When I was working on the research for Blue, Gray & Crimson, I read as many primary sources penned by Gettysburg civilians as I could find. Some recorded precise details such as harvesting peaches and finishing dresses, others worried about the war. Many accounts were written years after the famous battle and I had to keep in mind that retrospect may have been clouding the storyteller’s view.
While each journal and account was special in its own way, my absolute favorite Gettysburg journal was Sarah Broadhead’s. Written in “real time” (day-by-day as the battle and aftermath unfolded), Sarah told about her daily life and also captured the feeling and emotions reverberating through her community.
Sarah Broadhead – Her Family & Her Home
The Broadhead home was at 217 Chambersburg Street. Sarah was a homemaker and mother. Her husband – Joseph Broadhead – was a railroad engineer at the nearby train station. In 1863, they had one daughter: four year old Mary.
To Summarize Her Story
I’d highly recommend reading a reprint of Sarah’s diary, but in case that’s not in your “time budget” I’ll summarize some of her battle experiences.
In June rumors about the Confederate invasion swirled through Gettysburg. The war advanced closer to home, but by June 24th Sarah said she was becoming “used to excitement, and…think the enemy, having been so long in the vicinity without visiting us, will not favor us with their presence.”
The hopes were destroyed when the Confederates arrived on June 26th. That day Mr. Broadhead was away from home, and Sarah was very frightened by the raid and concerned about her husband’s safety. (He finally arrived home on June 30th.)
On July 1st, Sarah started her usual task of baking bread, but was soon interrupted by cannon fire. The townspeople panicked. Sarah went to her front porch and offered water and cool cloths to the wounded coming into town. “As I write all is quiet, but O! How I dread tomorrow” she wrote in the evening.
There was little rest that evening. At neighboring houses, Confederates plundered and carted away their treasures; the Broadheads could not stop the misfortune of their neighbors.
On July 2nd, the battle increased. Much to his wife’s dismay, Joseph decided the ripe green beans in the garden had to be harvest (he wasn’t gonna let those Rebs have them) and he went into the garden and picked the crop, coming under sharpshooter fire! (He survived -and so did the beans.) The family hid in their neighbor’s cellar and prepared to leave the next day, expecting the town to the shelled.
By July 3rd, after witnessing the plundering of his neighbors’ unoccupied homes, Joseph declared they would not leave town. They waited in the cellar. “Who is victorious, or with whom the advantage rests, no one here can tell. It would ease the horror if we knew our arms were successful…We shall see tomorrow…”
July 4th – the Broadheads awoke to the commotion of retreating Rebels. Sarah was anxious to assist the wounded, but did not venture out that day. “…the day is ended and all is quiet, and for the first time in a week I shall go to bed feeling safe.”
For the next ten days (and probably afterwards) Sarah went and volunteered at the hospitals in town. Later, she opened her home and brought several wounded there to receive better care. One day, Sarah went to the hospital at the Lutheran Seminary; she found that the recent rains had flooded the basement and the injured were in danger of drowning. Sarah and the medical staff moved one hundred men to safety on the fourth floor of the building.
“Some weeks since I would have fainted had I seen as much blood as I have seen today, but I am…only caring to relieve suffering [now].”
On July 14th the wounded in the Broadhead home were moved to a general hospital, though the family begged to have them remain. Just one month after starting her diary, Sarah concluded it with these words: “A weight of care which we took upon us for duty’s sake, and which we had learned to like and would have gladly borne, until relieved by the complete recover of our men, has been lifted off our shoulders, and again we have our house to ourselves.”
Sarah published part of her diary to aid the Sanitary Commission rally support for the soldiers. 75 copies were to be presented at the Great Central Fair in Philadelphia. Significantly, Sarah did not reveal her name in the published work. It was simply “The Diary of a Lady of Gettysburg Pennsylvania, From June 13 to July 13, 1863.”
Why did Sarah write? She gives her own explanation in the introduction: “The following pages were begun for no other purpose and with no other thought than to aid in whiling away time filled up with anxiety, apprehension, and danger; and after the danger had passed away, the practice of noting down the occurrences of each day continued until disease incapacitate the hand for writing. They are now printed (not published) for distribution among the kindred and nearest friends of the writer, in answer to the question, often put – “Where were you, and what did you do during the battle?”
As a historian, I am very grateful Sarah Broadhead kept this diary because it reveals specific details about the Gettysburg civilian experience. As a writer, I appreciate the deep emotions shown through her account.
Indeed, in my opinion, Sarah Broadhead journal is THE voice of the Gettysburg civilian during the month of war drama in the community.
P.S. Have you read the full diary? Is it your favorite or would you nominate another?