General Ewell’s Gettysburg: Prudence or Folly?

The debate is endless…who’s to blame for the Confederate’s loss of the Battle of Gettysburg? While Longstreet and Stuart are primary scapegoats, General Richard Ewell acquires his share of blame too.

But, if this blog devolves to “blame-fest” and character besmirching, then I am not doing my job of teaching the facts. So, today, we’ll explore some biographical facts and another facet of Gettysburg history…and you can draw your own conclusions about the general.

A Warrior

Richard Stoddert Ewell was a warrior. Born in 1817, he grew up in Virginia, not far from the future site of the Battles of Manassas. He attended West Point, graduating in 1840, 13th in a class of 42 cadets. Commissioned in the U.S. Army, Ewell served during the Mexican War, and later had many adventures in the American Southwest. He returned to the east in 1860, suffering from bad health.


General Richard S. Ewell

Resigning from the U.S. Army in 1861 and offering his services the Confederacy, Ewell started his Southern military career as a brigadier general and was promoted to major general the following year.

Jackson’s “Trusted” Subordinate

During Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson’s Valley Campaign of 1862, General Ewell and his army were crucial reinforcements which allowed Jackson to undertake more daring moves against the enemy. Ewell and his troops won the battle of Cross Keys on their own toward the end of the campaign.

While Ewell held a key role in the Valley Campaign, he had some…um…challenges with Jackson. You see, Jackson didn’t tell anyone his battle plans, his strategies, or his military thoughts to anyone. Subordinate generals got seemingly random orders which they were supposed to obey to the letter, even if they didn’t understand them.

This annoyed Ewell! He was ready to fight, but he wanted to know the plan. Ewell eventually came to the conclusion that Jackson was crazy, yet he continued to serve with him for the next few months.

An artist's idea of a Confederate prayer meeting. General Jackson is standing at the center. The second man to the right of Jackson in the image appears to be General Ewell.

An artist’s idea of a Confederate prayer meeting. General Jackson is standing at the center. The second man to the right of Jackson in the image appears to be General Ewell.

A Changed Man

There was another thing that Ewell found disturbing…and intriguing about General Jackson. That was Jackson’s faith and complete trust in God’s providence. Profane, hard-fighting, and too busy for religion, Ewell could not escape the clear evidence of faith’s power that he observed in Jackson’s life.

Time marched on…the Valley Campaign ended in victory, the Seven Days’ Battles around Richmond were also a Southern victory, Cedar Mountain – Jackson’s wins again. Then the Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) was fought on August 29 – 30, 1862. On the first day of that battle, Ewell was badly wounded in the left leg; the shattered leg was amputated and Ewell was sent home to recover.

Ewell spent part of his recovery time with a distant cousin, Lizinka Brown – a widow. By the time he returned to the army in the spring of 1863, Ewell had “got religion” and he’d married Lizinka.

There was a definite change in Ewell’s attitude when he returned. His soldiers noticed that his profanity was diminishing. He was more calm, more at peace with life. His newfound faith had changed his life.

A Corps Commander

Around the time Ewell returned to the Confederate army, General Lee was reorganizing his troops. General Jackson had died in May 1863, and his corps needed a new commander. General Ewell was assigned to the position and took command of the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Ewell’s first campaign as a corps commander was the Gettysburg campaign. Wooden leg strapped to his saddle, he rode the dusty roads northward, leading his men through the Shenandoah Valley, across the Potomac, through Maryland, and deep into the heart of southern Pennsylvania.

Receiving new marching orders, Ewell started his corps toward a crossroad town on the map. It was called Gettysburg. He was following General Lee’s orders.

A Gettysburg Dilemma

On July 1, 1863, Ewell’s Second Corps found their route barred by Union soldiers north of Gettysburg. To the west of town, a battle was already raging, so the seasoned fighters of the Second Corps plunged into the fight, eventually breaking the Union lines and sending them fleeing for shelter on Cemetery Hill.

