Gettysburg Civilians Reflect On The Gettysburg Address

What did the Gettysburg civilians actually think of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address? How did they feel about the president coming to their town?

This blog post answers those questions by letting the spectators of the historic day “speak for themselves.” This post is a companion piece to last week’s article The Day of the Gettysburg Address.

And now, without further commentary, here are some primary source accounts from Gettysburg folks, recalling the famous event.

Abraham Lincoln, photograph taken in the spring of 1863

Abraham Lincoln, photograph taken in the spring of 1863

The President Is Coming!

“The fact that the President …was coming to town was quite sufficient to create the liveliest interest.” ~Henry Holloway

“We all wanted to see him, and my strongest wish was to shake hands with him.” ~Albertus McCreary

“Never in my life will I have the same opportunity of seeing so many of the great men of the nation again…” ~Josephine F. Roedel

November 19, 1863

“I saw Mr. Lincoln as he was about to start down the steps to the sidewalk. I was surprised and I might say awed by his great height, his black hair and beard, his dark complexion, his head covered with a tall silk hat. I thought he was the tallest man I had ever seen… On reaching the landing at the foot of the steps I had the honor, along with others, of shaking his hand.” ~W.C. Storrick

“I squeezed my way through the mass of people until I was about ten feet from the platform on which, of course, sat Mr. Lincoln…” ~Albertus McCreary

“I waited for Mr. Everett to get through his speech with what patience I could. It was long, I remember, but what he said made no lodgment in my mind; I was only waiting to hear Mr. Lincoln…” ~Albertus McCreary

“The suddenness with which he [Lincoln] closed [the speech] was almost startling. The end came when every ear was strained to catch each word.” ~Henry E. Jacobs

“As Mr. Lincoln came down the [platform] steps I looked up into his face. He held out his hand and said, ‘Hello, young lady, who are you?’ I took his hand and said, ‘I’m Mary Elizabeth.’ It was the greatest moment of my life.” ~Mary Elizabeth Montfort

A scene from Gettysburg on November 19, 1863

A scene from Gettysburg on November 19, 1863

“To many of the listeners, the President’s few words were a temporary disappoint. They were not able on the instant to grasp their sublimity.” ~J. Howard Wert

“What the crowd thought…I do not know, but I do know what I thought. On coming away I said to a [college] classmate, ‘Well, Mr. Lincoln’s speech was simple, appropriate, and right to the point, but I don’t think there was anything remarkable about it.’ That was the opinion of a wise sophomore.” ~Philip M. Burke

“The great day is over and I am so glad I have been here. Everything passed off very pleasantly and scarcely one drunken man was to be seen. Such homage I never saw or imagined could be shown to any one person as the people bestow upon Lincoln. The very mention of his name brings forth shouts of applause. No doubt he will be the next President, even his enemies acknowledge him to be an honest man.” ~Josephine F. Roedel

Criticism & Praise

“We pass over the silly remarks of the President; for the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of.” ~A Harrisburg Pennsylvania Newspaper

“The dedicatory remarks of President Lincon will live among the annals of man.” ~Chicago Tribune

“The little speech was not much spoken of at the time, but as the days and months passed by its merits became more in evidence.” ~Michael Colver

“Indeed, so great was that speech that no one at the time comprehended it fully.” ~Henry C. Holloway


The Gettysburg citizens were excited about Lincoln’s visit to Gettysburg, and many – especially children – were anxious to meet the president. However, it should be noted that there was definitely a mixed reaction to Lincoln’s speech; that address would gain fame in later years, but was not necessary recognized as “breathtaking” on November 19, 1863.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Do you have a favorite memory of hearing the Gettysburg Address used in a modern ceremony or presented by a living historian/famous person?

Gettysburg’s Problem

Many Americans are familiar with the Gettysburg Address. You know, the Lincoln speech that begins “Four score and seven years ago…” But what many people don’t realize is the circumstances leading to that famous address. Sure, they’ll connect it to the Battle of Gettysburg, but perhaps they think Lincoln showed up and started talking the day after the battle.

This month is November. In November 1863 – four and a half months after the battle – Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address, so I thought we should discuss the speech and specific events surround it for the next couple weeks during “Back to Gettysburg on Tuesdays.”

