Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Tragedy of Jennie Wade

The Tragedy of Jennie Wade
Written by NJ Historian

Only a few hundred yards from the edge of the main battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania is the Jennie Wade House Museum. During the Battle of Gettysburg, which was fought from July 1 - 3, 1863 in and around the town, there was only one documented direct civilian casualty. Despite the town being torn apart by shells, gunfire, and overrun with Union and Confederate troops, most residents escaped to nearby areas away from the battle or hid in their cellars in the safety of darkness. The story of Jennie Wade relates the true cost of war and its impact on the innocent civilians that were caught in the crossfire between the opposing sides. Now, 150 years later, Jennie Wade's bravery and resilience during our nation's darkest hour has not faded from memory. The preserved house where Jennie died, which appears much as it did in 1861, complete with bullet holes and damaged brick, is a constant reminder of the the bloody battle which saturated the lush countryside with human sacrifice.

Mary Virginia Wade was born on Baltimore Street in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on May 21, 1843. "Ginnie" as she was later referred to by family and friends, attended the local schools in Gettysburg. The name "Jennie", which she is known by today, most likely came from a misprint in the newspaper after her death. Jennie had one older sibling, a sister named Georgia, and three younger brothers, John "Jack" James, Samuel Swan and Henry Marion. As a young girl, Jennie worked helping her parents in their tailoring shop. But when her father, James, became sick, Jennie's mother, Mary Ann, and sister, Georgia, took over the business in order to keep their house on Breckinridge Street. One day in 1850, Jennie's father had found $500 cash in the street. Instead of placing an ad in the local newspapers so that the owner of the money could claim it, he kept it for himself. He was later arrested in Washington City, Maryland and charged with the crime of embezzlement. He was sent to Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia for two years, where due to the conditions of solitary confinement, he developed mental issues and was sent to an asylum. Coincidentally, his wife had petitioned the Adams County Court of Common Pleas to have her husband declared legally insane upon learning of his arrest.

Jennie's childhood friends included Johnston "Jack" Hastings Skelly and John "Wesley" Culp. Many family members and friends believe that this was the time when Jennie and Jack's friendship blossomed into romance. Although it has not been proven through letters or documentation, some historians believe that Jennie was engaged to Skelly, a corporal in the 87th Pennsylvania.

The only known photo of Jennie Wade.  taken in 1861 when she was 18. She is to the right. The woman in the center is a friend of Georgia Wade, Maria Comfort, 48. To the left is Georgia Wade, 20.
Jennie's sister Georgia Wade married John Louis McClellan on April 15, 1862, and they rented a duplex home on Baltimore Street. The Wade family and the rest of Gettysburg never imagined that the two armies would meet in the center of their town that summer of 1863. On June 30, 1863, a Confederate infantry brigade from General A. P. Hill's corps heads toward Gettysburg in search of supplies. While heading toward Gettysburg, the Confederates spot Union cavalry traveling in the same direction.

Around 1:00 pm on July 1, 1863, Confederate troops enter Gettysburg. Jennie, her mother, and a six year old boarder named Isaac, fled from their home on Breckenridge Street to the home of her sister, who had just given birth five days earlier on June 26. Georgia lived in a two-story brick duplex on Baltimore Street, less than fifty yards north of Cemetery Hill. Her bed had been taken downstairs in the spring and placed in the parlor of the home. The home was moderately safe from the battle at this time, but a Union picket line was located just a few feet behind the house. There was intermittent skirmishing between the Union and Confederate troops, but the family could not seek further refuge outside of the home, as it was not customary to move a woman that soon after giving birth. For the most part, the brick walls of the house appeared sufficient.

The parlor, which had been set up for Georgia Wade and her newborn baby.
During the first day of the battle, Jennie spent most of the day bringing bread to Union soldiers and filling their canteens with water. By late afternoon of the second day, July 2, the diminishing supply of bread made it apparent that more bread would be needed. Jennie and her mother left the yeast to rise until the morning of July 3. That same day, as Confederate troops moved closer to the house, a ten-pounder "Parrot" artillery shell penetrated the roof on the north side of the house, passing through the brick and plaster wall which divided the two residences of the duplex. The projectile continued to plow through the brick wall on the south side of the house, finally resting in an unexploded condition above the eave of the house, where it remained for over fifteen years.

