Gettysburg’s “Most Famous” Civilian

There are two civilians of Gettysburg who grab most of the limelight: John Burns and “Jennie” Wade. Of the two, Miss Wade is probably the most famous because…she was killed.

Mary Virginia Wade was the only known Gettysburg civilian killed during the battle by a military bullet. That is a semi-well-known fact. But what about the rest of her life? Myths and shadows surround this noble young lady, who is perhaps more complex and fascinating than we’ve realized.

Mary Virginia Wade

Mary Virginia Wade

Her Name

Many people think Miss Wade’s given name was “Jennie.” It wasn’t. Her real name was Mary Virginia Wade. Her family and close friends called her “Jinnie” – pronounce with a short i, like “in”.

Her Family

Virginia was one of six children in the Wade family.

There is a mystery surrounding Mr. Wade. He may have been truly ill, he may have been a drunkard, or he may have been plain lazy, but the known fact is that by the 1860’s he was dead to the rest of his family. Whether he was really dead or had purposely detached himself from his family is not known at this time. Whatever the circumstances, it is significant that the Wade family was mostly silent on the subject, possibly in an effort to keep their family pride.

The family lived in a house on Breckinridge Street in the town of Gettysburg. Mrs. Wade and Virginia worked as seamstresses to support the family. During the war, two of Virginia’s brothers served with the Union army: James was with the 3rd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery and John was in the 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry.

Virginia’s older sister, Georgia, had married a soldier in the 165th Pennsylvania Infantry and resided with her in-laws in town, near the base of Cemetery Hill. (The house is famously called the “Jennie Wade House”, even though Virginia did not live there!)

Virginia’s Responsibilities

As the only daughter and oldest child at home in 1863, Virginia was a very busy young woman. In addition to her work as a seamstress, she looked after her youngest brother and a neighbor boy who was left at their home while his mother worked.

Sometimes, accounts try to portray Virginia as a secret Southern supporter or a girl who didn’t really care about the Union. Much of the “foundation” of these ideas stems from the prejudices of her neighbors. Other Gettysburg girls looked down on Virginia because 1) she had to work to support her family and 2) she did not attend patriotic, pro-Union gatherings.

Think about the amount of work this young woman was shouldering – cooking, laundry, child-care, house work, mending, and her job. She was likely too busy and too tired to attend a patriotic rally. Her actions during the battle give evidence of her selfless character and her enthusiasm for the Union.

Virginia & The Battle

During the June 26th Confederate raid, Virginia helped her mother successfully protect one her brothers from Confederate capture. Gettysburg neighbors later (post war) recorded accounts of her out-spokeness in this incident, portraying her negatively. But, I think her real fear for her brother’s safety and her willingness to stand up to protect him tells a different story.

McClellan House, Gettysburg (Photo c. 1900)

McClellan House, Gettysburg (Photo c. 1900)

That same day – probably about the same time as the Confederates arrived – Georgia Wade McClellan (Virginia’s sister) gave birth to a son. Five days later as the battle unfolded around the town, Mrs. Wade and Virginia decided to move themselves and the young boys to the McClellan house, for safety and to be closer and more helpful to Georgia, who was still resting in bed.

Established at the new location, Virginia ventured into the yard and pumped water for the tired Union soldier retreating to Cemetery Hill. After moving her sister and all the family into the lower story of the house to provide safety from sharpshooters, Virginia waited, watched, and listened. In the yard wounded Union soldiers screamed for aid or at least a drink, and, under the cover of darkness, Virginia crawled into the yard to bring them water.

On July 2nd, with the sharpshooting intensifying, the Wades and McClellans “laid low” and waited. Soldiers occasionally banged on the door, asking for bread. In the evening Mrs. Wade and Virginia began baking fresh bread. The sharpshooting seems to have somewhat un-nerved Virginia and at one point she remarked that if anyone was to be killed she hoped it would be her and not her sister.

The Fateful Bullet

On the morning of July 3rd, Virginia decided it was safe enough to go into the kitchen and finish another batch of bread. The sharpshooting seemed to have diminished.

I wonder what she thought about as she went into the kitchen, turned the dough onto the board and began kneading. Was she worried? Was she praying? In Virginia’s apron pocket was the key to her home; she had been the one to lock the door when they fled. There was also a photograph of the soldier she loved.

Jack Skelly was a soldier in the 87th Pennsylvania Infantry. There was an understanding between Jack and Virginia, and they hoped to marry in September when he got leave from the army. Virginia did not know – would never know – that Jack was already dead. He died from a bad wound in mid-June, after the Second Battle of Winchester.

What did she think about as she pressed and turned the bread dough? Completely focused the task at hand, she probably never heard the stray sharpshooter’s bullet punch through two closed doors. She may have felt a brief pain in her back. She probably didn’t know anything else before her eternity began.

Virginia's grave and memorial in Evergreen Cemetery, Gettysburg (Public Domain)

Virginia’s grave and memorial in Evergreen Cemetery, Gettysburg (Public Domain)

Mrs. Wade heard the bullet and the sound of someone falling. She rushed to the kitchen and found her daughter…dead. Slumped on the floor, with bread dough still clinging to her hands, Virginia Wade was killed while she prepared food for her family and the soldiers. Virginia was hastily buried in the garden of the McClellan home, but she was later moved to Evergreen Cemetery.

My Thoughts on Virginia Wade

I’m not keen on the idea that Virginia was the only brave and heroic girl in Gettysburg. I don’t believe her ghost is wandering around. I don’t like that she hogs a lot of attention in the “realm of Gettysburg civilians.” But neither do I think she was Confederate supporter, a disloyal citizen, or rude girl.

Virginia Wade was a young lady in a very difficult situation. Semi-outcast by other Gettysburg girls because of her family situation, Virginia had a strong character, sense of pride, spirit of selflessness, and unforgettable generosity. It is wrong to make her larger than life – certainly she had faults. But…in the end, remember her as the young woman who protected her family and who, while trying to serve others, paid the ultimate price for her efforts.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. What do you think of Virginia Wade? Do we consider her life and actions properly or has her sacrifice been trivialized by the commercialization in Gettysburg?

3 thoughts on “Gettysburg’s “Most Famous” Civilian

  1. I think Virginia Wade was a very caring young woman who was doing what she needed to do to keep “life” going on while the chaos of war was all around her. I’m sure she did not think herself a hero.

  2. Pingback: Good-bye, Gettysburg (I’ll Miss You) | Gazette665

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