The situation which led to the Gettysburg Address was created by the battle. It is a somber topic. For the sake of my readers, I have chosen to go into graphic detail, but I feel it is important to take time to remember the sacrifices and what actually brought Lincoln to Gettysburg.

The Problem

The experts tell us writers to create problems, conflicts. Then, increase the drama and lead to a climatic moment of resolution.

Gettysburg had a problem in 1863. Correction. Gettysburg had many problems during 1863 – Confederate raid, battle, wounded soldiers, limited supplies. But there was another issue compounding all of that…

Gettysburg DeadThe Dead.

When the Battle of Gettysburg ended, there were approximately 7,058 dead men in the fields. (This does not include the soldiers who were wounded and or the additional 4,000 who would die of their injuries.)

The Army’s Solution

Contrary to popular belief, the Union Army did make a serious attempt to bury their fallen comrades. The Union battle lines were mostly defensive, so their dead were near or within their lines. Thus, each regiment buried their soldiers, making attempts to mark the graves with wooden headboards.

The Confederate army had fought offensively (attacking) during Gettysburg. Their fallen were usually in open fields in front of the main Confederate positions. Therefore – to speak generally – the Confederates did not organize burial details. The Confederate dead were left in the fields.

Gettysburg DeadAfter the Union survivors had managed to clear the fields of the wounded and temporarily bury their own dead, they left the Gettysburg area.

Civilian men from the Gettysburg community volunteered to help bury the fallen Confederates. Many were buried on local farms and the graves were simple recorded as “Confederate graves” – rarely including units or names of the deceased.

The Emerging Problem

Although the Union army had made an effort to honor their dead, the burials had been hasty. The graves were shallow. The headboards were lightly carved or the information was written in pencil.

Gettysburg experienced torrential rains in the week following the battle. While the rain helped to cleanse the landscape (and probably prevented an epidemic of illness), it also opened the shallow graves. Across the Gettysburg community, frightful and unsettling scenes appeared. Decomposing bodies uncovered by the streaming water. Skeletal limbs protruding from the ground. The civilians began the awful task of trying to rebury – or at least cover – the dead.

The stench was horrible. Most civilians commented on the terrible odors in their writing. Some carried handkerchiefs sprinkled with peppermint oil and keep the cloths pressed to their faces whenever they went outside.

A Solution?

In the weeks immediately following the battle, most civilians were focused on helping the wounded or repairing the damages to their property. And yet, the sights of the shallow graves and the horrible stench was a constant reminder of the loss and suffering.

People realized something had to be done, but most were too busy to even begin thinking about a solution. However, one man hatched an idea that would solve the problem of the Gettysburg graves and would also bring honor to the fallen soldiers.

Conclusion (For Today)

Gettysburg had a serious problem. What could they do about the soldiers’ graves in their community? Was their a way to honor the dead, or would the graves be ploughed apart in the next spring’s planting?

Next week, we’ll explore David Wills’s suggested solution and build up to the moment when Mr. Lincoln stood to speak in “a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.”

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

Sarah Broadhead: Gettysburg’s Voice

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

Sarah Broadhead

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.”

Lutheran Seminary, Gettysburg

Lutheran Seminary, Gettysburg

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.”

ink-and-feather-quillThe Diary

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.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Have you read the full diary? Is it your favorite or would you nominate another?

Why Do We Ignore Gettysburg Civilians?

I have a theory, a belief, a conviction.

Usually civilians get ignored in the studies of war. But at Gettysburg, something mysterious happens… The civilian population of 1863 was called awful names and often berated by national newspapers. The years passed and some of the civilians in the town redeemed their reputation, but a stigma remained against the civilians of 1863 living in the countryside. Why?

I’ve written my historical findings and opinion on this subject in a new blog post for Emerging Civil War – Gettysburg Civilians: Evil Beasts or Compassionate Heroes?

Hopefully, this new look at historical evidence will cast light on a subject shaded by prejudice. Here’s the link again.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Go ahead and leave comments or questions on ECW’s site and I’ll be happy to answer them over there.

Fleeing To Stay Free (Gettysburg Civilians)

Spoiler Alert! The Westmore Family in Blue, Gray & Crimson stay at their home through the battle and aftermath, but not every Gettysburg family did. Some, like the Thorn Family, left their home because the officers ordered them to leave. Many others departed to get to a safer location away from the battle.