Twilight came. Some of Ewell’s subordinates were anxious to press on and attack the Union position on Cemetery Hill – or at least occupy Culp’s Hill, farther to the east. Ewell received a message from General Lee to occupy Culp’s Hill “if practicable.” Taking stock of the situation, Ewell was wary to launch attacks against unknown positions and foes in the gathering darkness. His men had been marching – and some had been fighting – most of the day. Ewell decided not to push them. He decided to avoid potentially high casualties by attacking unknown positions. To the disgust of his subordinates, Ewell waited and did not attack on the night of July 1st.

A sketch of the fighting on Culp's Hill on July 2nd or 3rd

A sketch of the fighting on Culp’s Hill on July 2nd or 3rd

On July 2nd and 3rd, Ewell’s men launched fierce attacks on Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill. Despite spirited attacks and hard fighting, the Confederates were not able to successfully gain and hold ground.

A Prudent…or Foolish Decision?

Was Ewell’s decision not to attack in the evening of July 1st wise? It’s a big debate.

At the time, some division commanders and staff officers wanted to press the attack. (At least according to their memoirs – written after the war!)

With hindsight – the blessing and curse of historians – Ewell should’ve occupied and fortified Culp’s Hill. No question. But at the time, with the limited knowledge he had, maybe Ewell made the right decision?

Surely Ewell knew about the Union debacle at Fredericksburg the previous winter, when a Union general launched endless attacks against a strong position. Maybe Ewell didn’t want to sacrifice his men. Maybe he was trying to earn the trust of General Lee by careful, cautious evaluation of the situation.

Ewell was a warrior, so it seems unlikely that he was afraid to fight. Perhaps a feeling of compassion for his troops or a spirit of prudence came over him. He was unwilling to make a risk – that ultimately proved disastrous to his cause. But can we blame him for caution in an unknown situation?

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. I want to know what you think. With the knowledge he had of the situation, should Ewell have pressed forward or was caution more prudent at the time?


Howard & Hancock’s Gettysburg: Lessons in Leadership

Two Union commanders who are briefly mentioned in “Blue, Gray & Crimson” are General Oliver Howard and General Winfield Scott Hancock. They were almost the exact opposites, but their leadership styles were precisely what was needed at certain moments during the Battle of Gettysburg.

Union General Oliver O. Howard

Union General Oliver O. Howard

Meet General Howard

Academic and religious, Oliver Howard attended Bowdoin College (Maine) before his appointment to West Point and the beginning of his military service. He graduated West Point in 1854 and spent several years teaching mathematics at the academy.

The Civil War was a test of character for Howard, and – to put it mildly – his battlefield success record was pretty much nonexistent. He was badly wounded in 1862 and lost his right arm, but he recovered and returned to active service. One of the fascinating things about this general is his commitment to actively living and proclaiming his Christian faith to his officers and men; Howard didn’t use profanity, didn’t tolerate drinking, and faithfully distributed religious tracts to his soldiers.

Howard arrived at Gettysburg a little before noon on July 1st and was the senior commander until shortly after four. Unfortunately, during that time, his corps (XI Union Corps) and the other units in the field broke lines under attack and retreated…

Union General Winfield S. Hancock

Union General Winfield S. Hancock

Meet General Hancock

Bold, profanely outspoken, and dashing, Winfield S. Hancock was a West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican War, Indian Wars, and minor western conflicts by the time the Civil War came. Entering the war late because he had to travel back from California, Hancock moved fairly quickly through the ranks and commanded a corps by November 1862.

Disgusted with the military failures at Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, Hancock was quick to offer advice to the commanding general who usually ignored him. After-all a West Pointer and experienced fighter, couldn’t know more than a political general, could he? (Sarcasm) But Hancock watched and waited…he supported the appoint of George Meade as commander of the Army of the Potomac in the middle of the Gettysburg Campaign. Meade trusted Hancock and asked and listened to his advice.

On July 1st as rumors of the fighting near Gettysburg drifted back to Union headquarters which was still in Maryland, Meade needed to send someone to control the field. Meade couldn’t go at that time – there was too much to do sending marching orders and trying to figure out exactly where the army corps were. General Hancock was Meade’s choice – he was sent to Gettysburg to assess the situation and command the battlefield until Meade arrived. Hancock would be taking the command from Howard…


Contrary to popular belief, there is rarely consensus on the precise time and even the details of events on battlefields. But we shall reconstruct it as best we can…

Around 4pm the Union lines break and troops flee toward Cemetery Hill. Howard meets them, grabs a Union battleflag with his left hand and begins to rally the soldiers. He convinces them to re-organize and start digging trenches to strengthen the high ground position.