In the early morning hours of July 3, Jennie read from Bible, quoting scripture. The scripture, combined with the sounds of the battle outside, upset Georgia who requested her mother to ask Jennie to stop. The last words Georgia heard her sister say were, "If there is anyone in this house that is to be killed today, I hope it is me, as Georgia has that little baby." At approximately 7:00 am, Confederate sharpshooters began firing at the north windows of the house. One bullet hit a bedpost on Georgia's bed in the front parlor while others became lodged in the the fireplace mantel.

Regardless of the hostile conditions outside, Jennie continued to prep for baking around 8:00 am. Only about a half hour later, while Jennie stood in the kitchen kneading dough, a Confederate musket ball penetrated the wooden side door on the north end of the house, continued through another wooden door in the kitchen, and struck Jennie in the back beneath her left shoulder blade, embedding itself in her corset. The impact of the bullet killed her instantly. The cries of her sister and mother attracted nearby Union soldiers who evacuated the remaining occupants to the cellar on the other  side of the house. To get there, they went upstairs where the hole left by the ten pound shell the previous day was enlarged to provide for passage. They then went downstairs on the other side of the duplex and entered the cellar on the south side of the house. Union troops carried Jennie's body to the cellar, as per her mother's request. Georgia and her mother remained in the cellar for approximately eighteen hours before the battle ended and it was safe to emerge. In the early afternoon of July 4, Mary Wade finished baking fifteen loaves of bread from the dough which Jennie had kneaded the previous morning.

The blood-stained floorboard and the ten pound shell that came crashing through the roof of the house and remained lodged in the wall, unexploded for over fifteen years.
Jennie was originally buried in a Union trench alongside the home. Georgia was only renting the house and when she moved six months after Jennie's death, her remains were moved to the cemetery of the German Reformed Church on Stratton Street. In November 1865, her remains were reinterred one final time at Evergreen Cemetery in Gettysburg, near the grave of "Jack" Skelly. Unbeknownst to Jennie, Skelly had been mortally wounded two weeks prior to the Battle of Gettysburg, in the Battle of Winchester. Skelly lost his battle to live on July 12, just nine days after Jennie Wade was killed. Sadly, the two never knew of each other's death. Recently, Jennie's letters to Skelly were rediscovered and are on display at The Gettysburg Museum of History.

A monument to Jennie's memory was erected in 1900, designed by local resident Anna M. Miller. In 1910, a flagpole was erected at the gravesite by the Gettysburg Association of Iowa Women and permission was granted for an American flag to fly over the gravesite twenty-four hours a day. The only other woman in the United States that this same honor applies to is the gravesite of Betsy Ross, at the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The duplex, renamed the Jennie Wade House, became a museum and tourist attraction in the early 1900s, in honor of Jennie's commitment to the war effort. Subsequent owners left the house virtually unchanged. The north side received most of the damage, as it faced the Confederate position and today over 150 bullet holes remain in the brick facade. The damage from the artillery shell is also visible on the second floor. Recently, a floorboard from the kitchen, stained by the blood of Jennie Wade, and the ten pound shell, which pierced the roof, were returned to the home for display. For over one hundred years the Jennie Wade House has remained a monument to the efforts of Jennie that fateful day and reminds visitors that it was not just the troops that suffered during the Battle of Gettysburg - many families remained in their homes and cellars, scared and scarred by the bloodshed that was occurring just outside their doors.

The side door of the Jennie Wade House with the hole left by the bullet that struck Jennie Wade.
Additional photos of my trip to the Jennie Wade House on Pinterest

Jennie Wade House Podcast (right click and choose "save target/link as" to save to your hard drive)

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Very interesting! Thanks for this...

Hello history girl! Yor blog moved me to tears. . .just like Nanny said. . .be oh so careful what you wish for. Yet she and her true love are together for eternity!

Great article learned some things I didn't know. This story always moved me.

Love this little town. My kids and I visit at least twice a year. Jennie's house and story is one of my faves.

I've been to the Jennie Wade house several times. You did a great job with her story!

Nicely written article about the Wade House. It is unfortunate that so many of the other period structures nearby are no longer standing. Shortsightedness that I hope we are gradually overcoming.


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