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?

The Ball & The Battlefield: Women & Waterloo

An example of the romanticized ideals surrounding the Battle of Waterloo

An example of the romanticized ideals surrounding the Battle of Waterloo

For better or for worse, romantic myths surround the Battle of Waterloo. There is something irresistible in the legends of the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball – a blossoming romance and then coming battle separating lovers. But how accurate are these ideals?

In the last few weeks as I’ve been brushing up on my Waterloo knowledge, I found myself searching for civilians…again. What was their experience of Waterloo? Today, I present you with a few of my notes regarding women in the Waterloo Campaign and on the battlefield. I think you will be surprised by some of the realities…but will find that the romantic ideals can still exist within the framework of history.

Ladies & Waterloo

An artist's idea of the Duchess of Richmond's Ball

An artist’s idea of the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball

The Ball & “Society” Ladies Famous (or infamous), the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball on June 15, 1815, became the most well-known social event of the season in Brussels, Belgium, simply because the Duke of Wellington received the final and decisive information about French movements while at the ball. A number of noble British families – finding their money bags running low due to excessive gambling – raced for Continental Europe in 1814 and established their little clique in Brussels, seeking a “less-expensive” lifestyle. (Great idea…didn’t work!) So that’s how so many of the English nobility civilians happen to be “in the area.” Back to The Ball…it ended fairly quickly after Wellington called the officers and sent out orders to march and the ladies went into a panic, fearing the French would arrive the next day. (They sure had a lot of confidence in their army, didn’t they?)

Soldiers’ Wives & Families When a British regiment departed from England, lots were cast to decide which soldiers got to bring along their wives and families. These “lucky” civilians who got to come along endured the same hardships as everyone else in the regiment. The women often got to do all the laundry too…fun (or not!). There were certainly families present at the Battle of Waterloo, but they mostly remained with the supply wagons behind the fighting lines, hiding or helping to care for the wounded. However, there is one account of a young wife and her baby hiding behind a hedge too close to the battlefield; they were killed by cannon shot – a tragic reminder of the some of the dangers threatening these families.

“Peasant” Women Waterloo Battlefield was originally a farming community, and three major farms are key positions in the fighting area. These civilians were displaced by the war and fled for their lives, taking with them any possession they could carry. In the villages of Waterloo and Mt. Saint Jean, civilian homes were quickly converted to field hospitals. The women and their families who originally lived in this area would never have “normal” lives again – their property was completely destroyed.

Women in the Battle After the battle, a burial detail came across a young French cavalry officer, whose uniform markings indicated multiple years of military service. At some point in the burial process, they discovered the officer was actually a woman. Nothing else is known about her, but there are many questions: why did she enlist? How long did she serve? Did anyone know their officer was a woman? And…were there any other women fighting in the ranks at Waterloo?

Lady De Lancey

Lady De Lancey

Lady De Lancey: Epic Tale of Romance & Tragedy

The story of a bride who pinned her husband’s medals to his uniform, kissed him good-bye, and sent him to war…not knowing the next time she saw him he would be fighting for life. The story of a young woman who dares to travel to one of the most horrific battlefields in history to find her wounded husband. The story of a wife who fell asleep in her wounded husband’s arms.

Far surpassing the scandalous affairs or fictional accounts of Waterloo romance, the true story of Sir William and Lady Magdalene De Lancey is all that anyone could ask for when searching for a romanticized ideal of Waterloo.

Sir William H. DeLancey

Sir William H. DeLancey

Lady Magdalene De Lancey was the twenty-two year old bride of Sir William De Lancey who was the quartermaster and trusted comrade of the Duke of Wellington. Married for only a few weeks when the Waterloo Campaign began and interrupted her honeymoon, Magdalene accompanied her husband to Brussels. When the army departed for the battlefield, she traveled to a safer city and waited for news of the fighting. Anxious days past, and conflicting news reports nearly drove Magdalene crazy. Finally, a definitive account arrived: Sir William was wounded.

Terrified her beloved husband would die before she arrived, Magdalene set out for Waterloo battlefield. The journey was not easy, but at her destination, Sir William was still alive. She spent six days caring for him, and some of the surgeons praised her calmness and nursing skills. Her husband did not get better, and there came a point where Magdalene gave up all hope of his recovery. Though she tried to prepare herself, Sir William’s death was almost the end of Magdalene’s world. She made certain he was buried with proper military honor and eventually returned to England, where she wrote her account of Waterloo.

