Gettysburg, PA – Mid-afternoon on July 1, 1863, a young seamstress named Virginia Mary “Jennie” Wade, along with her mother and two younger brothers, left her home in the center of Gettysburg to be with her oldest sister, who earlier that day endured a horrific childbirth, as Confederate soldiers marched on the 2,400-resident town.
The Confederacy’s push into Union territory was the first salvo of what would later be seen as the most decisive battle of America’s Civil War. For three days Gettysburg shook as nearly 94,000 Union and 72,000 Confederate troops slaughtered each other with bayonets and close-range shooting. Led by Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s goal wasn’t to occupy the North permanently, but to make northerners wary of the war and allow the South to at last secede.
The Union Army had anticipated Lee’s march on the south-central Pennsylvania town, tailing his army much of the way. However, the battle began accidentally when Confederate soldiers dispatched to occupy the town were surprised to find the town already occupied by a pair of Union Calvary Brigades. Outnumbered, the Union troops were easily pushed back.
Though terrified, Gettysburg’s residents did what they could to help push back the enemy invaders.
“My native townsmen, during that terrible struggle, acted as patriotic and bravely as it was possible for citizens to act, who had suddenly thrust upon them the most gigantic battle of modern times,” a Gettysburg resident recounted years later. “They had none of the weapons or munitions of war; they were not drilled and were totally unprepared for such an unthoughtof experience. They were civilians.”
Like much of Gettysburg, the Wades’ sympathies were with the north. Jennie’s fiance, Johnston Hastings “Jack” Skelly, was a Union Corporal. For their part, Jennie and her mother baked bread and biscuits for Union troops throughout July 1 and 2. Because of the house’s proximity to Cemetery Hill, a strategic spot that played a critical role during the three days of battle, the thick brick walls were struck by more than 150 bullets and minie balls as the Wades worked tirelessly to keep the Union army nourished.
For three days the battle raged just 50 yards from where the Wade’s had taken refuge. On July 3, Jennie woke early to make into loaves the dough she’d let rise throughout the night. By some accounts, Confederate sharpshooters began pelting the house with bullets around 7:30 a.m. Undeterred, she went to work kneading dough. Moments later, a minie ball penetrated the north-facing door, striking Jennie in the back and passing through her heart. There was no scream, but her mother heard the body drop.
Responding to shrieks from the house, Union soldiers came to assist, temporarily burying the young woman in the backyard as her mother resumed the work of baking bread. By day’s end, the fighting had stopped. The Union Army had stopped the rebels’ northern advance. Nearly 8,000 soldiers died in the fighting and 27,000 were injured. Some 10,000 more had been captured or were missing.
Jennie Wade was the only civilian felled during the three days of fighting.
Jennie’s fiance, who had suffered an injury two weeks earlier, died on July 12, unaware of the fate that had befallen his would-be wife.
Click here for more information on the Jennie Wade House.