Sometime after the breaking of the Union lines, General Hancock – Meade’s representative – arrives and is understandably horrified at the condition of the army. Some soldiers recorded a confrontation between Howard and Hancock, in which Howard refused to  give up battlefield command. Other observers claim there was no argument and the generals worked together with no tension.

The truth is probably somewhere in between. Likely, Howard’s quieter, purer encouragement heartened the troops while Hancock’s energy guaranteed that the Union would hold all the high ground at Gettysburg.

Their Battle

It is sometimes argued that Gettysburg was Hancock’s battle, and to some extent it was. He had the final say on the battleground on the night of July 1st. He dashed around finding reinforcements on July 2nd and saved the Union line from collapse. Hancock’s corps met Pickett’s Charge on July 3rd, and he was severely wounded in the fighting.

Yet, I would argue that Howard played a significant role at Gettysburg too. His corps – although frequently dishonored by historians for their retreat on Day 1 – managed to hold their position on Cemetery Hill against some ferocious attacks. If Howard’s line had collapsed on Day 2, the Union would’ve lost Gettysburg.

Two Types of Leadership

Howard was quietly sincere and caring, but he never shied from battle and was a courageous planner. At Gettysburg, Howard was the anvil; he stopped the retreat and started a new defensive line which held for two days of fierce fighting. You can’t move an anvil easily – the Confederates couldn’t move Howard a second time.

Hancock was boldly energetic with a charismatic flair, but he was also efficient and no-nonsense. At Gettysburg, Hancock was the hammer – always on the move, always striking back just when the iron was hot.

In a blacksmith shop, an anvil can’t shape metal on its own. Neither can a hammer pound hot metal into shape without something solid beneath. These two Union generals were like the anvil and hammer – without the other’s effort and leadership neither could have been successful. And if they had not been successful, it is probable Gettysburg would not have had the outcome of decisive Union victory.

Two very different men. Two very different leadership styles. But God used their skills and leadership strong points to achieve the outcome He had planned.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Who’s your favorite Gettysburg general? Why?

General Lee’s Gettysburg: Lessons We Must Learn

General Robert E. Lee

General Robert E. Lee

Did you ever walk on a balance beam when you were a kid? Confidently, you increased the speed of each step – “Mom, Dad, look at me!” And then what usually happened? Well, if you were like most kids, you fell off just as Mom looked your way.

There’s something about pride. The moment we think we’re invincible, something happens to prove we’re not. The Bible talks about this…Proverbs 16:18 – “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

Now imagine you’re the commander of a large army that has really only had one major defeat in the last two years of campaigning. You have some of the most devoted soldiers on the planet and have (make that past tense – had) some of the best “take the initiative” generals in history. Meet Confederate General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg.

Road to Gettysburg

Having graduated second in his class at West Point without a demerit on his record, holding a distinguished military record from the Mexican War, superintended engineering projects and mischievous cadets, and captured a notorious radical abolitionist, Colonel Robert E. Lee was offered command of the Union army in the spring of 1861. In the end, he decided to follow his home state – Virginia – to the Confederate side and resigned his commission.

Robert Lee had strong familial ties to Virginia. The state had been the Lee Family’s home for several generations and Robert Lee’s father had been a commander for George Washington. Also, his property – inherited by marriage to Mary Custis – was on Virginia soil. But perhaps just as magnetic as his family and his home were his beliefs in the fundamental liberty of a state to control its own business with little interference from the Federal government. State’s Rights was a cornerstone of the Confederacy; it was a cornerstone in Robert Lee’s beliefs, too.

Having cast his lot with Virginia – Lee was commissioned as a Confederate general. His early assignments included a “defense” of western Virginia and overseeing the fortifications of Charleston, South Carolina. Then he became a military advisor to Confederate President Jefferson Davis and when Richmond’s defender – Joe Johnston – was wounded in 1862, Davis put Lee in command of the Army of Northern Virginia.