(Find the FREE primary source here at Project Gutenberg)


While the romantic ideas swirling around the Battle of Waterloo are not necessarily without historical backing, there were many more women directly connected to the campaign, battlefield, and soldiers than we may have previously realized. While the nobility dominates the scene through the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball, soldiers wives, local civilian women, and women soldiers played a much larger (though often forgotten) role.

My favorite “Lady from Waterloo” is definitely Magdalene De Lancey…but I wish her story had a happier ending. She personifies a brave soldier’s wife and also represents the thousands of women who lost loved ones at Waterloo.

I hope this new perspective on the battle has been as interesting to you as it has been to me… This is our last blog post on Waterloo for a while since our new historical theme begins in July!

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Had you ever considered the women caught in the battlefield drama of Waterloo? I’d like to hear your thoughts or questions in the comments. 🙂






Gettysburg: It’s a Town

Say the word Gettysburg and most people start thinking of cannons, a favorite general, the movie, monuments, or something like that. That’s because in our history books and culture Gettysburg is a battlefield, “hallowed ground” where we can get close to history and remember the sacrifices of previous generations.

But Gettysburg didn’t start as a battlefield. It was not marked on historic maps as “future battleground for the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac.” There weren’t signs in the 1700’s reading: Don’t live here; reserved for a big battle.

Gettysburg was a town. Re-phrase that – Gettysburg is a town. This was (is) a place where real people lived, worked, and played. In June 1863, they had no idea their streets and fields would be the background of war.

Today, as part of “Back to Gettysburg on Tuesday” we’re going to “step back” and see Gettysburg as a town. A pre-battle town.

Welcome to Gettysburg

Adams County Courthouse is in Gettysburg (Public Domain Photo)

Adams County Courthouse is in Gettysburg (Public Domain Photo)

Imagine you’re moving to Gettysburg in the pre-battle years of the 1860’s. Here’s what you’ll find:

Founded 1786, Gettysburg is the county seat of Adams County and nine major roads converge here. It’s a town with a population of about 2,500, comprised mostly of folks with Dutch, German, or Scots-Irish Heritage. Also, about 8% of the population is African American; located just 7 miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line, Gettysburg is part of the Underground Railroad.

The homes and other town structures are built of brick or wood. There are sidewalks and gas lamps light the streets after dark.

If you’re coming for a visit, the railroad can bring you right into the north part of town. This will be convenient if you’re arriving as a student at one of the local colleges. There are two “institutes of higher learning” in Gettysburg: Lutheran Theological Seminary and Pennsylvania College.

It’s a town of local industry with carriage/wagon manufacturers, shoemaker’s stores, iron works, tannery, brickyard, foundry, stove factory, and stone/marble cutters – just to name a few. There are also many stores for domestic shopping: several dry goods stores, cobblers, grocery markets (though not like our 21st century ones!), butchers, hat-makers, bookstore, drug store, and other specialty stores.

The town has it’s fair share of politics too. The newspapers fan political debates, and,  representing different political sides, they cause much contention at times.

Now for communications…there’s a post-office and at least one telegraph office. Your letters will take a few days to get to the recipient in another location, but by telegraph it could be a matter of only hours. For communication in town, you could send letters, or – more preferably –  you could visit your friends or share news after church services on Sundays.

Dobbin House, Gettysburg (Public Domain)

Dobbin House, Gettysburg (Public Domain)

With seven churches in town, many denominations are represented. Faith and trust in God’s providence is an important part of life for the residents of Gettysburg.

Worried about education? No need to be. There’s a large public school in the town and also several country schools for the children of farm families. If you don’t want the children in a public school, then you can pay to have them attend a private school; there is at least one “finishing school for young ladies” in Gettysburg.

If you have to go to the county court, no concern. It’s in Gettysburg. Need an attorney? There are seven residing in town.

Not seeing the #1 convincing factor to live in Gettysburg? It might be there. Ask in a comment!

Final Thoughts

When I first started studying the town and civilians, I was surprised at the amount of industry, stores, and “civilization” in Gettysburg. These people were well-educated, religious, and hard working. There were many families (and I mean large extended families) living near to one another in the town or countryside of Gettysburg.