However, there is one group of Gettysburg civilians who fled or hid to maintain their freedom. I wasn’t able to work their history into my recent novel, but I think it would be wrong to not share their story in our “Back to Gettysburg” series.

Part of the Community

8% of Gettysburg’s pre-battle population were free African Americans. Located just seven miles north of the Mason-Dixon line, Gettysburg had a couple known”safe houses” on the Underground Railroad in or near town. Some of the escaped slaves wanted to stay closer to the border, hoping family members would join them, or they felt comfortable in the Gettysburg community and didn’t want to risk possibly high prejudice in larger towns farther north.

Mag Palm, Gettysburg Resident

Mag Palm, Gettysburg Resident

The freemen became part of the Gettysburg community. They worked as hired laborers, often saving enough money to buy small farms in the Cemetery Ridge area.

One woman – Mag Palm – worked as an assistant in one of the town shops. On a scary day, some Southerners came into town and tried to forcibly drag her back to slavery; she fought them, and her employer and some other men in town came to her assistance. This incident is one example of the dangers still surrounding the escaped slaves.

The Gettysburg Campaign

Fearing capture and deportation back to slavery in the South, the African Americans in Gettysburg were always on the alert. At the first rumors of any Confederate raid, they gathered up their possessions and fled.

Now we must address a dark side of the Gettysburg campaign. While it is true that Confederate soldiers were ordered to treat civilians well, that order did not include freemen. Freemen and their families were captured and sent back to slavery during the Gettysburg campaign.

The African American community in Gettysburg was terrified. And, sadly, there wasn’t much their neighbors, employers, or abolitionist friends could do to prevent the tragedy. And so, when the campaign rumors began, many African Americans fled the Gettysburg area.

Surviving The Battle

Not all fled, though. Several families sheltered and hid their endangered neighbors while the Confederates were in town during the battle. One African American woman and her daughter hurried to the home where they helped with cooking and laundry (they were paid for their work, of course – they weren’t slaves) and begged for assistance. The family devised a hiding place, and the women remained safe throughout the battle. Thanks to their kind-hearted neighbors, these women were spared.

Basil Biggs and his wife owned a farm near Gettysburg

Basil Biggs and his wife owned a farm near Gettysburg

The Same Destruction

We’ve talked about how the farmer’s fields were ruined by the battle and their homes were used as field hospitals. The African American land owners experienced the same hardships, though in some instances the destruction on their property was worse. Not because the armies knew who owned the land and were wantonly malicious, but because of these farms locations.

Many of the farms and fields owned by African Americans were along Cemetery Ridge, which became the backbone of the Union position and the point of assault for Confederate attacks. The heavy, concentrated fighting left extreme destruction and the land owners would return to find their crops and hopes ruined.

Building The Resting Place

Remember the Gettysburg African Americans worked as hired laborers, if they didn’t own land or a small business. The Gettysburg agricultural economy was in shambles after the battle. There weren’t many fields left to harvest, so their was little paid work available.

A work crew preparing to transport a deceased Union soldier to Gettysburg National Cemetery

A work crew preparing to transport a deceased Union soldier to Gettysburg National Cemetery

In the autumn, work on Gettysburg National Cemetery began…and the bodies of Union soldiers had to be removed from their original burial places, transported in coffins, and reburied in the new cemetery. The cemetery planners agreed to paid a minimal sum for each deceased Union soldier transported to the final resting place.

Photographic evidence and accounts show that African American men took the job offer – unpleasant as it was – and worked alongside their neighbors, the planners, and the architects to build Gettysburg National Cemetery.


The African American community of Gettysburg suffered the same hardships and battle destruction as their neighbors, but their experience was intensified by extreme fear and the need to flee or hide.

I wonder if these people were present for the Dedication of the National Cemetery (and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address). Personally, I think they were there. Quietly, at the edges of the crowd, some of them must have heard Lincoln’s words… They must have rejoiced and wondered at the beautiful meaning behind the president’s words “a new birth of freedom” – that promise that the chains were gone and they were American citizens.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Your thoughts on this topic? Had you ever considered this aspect of Gettysburg’s history before?

For older readers (late high-school and up) I’d highly recommend the book The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History – Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle by M.S. Creighton (2005). Have you read it?


Young Heroes in Gettysburg

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.

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)

“Allie” Buehler

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?”

Sadie Bushman

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.

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.”

My Thoughts

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.

Humiston_childrenThe 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.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

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.