"Lee - The Enemy Is There" by Mort Kunstler (

“Lee – The Enemy Is There” by Mort Kunstler (

With his trusted generals Jackson and Longstreet, Lee swept a chain of victories for the Confederacy: Seven Days, Cedar Mountain, Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville. By summer 1863, he was ready to make his second northern invasion, perhaps capturing Washington City and ending the war.

Plans Unravel at Gettysburg

Like his opponent – George Meade – Robert E. Lee didn’t initially intend to fight at Gettysburg. By the time Lee discovered the started battled, quite a few troops had been committed and he thought he could go ahead and sweep the roads clear and get victory. It actually worked…but Union retreated to a strong defensive position. And lack of initiative from Lee’s new subordinate commanders let opportunities slip away.

On July 2, Lee planned simultaneous attacks on both Union flanks. In the age of GPS and radios, it might have worked brilliantly, but in 1863 it devolved to uncoordinated assaults and heavy casualties.

Observing that his enemy’s flanks were strong, Lee guessed that their center was weak. It was a valid, but unconfirmed surmise. Despite the protest of General Longstreet, Lee launched a two hour artillery barraged followed by a “charge” of 15,000 men against the Union line on July 3. The guess and gamble failed.

"It's All My Fault" by Mort Kunstler (

“It’s All My Fault” by Mort Kunstler (

Ever the leader, Lee tried to comfort his troops…and he prepared to retreat. There would be no capture of Washington City – no Confederate victory.

After Gettysburg

Returning to Virginia, Lee sent a letter of command resignation to President Davis who refused to accept it. Lee was the best general they had to command the Army of Northern Virginia. So Lee stayed and fought defensively through Mine Run Campaign, Overland Campaign, Petersburg Siege, and eventually surrendered at Appomattox.

In the post war years, Robert E. Lee became president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia. Robert E. Lee died on October 12, 1870, and was mourned throughout America.


Remember the balance beam? Remember that moment you’re “invincible”?

I think Lee was very confident – maybe overconfident, maybe “invincible” – as he approached Gettysburg. He was undoubtedly a brilliant tactician and leader. At Gettysburg, his strategies were good, but they were also flawed by lack of information and lack of follow-through by his subordinates.

There have been books written to defend Lee at Gettysburg…and there have been books written to blame him. Neither is my goal. My dad always said if you point your finger to blame, remember there are three fingers pointing back at you.

The better question is: what should we learn from General Lee at Gettysburg?

The negative: be careful of overconfidence.

The positive: when you make a mistake, take responsibility.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Your thoughts about Lee at Gettysburg?

General Meade’s Gettysburg: The Importance of Trust

How would you like to be awakened suddenly and be informed that you’re now the commander of an army that has never had a real and decisive victory? Oh, and it’s expected that your army will fight a battle within the week…a battle that could change the course of the war and history!

General George Gordon Meade

General George Gordon Meade

Feeling a little overwhelmed just by that scenario?

Well, for a certain Union general it wasn’t imaginary. Meet General George Gordon Meade, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg.

Before Gettysburg

George Meade was born on December 31, 1815…and his family lived in Cadiz, Spain. Mr. Meade, Sr. was a wealthy American merchant in the foreign markets, but unfortunately he had lost his fortune by siding with Napoleon in the Spanish Peninsular conflict. The family returned to the United States when George was two and they faced years of financial difficulty.

George attended a military prep school in Baltimore, Maryland, and was accepted to West Point Military Academy in 1831. Four years later he graduated 19th in a class of 56 students.

He fought in the Indian Wars in Florida, but disliked the military and resigned in 1836, planning to start a career in civil engineering. In December 1840, he married Margaretta Sergeant; they would eventually have seven children. By 1842, George realized it was difficult to support a family with his civil engineering job and he re-entered the army.

During the next two decades, George Meade fought in the Mexican War (1846-1848) and then employed his engineering skills to design / build lighthouses and survey American coasts and lakeshores.

When the Civil War began in 1861, George was given command of a volunteer brigade from Pennsylvania and the rank of brigadier general. Fighting (or at least present) at many of the major battles in Virginia during 1862, he gained a reputation for bravery and good leadership. In 1863 he was a major general.


