Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, is a charming town known for its 3-day battle that marked a pivotal moment in the American Civil War. But most people don’t realize that beyond the battlefields, there is so much more to experience. Have you ever thought about what it must have been like to be a civilian when the Battle of Gettysburg took place?
The Battle of Gettysburg lasted 3 days, July 1–3, 1863. It was the bloodiest single battle of the Civil War and over 50,000 soldiers lost their lives, but it was a turning point in the war. However, beyond the history of the battle, Gettysburg has a rich civilian story that is often overlooked.
I recently visited Gettysburg to learn more about what it was like for civilians living there during the battle. Four places that brought the civilian experience to life were the new Beyond the Battle Museum, the Shriver House Museum, the Jennie Wade Home, and Jennie Wade’s Grave. All provide great glimpses into the past and what civilians experienced during the Battle of Gettysburg.
DestinationGettysburg hosted my visit. All opinions are my own.
Gettysburg Was Transformed Overnight
I learned what life was like before the battle through artifacts and first-hand accounts at the Beyond the Battle Museum. Gettysburg was a small town with a population of about 2,400 residents. The town was unprepared for the influx of troops and the chaos. The population skyrocketed to nearly 10,000 during the battle as soldiers arrived from both sides. When the Union army arrived, the townspeople felt safer than ever. They thought it was a precaution and that war in their town would never happen.
Everything changed when Confederate troops marched into town on July 1, 1863. Some residents fled as soon as they heard the distant sounds of battle, while others huddled in their homes, terrified and unsure of what would come next. Some were forced to vacate their homes and businesses and lost all their possessions.
As the fighting drew closer, those who remained in their homes could hear the sounds of gunfire and cannon fire echoing through the streets, feeling the ground shake beneath their feet. Lives were turned upside down in a matter of days.
War In The Town
For those caught in the crossfire, the battle experience was terrifying but awe-inspiring. Witnesses described the spectacle of the fighting, with clouds of smoke and dust obscuring the view of soldiers charging across open fields. One eyewitness, a local woman named Tillie Pierce, watched a shell explode in her front yard, sending shrapnel flying through her home.
As the battle raged on for days, the streets of Gettysburg were filled with agony. Despite the danger, Pierce and other civilians ventured onto the battlefield to assist the wounded and dying soldiers they found there, an act of bravery that would forever shape their memories of the battle.
Caught in the Crossfire is a moving immersive experience in the Beyond The Battle Museum. You walk into a room that looks similar to the décor of a farmhouse in the 1860s. As you sit or stand in the room, it simulates a war outside. You hear, feel, and see what it was like for a Gettysburg family trapped in their home behind enemy lines. The room shakes, the candles flicker, and the sounds of gunfire and moaning surround you. It is a moving experience that brings the war to life. (This experience moved me to tears; it is not for young children.)
Pro Tip: The Children of Gettysburg 1863 Museum is a better option for small children. It explains the war in a way children can relate to without being frightened.
While the war took many lives from the Union and Confederate troops, there was only one civilian casualty during the war in Gettysburg. Jennie Wade was staying with her sister, who had just given birth and was bedridden. Jennie and her mom were there to help when the war broke out.
They baked bread and cooked food for the Union soldiers as a way of helping the cause. Jennie got up early to bake bread, and as she was kneading the dough, a rifle gunshot pierced through two doors of the home and killed her.
In Gettysburg, I visited Jennie Wade’s Grave and toured the Jennie Wade Home where she died. There were also bullet holes in the headboard and walls of her sister’s bedroom. It is a miracle that she and her baby were not harmed.
Damaged Structures Still Stand
It’s important to remember that the citizens of Gettysburg experienced this battle first-hand. Walking through the streets and observing the marks of this conflict still present helps us understand what life was like during those 3 days in July 1863.
Many structures in the area sustained damage from the fighting, and a few, like the Jennie Wade Home, became places of mourning and pilgrimage to remember the people who died there.
The Shriver House Museum is another building that has bullet holes in the side of it.
The Shriver family left the house when the war came to town, and when they returned, their home was in shambles due to soldiers taking it over.
When I visited, I toured the attic where soldiers had left ammunition and empty shells after the war. Visiting these sites can serve as a sober and poignant reminder of the struggles that so many people went through.
Nursing The Wounded
Local women took up nursing duties, watching over the wounded and dying.
The churches and other buildings acted as makeshift triage centers, with doctors and nurses tending to the wounded in any available space, including church pews, private homes, and barns. Those who were too gravely injured were frequently left to die on the roadside.
It’s hard to imagine the overwhelming sense of despair apparent in the town as people watched their brothers, fathers, and sons fall, left to succumb to their injuries. Photographs, artifacts, and first-hand accounts in the Beyond the Battle Museum show the carnage of the war.
The Aftermath Of War: A Grim Scene
It was a grim scene as the town was left in ruins. Citizens were left to cope with the physical and emotional scars of the battle that had raged around them. For many survivors, the stark brutality of war was a wake-up call, a reminder of the fragility of life and the importance of working toward peace.
The Gettysburg Address: A New Beginning
On November 19, 1863, 4 months after the battle, President Abraham Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg to dedicate the National Cemetery. This was the site of the famous Gettysburg Address, which is perhaps the most well-known speech in American history.
Lincoln’s speech was not focused on the battle or the military, but instead, it was a tribute to the fallen and a call for unity and healing. The Gettysburg Address gave hope to the people of Gettysburg and the rest of the nation. It was a reminder that, even in the darkest of times, there is hope for a better future.
Reconstruction Of Gettysburg
The people of Gettysburg had to rebuild their lives after the battle. Many lost family members or were injured themselves. They had to contend with the battle’s physical, emotional, and economic aftermath.
In addition, they had to deal with the constant tourism and curiosity-seekers who came to see the battlefield. Children grew up playing among the memorials and monuments, and the town became synonymous with war and bloodshed. The residents of Gettysburg always remembered what happened during those 3 days in July, and the impact of the battle has been felt for generations.
Despite the hardships they faced, the residents of Gettysburg persevered. The town was rebuilt, and new businesses and industries emerged.
The battlefield became a source of tourism and the town became a gateway to the region’s historical sites.
Gettysburg is a thriving community that honors its history while embracing the future. Visitors can enjoy a variety of attractions and activities, from historical tours to shopping and outdoor recreation.
During the battle, the citizens of Gettysburg experienced some of the most brutal days in U.S. history. To walk in their footsteps is to understand the horror of war and the strength of the human spirit amidst incredible adversity. While the damage inflicted on Gettysburg was tremendous, the town’s resilience demonstrates a united resolve to heal together.
Gettysburg may be known primarily for the battle, but there is so much more to the town’s history. The civilian experience adds a deeper and more nuanced understanding of what life was like during that time. While the battle left its mark on the town, the resilience and determination of the people of Gettysburg allowed the town to rise from the ashes and flourish.
So, the next time you visit Gettysburg, take some time to learn about the civilians who lived through the battle. Visit the Beyond the Battle Museum, the Shriver House Museum, the Jennie Wade Home, and Jennie Wade’s Grave, and you may gain a new perspective on this historical site.