While it would be inaccurate to say “everybody knows everyone”, Gettysburg was a fairly close knit community. Gettysburg’s resources, the civilians’ sense of community, and the location itself played crucial parts in the unfolding of historic events which would change the image of Gettysburg from peaceful town to battlefield.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. What do you think of when the word Gettysburg is mentioned? Had you ever really thought of pre-battle town or civilians before?







The Valley of the Shadow

“Now at the end of this valley was another, called the Valley of the Shadow of Death; and Christian must…go through it…now this valley is a very solitary place. …Thus he went on, and I heard him here sigh bitterly; for besides the danger…the pathway was here so dark, that ofttimes, when he lift up his foot to go forward, he knew not where, nor upon what he should set it next…”  John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress   

The Shenandoah Valley  (Attribution:

The Shenandoah Valley

This week we lay aside the discussion of ethics in The Burning of the Shenandoah Valley and focus only the some of the effects on the civilians. There’s a time for long-winded debate, but there’s also a time to reflect on the loss and sacrifices caused by war.

The following quotations will speak for themselves, telling the story of the civilian experience in the Shenandoah Valley during the autumn of 1864.

Laura Lee, a Confederate resident of Winchester, made the following entries in her journal: September 20, 1864 – Again our town is one vast hospital….All day the streets have been filled with ambulances and wagons of their wounded. They have been taken to the Taylor Hotel and six churches besides other houses. They brought in 4,000 [wounded] without doubt, and over….The citizens are indefatigable in attending to our wounded, but of course there must be a terrible amount of suffering in the confusion of such a time, and many must die for want of proper attendance….The Yankees moved up the Valley [going South] early this morning and there has been skirmishing.     September 27, 1864 – We know nothing in these dreadful days but Yankee rumors of their progress up the valley….

The next quote comes from “A Youth’s History of the Great Civil War, 1866” and, though written and published after the conclusion of the war, contains a vivid description of the civilian experience. “And now General Sheridan, with the instincts of savage warfare, determined to utterly devastate this beautiful valley. He therefore set his troops at work, and all the way from Staunton to Winchester was soon one scene of desolation. He burned every house***, every barn, every mill, all the corn cribs, haystacks, and the entire food crops of all kinds for the year. Not only this, but he seized all the ploughs, harrows, spades, and every description of farm implement, and putting them into piles, made his soldiers burn them. He then drove off all the cows, horses, oxen, cattle, sheep, pigs, and every living animal for the use of man in all that wide valley. In fact nothing that devilish ingenuity could invest was left undone to transform the loveliest and most fertile valley in the world into a desolate and howling wilderness. Not less than ten thousand innocent women and children were by this savagery reduced to starvation, and thrown, in the fall of the year, out of comfortable homes, to perish in tents and caves by the cold of the winter.”

(***Not every house in the Valley was burned, but maybe in the writer’s area this was the experience.)

Henry K. Douglas, a Confederate Officer, wrote: “I try to restrain my bitterness at the recollection of the dreadful scenes I witnessed. I rode down the Valley with advance after Sheridan’s retreating cavalry beneath great columns of smoke which almost shut out the sun by day, and in the red glare of bonfires, which, all across that Valley, poured out flames and sparks heavenward and crackled mockingly in the night air; and I saw mothers and maidens…shrieking to Heaven in their fright and despair, and the little children, voiceless and tearless in their pitiable terror. I saw a beautiful girl, the daughter of a clergyman standing in the front door of her home while its stable and outbuildings were burning, tearing the yellow tresses from her head, taking up and repeating the oaths of passing skirmishers and shrieking with wild laughter, for the horrors of the night had driven her mad… …It is an insult to civilization and to God to pretend that the Laws of War justify such warfare.” 

The Civilians of the Shenandoah Valley could have truthfully said they lived in a valley shadowed by death in the year 1864. It was a time of uncertainly, bitterness, pain, and fear.

However, returning to the phrasing and imagery borrowed from Pilgrim’s Progress… In the allegorical tale the Pilgrim emerges from the valley victorious because of his trust in God and he sees a new day dawn. The same is true for many of the Shenandoah Valley’s civilians. They were stronger people because of the trials. Their faith was strengthened. They survived.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Your thoughts on the Shenandoah Valley experience of 1864?