The Union Army of the Potomac had been through a revolving door of generals – political appointees, brilliant thinkers with no military backbone, arrogant jerks, and a couple that seemed plain stupid in military strategy. Thus, President Lincoln was left in a real hard spot when boastful Joseph Hooker sent in his command resignation during a campaign.

George Meade was fairly well-liked by his peers; most importantly, he had few enemies in the “generals’ community.” And…he would probably obey Lincoln’s “suggestions.” Thus on June 28, 1863 (just three days before the Battle of Gettysburg), George Meade was awakened and informed he was the new commander. Yikes!

This small house was used as General Meade's headquarters during the Battle of Gettysburg

This small house was used as General Meade’s headquarters during the Battle of Gettysburg

It might be argued that Gettysburg was not Meade’s battle, even though he was the commander. He didn’t chose the battle ground. He didn’t lead any charges. He wasn’t very visible near the fighting.

However, I would argue that for the situation he was placed in, George Meade did the best he could. Sensibly, he sent a trusted commander to pick the battle ground and oversee initial troop placement, while he sorted out the confusing marching lines of troops strung out all over Maryland and Pennsylvania. Significantly, Meade made the decision to stay at Gettysburg. By choosing to stay and trusting his generals’ defensive ability, Meade won Gettysburg.

Of course you can’t do everything right – especially if Lincoln’s the president. George Meade didn’t follow the retreating Confederates fast enough to please the president or strike another decisive blow…and the Rebels escaped…again.

After Gettysburg

The Mine Run Campaign of 1863 didn’t accomplish much, but the following spring George Meade commanded an army under General Grant and fought through the Overland Campaign, Petersburg Siege, and Appomattox Campaign.

Meade and other Union commanders. (Meade is seated and is the 3rd man from the left.)

Meade and other Union commanders. (Meade is seated and is the 3rd man from the left.)

Grant wrote “Meade has more than met my most sanguine expectations. He and [William T. Sherman] are the fittest officers for large commands I have come in contact with.” That’s high praise!

Unfortunately, the press and many of the soldiers were not as fond of Meade and he has become one of the “almost forgotten” generals of the Civil War.

After the war, he served as commander of a few military districts in the South and was given several awards by patriotic Northerners. George Meade died on November 6, 1872.


One of the most important lessons to learn from George Meade is to surround yourself with people you trust…and trust them. Meade couldn’t leave his headquarters to dash off to Gettysburg on July 1st, but he sent a general he trusted. On the night of July 2nd, he asked all his generals’ opinions on the situation at Gettysburg before making his final decision to stay and hold the ground for one more day.

Meade’s experience and actions at Gettysburg reminds me of the Scripture verse: “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will be destroyed.”  (Proverbs 13:20, NKJV)

This Gettysburg general had watched too many fools slaughter armies in the last two years because they were “wise in their own eyes.” Meade had the good sense and wisdom to surround himself with knowledgeable men and the humility to listen to their advice to make an informed leadership decision.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. What do you think of Meade’s leadership style at Gettysburg?

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?

From Battlefield to Home

After detailing battle strategy and fierce fighting, many Gettysburg books come to a close with stark casualty numbers smoothed over by a quote from the Gettysburg Address. Often, there is no explanation of what happened to the wounded, the prisoners, or the dead.

What happened to a soldier at Gettysburg after he was wounded? How did he end up in a Gettysburg civilian’s home or barn? Today, we are exploring the wounded soldier’s route from the battlefield to his home through the Letterman medical system.

Dr. Jonathan Letterman (and why he’s important)

Dr. Jonathan Letterman

Dr. Jonathan Letterman

When the American Civil War began in 1861, the medical departments on both sides were severely understaffed, but no worries – the war will only last 90 days, right? (Wrong.) The disastrous Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas) brought the reality of war to both sides, and, among other things, it revealed the inadequacy of the medical divisions.

During 1862, a skilled doctor with military experience was appointed medical director of the Union Army of the Potomac. His name was Jonathan Letterman, and he determined to improve the quality of care for the wounded/sick men. His advancements in military medical care logistics were so successful that they are still used today, though “updated” with modern technology.

