Jennie Wade
Statue of Abraham Lincoln

 

An Inspirational Quote

The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

~Abraham Lincoln, an excerpt from The Gettysburg Address.

This article first appeared as a post to www.womanmyway.com on June 9, 2015.

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