Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Sad Civil War Story of Jennie Wade, 1863

Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Susan reporting:

This blog was suggested by a schoolmate of my daughter's, a girl who saw the little leather purse, left, and thought the story behind it might make a good TNHG post.  She's right – and what intrigued me the most is that she's just about the same age as the young woman who originally owned that purse.

Born in Gettysburg, PA, Jenny Wade (1843-1863), below, was a seamstress employed by her mother. A fervent Union supporter, she was likely engaged to marry Johnston Hastings "Jack" Skelly, a corporal in the 87th Pennsylvania. In one of those terrible coincidences of history, Jenny, her mother, and her younger siblings left their home on the first of July, 1863, for the house of her sister, Georgia McClellan, which they believed to be in a safer location in the center of town. The war had suddenly become inescapable, with nearly 160,000 Confederate and Unions soldiers converging on their small Pennsylvania town. As the battle raged nearby, Jennie and her sister made loaves of bread, running out to the street to give them to the Union troops marching past on their way to join the fighting.

With gunfire ringing throughout their neighborhood (more than 150 bullets have been found in the walls of the McClellan house), the women struggled to keep life as normal as possible. Early on the warm Friday morning of July 3, Jennie was standing in her sister's kitchen, kneading dough for more bread. The small leather purse, above, was in her pocket while she worked.

As she bent over the dough, a Confederate sharpshooter's bullet entered the kitchen and struck Jennie. The ball pierced her left shoulder and passed through her heart, finally burying itself against the bones of her corset. Jennie died instantly. Her body was discovered by Union soldiers, and she was buried in the back yard of the house. Legend says that her grief-stricken mother went on to finish the bread that Jennie had been kneading, giving the loaves to Union soldiers along with the story of her daughter's death.

When the horrific Battle of Gettysburg was finally over, the casualties on both sides were estimated at between 46,000 and 51,000 soldiers – the highest number for any Civil War battle. Yet only one civilian was killed: Jennie Wade. Within a week, her sweetheart, Jack Skelly, was also dead, perishing from wounds received at the Battle of Winchester. Looking at that remarkably ordinary little leather purse, it's hard not to think of Jennie and Jack, and all the hopes and dreams that must have ended for so many young couples in that hot July of 1863.

Above: Jennie Wade purse, Christian C. Sanderson Museum, Chadd's Ford, PA
Below: Jennie Wade, detail, Wade Family daguerreotype
Many thanks to Hannah Boettcher for suggesting this post! 

16 comments:

A traveller in time said...

Thanks for this post. I will remember Jennie Wade and her story. So many heartbreaking stories in any war, but poor Jennie wasn't even a combatant. It's not really that long ago either is it. It's just a year after my family came out from the UK to live in Australia.

Andrew said...

I heard this story before, on the Travel Channel, although they said that she was carried into the house's cellar where she died. Apparently the house is now haunted.

K10 said...

This is such a tragic story! I think what really gets me is that she was not only not a combatant, but she wasn't even running out into the fighting, she was in the kitchen.

It's funny, how when we read this story we focus on Jenny's tragic death, but Jack died too. I suppose we expect soldiers to die in war, not women working in their kitchens.

It's so sad about both of their young lives!

Jane O said...

It's stories like this that bring home the inescapable tragedy of war. Was it Anatole France who said something to the effect that two people dead is a tragedy, two thousand people dead is a statistic?

Anonymous said...

Were you aware that there is a Dave Mathews Band song about her? It's called The Death of Jenny Wade. Very moving.

gio said...

Thanks for this post! What a tragic, heartbreaking story!

Kari said...

This is a lovely, tragic story. You never know what the history of an item is, but when you do and its something like this, its amazing.

Isobel Carr said...

I admit that while I love *real* history, stories like this are why I write romance.

Meg said...

What a great story, and so sad! I think the one comfort in it is that it is unlikely that Jack knew she had been killed before he died himself. That would have been unbearable, I think.

Louise Partain said...

Seeing the purse makes it more real somehow than the picture of her. It is such a remarkably ordinary little leather purse carried in the pocket of a person who hoped and dreamed and died.

Jenny Girl said...

Oh my goodness, this is so sad! Poor Jenny!

Lizzie said...

wow... thanks for the great post! love this blog

Di said...

I remember visiting Gettysburg & 'the Jenny Wade' house when I was a child & later as an adult. You just get chills in some locations, like at Jenny Wade house & Devil's Den and when you hear the stories from the rangers & guides.

If you like stories about young women in history check out the story of Tempe Wick - Jockey Hollow - near Morristown NJ - location of Revolutionary War Continental Army Winter Encampment, but not as well known as Valley Forge. It's about 15 min from my home.

The Dreamstress said...

What a sad story. I haven't heard it since primary school.

Her purse is gorgeous. How big is it? It's such an interesting use of the paisley design: the wing arrangement is so modern.

Stephanie said...

Sorry this is late. I was actually on vacation in Gettysburg when this post was done. It is a sad story. I hope you don't mind, but some of the information is a little off. By what I was always taught and what we learned at the place of the shooting. Jennie lived with her mother in Gettysburg, actually a few blocks closer to the center of town. (It is still there and holds a winery tasting place now.) Her sister's place was closer to the the Union lines, on the same street. Further out of town. Her sister had just given birth to a little boy and their mother thought it would be a good idea for all of them to be together. All of the men in the family were either at war or unable to be there. It was Jennie and her mother who were making the bread for the Union Troops. By what we were told at her sister's house, being a "good Christian woman", Jennie did not want to turn anyone away and was also making some bread for some confederate soldiers as well. That is when the shot was fired. It went through two doors and through her back. She was killed instantly. It is sad that one of the battle's heroes was also the only civilian casualty. She was kept in the basement till the battle was over and was buried in the backyard till proper burial could be done. The town of Gettysburg was left in shambles with literally thousands of dead and wounded laying almost everywhere. So Jennie's body had to wait... unfortunately. She is buried in Gettysburg at Evergreen cemetery and is only one of two women to have the US flag flying over her grave at all times. The other women is Betsy Ross.

Thank you so much for sharing!

Rachel said...

Great story, thanks so much.

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