Dr. Letterman founded the ambulance corps (these ambulances were horse or mule drawn wagons) and a system of battlefield evacuation, which included first aid, triage, mobile field hospitals, and base hospitals. Dr. Letterman’s evacuation system was pioneered at Antietam and was successful at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.

Gettysburg proved to be a challenge for Letterman’s medical system. Expecting another battle in the following days, the Army of the Potomac took most the ambulances and doctors along as it followed Lee’s army. Only 106 doctors were left in Gettysburg to care for approximately 21,000 wounded. However, the actual battlefield evacuation system worked well; it was afterward that the problems really started.

Don’t Forget The Confederates

In just a moment we’re going to “follow” a Union soldier through the Letterman Medical System, but I don’t want you to think the Confederates had no battlefield medicine plans.

The Confederate system was very similar to the Union’s, and they did have good doctors. Dr. Hunter McGuire is believed to have pioneered the use of ambulances during spring 1862 and if this is accurate, then he was using them before Dr. Letterman.

Unfortunately, the Confederate medical records were burned during the fires in Richmond (1865), so it’s hard to know exactly when they made changes and introduced new systems. Thus, we’ll use the Union perspective in this article.

A Wounded Union Soldier at Gettysburg

Wounded He tumbled to the ground as his left leg could not support his weight. He cried out in pain and frustration; the regiment moved forward, farther into that field. Glancing down, he saw blood coming from his left leg. He drank the last drops of water in his canteen and eased into a semi-comfortable position. Unlike some of his comrades who were staggering to the rear, he couldn’t move and would have to wait for help.

Civil War Wounded“First Aid Station” A short time later, some stretcher bearers came running from the little stand of trees a hundred yards back. They found him, hoisted him onto the wood and canvas stretcher and began to run back to shelter; a few bullets flew around them. After the horribly uncomfortable stretcher experience, he found himself behind a little rise of ground, shaded by some trees in this semi-protected area. Someone bandaged his leg – “You’ll lose the leg, but you’ll be alright. We’ll get you on an ambulance when they arrive.” Other men around him weren’t so lucky; the ones who could walk were told to head to the field hospital three miles back, others were badly wounded and died before the ambulances arrived.

Field Hospital The six men crowded into the ambulance breathed a sigh of relief when the bumpy wagon came to its final halt. He was hastily examined and placed in a row outside the door of a house. The sun beat down, then darkness came. Now, the surgeons in the parlor were working by lantern light. Not every doctor was a surgeon, only the most careful and most qualified were on the surgical team at this brigade or division hospital; he was grateful for that. Then it was his turn. The table was wet, the pain was bad when the surgeons examined…then he didn’t remember much, the pain faded a little with the anesthetic. When he woke up, he was lying in a barn and his left leg had been amputated. He was thirsty. Hours and hours later, a frightened young girl brought him a cup of water and some food. Feverish days passed.

Wounded soldiers in general hospital, American Civil WarGeneral Hospital By mid-July, the surgeons decided he was well enough to be moved to a general hospital farther east. He was loaded into an ambulance with five other men and taken to the Gettysburg train station. There, they were placed in empty boxcars and the train chugged slowly eastward. He ended up in Philadelphia, but he heard others were sent to Baltimore, New York, Washington, or other large towns. The general hospital consisted of large, long, wooden building called wards; there were beds with sheets, good food, consistent medicine, doctors, and nurses. With care, encouragement, and a healthy diet, he recovered.

Home He’d written to his family as soon as he could, but today he couldn’t believe it; he was almost home. The train slowed to a stop and he could see his parents. Carefully, balancing his crutches, he got up and hobbled off the train. He didn’t know what would happen next. Maybe when he was stronger and the wound was completely healed, he could get a wooden limb. That would be better than using crutches all his life. But, he didn’t think about that. He was home. He’d gone from battlefield to home, and, receiving the best care possible, he had survived.


Dr. Letterman’s system of battlefield evacuation and hospital organization revolutionized military medicine and gave soldiers the best possible chance of survival.

Unfortunately for the Gettysburg civilians, this system required the requisitioning of their homes, barns, and property for the use of field hospitals. (See Town & Country for more information.)

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Do you see the similarities between the Letterman System and the modern military system? What are some technological advancements which have helped to improve first-aid on the battlefield or in civilian life?