There were children in Gettysburg. No, that really shouldn’t be a newsflash, especially remembering we’re discussing 19th century America when large families were the norm. But what about these children? What did they do during the battle? Did they get exemption from hospital work because of their age?
The short answer: Gettysburg Children experienced virtually the same things as the adults. Remember, this is a society where children are expected to work alongside their parents. Mother wasn’t going to say “of course you can stay in the cellar and play your video games.”
Now, before you get any ideas that parents were insensitive to their children, let’s get rid of that idea. During the battle, many families stayed together, hiding in cellars or other secure places. In the aftermath, parents tried to shield their children from the hospital horrors, but as you will see this was not always possible.
Here’s are some quotes from children of Gettysburg or accounts about their actions. (I have decided to included information for ages 0-12 years old.)
This is the Cemetery Gatehouse, where the Thorn family lived.
Frederick, George, & John Thorn
Fredrick (8), George (6), and John (2) lived with their mother and grandparents at the Cemetery Gatehouse. Their father was serving in the 138th Pennsylvania Infantry. Here is part of their mother’s account:
“All the time our little boys were pumping and carrying water… They handed water to the soldiers and worked this way until their poor little hands were blistered.” (July 1, 1863)
On July 2nd, the Thorn Family left their home and fled south on the Baltimore Pike; they stopped at a crowded farmhouse to spend the night. There were soldiers resting there too and according to Mrs. Thorn… “About in the middle of one row a man raised himself on his elbow and motioned me to come to him… He took a picture out of his pocket and on it was three little boys, and he said they were his, and they were just boys like mine, and would I please let him have my little boys sleep near him, and could he have the little one close to him and the others near him? And so, he took them and had them lying by him.” (July 2, 1863)
Two year old “Allie” Buehler was not afraid during the battle. He hid in the cellar with his family during the battle, but sat on his mother’s lap. He did not understand what was happening, and when shrieking artillery shells flew overheard, innocently asked his mother, “Listen, Mama, do you hear the birdies?”
Ten year old Miss Bushman discovered crossing a field to visit her grandparents on July 1st wasn’t quite as safe as usual:
“There came a screech and a shell brushed my skirt as it went by. I staggered from the concussion of it and almost fell when I was grasped by the arm and a man said pleasantly, ‘That was a close call. Come with me, and hurry,’ he added in a tone so commanding that I meekly followed.
Sadie Bushman was forced to assist at a field hospital. (Note: this photo is not from Gettysburg Battlefield, but it shows wounded men waiting for assistance.
“That man was Dr. Benjamin F. Lyford, a surgeon in the Union army. He led me to a place in a little valley where he had established an army corps hospital and then he put me to work. Wounded and dying men were then being carred to the place by the score. I was ready to faint at the sight, but the doctor, in his commanding way, gave me more fear of him than I had for the sight of the mangled and dying men about me, and I tremblingly obeyed him.
“As I reached the hospital tent, a man with a leg shattered…was carried in. ‘Give him a drink of water while I cut off his leg,’ was the command I got. How I accomplished it, I do not know, but I stood there and assisted the surgeon all through the operation.”
The Cunningham Children
Although their names and specific ages are not known, there is a good account of the role of young children in a field hospital. (This is one of my all-time favorite Gettysburg civilian quotes.)
“Mother was unable to keep the children away from the homesick soldiers. They would carve them toys…and play with them endlessly. The children would trot to the well with canteens strung around their necks, carrying cold water to the men. When Mother would got to the barn…she would sometimes find a soldier asleep on the hay with a sleeping child on each arm.”
These are just a few of the accounts of children and their role during the Battle and Aftermath of Gettysburg. Through my studies of these children’s experiences, I found some very young heroes.
The innocence of the children is juxtaposed against the harshness of the battle world. Children faced the same fears during the fighting as their parents, and they were probably more frightened because they had only a limited idea of what was really happening.
I think one of the most significant roles that children of all ages performed at Gettysburg was comforter. Whether the children realized it or not, their presence reminded the soldiers of their own families, giving these fighting men courage for the battlefield or strength to fight for life in a field hospital. That is a very significant and important role.
Thus, in conclusion, the children of Gettysburg were forced into a nightmarish situation. They faced desperate situations. They worked alongside their parents or on their own to alleviate suffering whether it was by carrying water, bandaging wounds, cooking, or simply being children…and reminding homesick soldiers there were still many reasons to fight and live.
P.S. I feel like I’ve only touched the surface of this topic today…there is so much these brave battlefield children accomplished. What was most surprising to you? Check out my new historical fiction novel to learn more.