Civilian at the Battle of Gettysburg

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Civilians and the Battle of Gettysburg

Elizabeth Salome Sallie Myers

"These Were Bitter Days"

Sallie Myers
Sallie Myers.jpg
Adams Co. Historical Society.

In 1863, 21 year-old Elizabeth Salome "Sallie" Myers was on summer vacation. The Gettysburg native was in her fourth week off from teaching in the town's public school when, with little warning, she found herself faced with a terrible decision, to hide in the cellar of her home or help the injured and dying. Forty years later, she authored "How A Gettysburg Schoolteacher Spent Her Vacation in 1863", first published in The Sunday Call newspaper in San Francisco, California. Myers was later interviewed for a news article in the July 4, 1909, Philadelphia North American. Here is her story:

"I was not an enlisted nurse. At the breaking out of the war I was a teacher in the public schools of Gettysburg, my native place, and the home of my maternal ancestors who were its first settlers. On may 31, 1863, I finished a nine months' term as second assistant to the principle of our schools. Of the experiences of the inhabitants of the Southern border counties of our state that Spring and Summer, I need not speak. Business of all kinds was paralyzed and the daily reports of the coming of the rebels kept us in a constant fever of excitement. On June 26 they came, spent the night and passed through... burning bridges and spreading consternation everywhere. Little we dreamed of the far greater horrors that were in store for us.

"On Wednesday July 1, the storm broke. We were brimming over with patriotic enthusiasm. While our elders prepared food we girls stood on the corner near our house and gave refreshments of all kinds to 'our boys' of the First Corps, who were double-quicking down Washington Street to join the troops already engaged in battle west of the town. After the men had all passed, we sat on our doorsteps or stood around in groups, frightened nearly out of our wits but never dreaming of defeat. A horse was led by, the blood streaming from his head which was covered. The sight sickened me. Then a man was led by supported by two comrades. His head had been hastily bandaged and blood was visible. I turned away faint with horror, for I never could bear the sight of blood. After a while the artillery wagons began to go back and we couldn't understand that. The came the order: 'Women and children to the cellars; the rebels will shell the town.' We lost little time in obeying the order. My home was on West High Street, near Washington (Street) and in the direct path of the retreat. From 4 to 6 we were in the cellar and those two hours I can never forget. Our cellar was a good one and furnished a refuge for many besides our own family.

"The noise above our heads, the rattling of musketry, the screeching of shells, and the unearthly yells, added to the cries of the children, were enough to shake the stoutest heart. After the rebels had gained full possession of the town, some of our men who had been captured were standing near the cellar window. One of them asked if some of us would take their addresses and the addresses of friends and write to them of their capture. I took thirteen and wrote as they requested. I received answers from all but one, and several of the soldiers revisited the place of their capture and recognized the house and cellar window. While the battle lasted we concealed and fed three men in our cellar.

"Before 6 o'clock the firing ceased and we came up from the cellar. They had begun bringing wounded and injured into town. The Catholic and Presbyterian churches, a few doors east of my father's home were taken possession of as hospitals. Dr. James Fulton (143rd Pennsylvania Volunteers) did splendid work getting things in shape. From that time on we had no rest for weeks. 'Girls,' Dr. Fulton said, ' you must come up to the churches and help us- the boys are suffering terribly!' I went to the Catholic church. On pews and floors men lay, the groans of the suffering and dying were heartrending. I knelt beside the first man near the door and asked what I could do. 'Nothing,' he replied, 'I am going to die.' I went outside the church and cried. I returned and spoke to the man- he was wounded in the lungs and spine, and there was not the slightest hope for him. The man was Sgt. Alexander Stewart of the 149th Pennsylvania Volunteers. I read a chapter of the Bible to him, it was the last chapter his father had read before he left home. The wounded man died on Monday, July 6.

"Sgt. Stewart was the first wounded man brought in, but others followed. The sight of blood never again affected me and I was among wounded and dying men day and night. While the battle lasted and the town was in possession of the rebels, I went back and forth between my home and the hospitals without fear. The soldiers called me brave, but I am afraid the truth was that I did not know enough to be afraid and if I had known enough, I had no time to think of the risk I ran, for my heart and hands were full. One of our boys had lost a leg. He had been with us several days and had become very fond of my little sisters. Very frequently they sang for him, 'There is No Name So Sweet on Earth', at that time a popular hymn. He suffered from indigestion and one night in his restlessness, the bandages came loose. It was after midnight. The nurse, tired out, had fallen asleep and before we could find a surgeon he was so weakened by loss of blood that he died the next morning. A few days later his wife came. She was young and had never been away from home. When she heard of her husband being wounded, she started for Gettysburg, leaving a babe that he had never seen. She did not know of his death until she came to us and her grief was heartrending.

"I went daily through the hospitals with my writing materials, reading and answering letters. This work enlisted all my sympathies, and I received many kind and appreciative letters from those who could not come. Besides caring for the wounded, we did all we could for the comfort of friends who came to look after their loved ones. Many pleasant and enduring friendships were the result of this part of my work. It is a great pleasure to remember that during that long, trying summer, I was treated with the greatest courtesy and kindness by the soldiers, not one, in either army, ever addressing me except in the most respectful manner. They were men. They bore their suffering in the hospitals with the same matchless courage and fortitude with which they met the dangers and endured the hardships of army life. Their patience was marvelous. I never heard a murmur. Truly, we shall not look upon their like again.

"I would not care to live that summer again, yet I would not willingly erase that chapter from my life's experience; and I shall always be thankful that I was permitted to minister to the wants and soothe the last hours of some of the brave men who lay suffering and dying for the dear old flag."

The year following the battle, Sallie Myers' family was hit with a more personal tragedy. Her brother David G. Myers, a private in Company F, 87th Pennsylvania Infantry, was captured at the Battle of the Wilderness on May 6, 1864. Myers was sent to Andersonville Prison Camp, where he died on September 27, 1864. Sallie later married and gave birth to a son Henry who became a prominent physician and supporter of the first hospital established in Gettysburg. Sallie lived out her days where she grew up, apparently never resentful of the war that brought death to her doorstep. "These were bitter days," she recalled in 1909, "but memories of them are softened when one considers the friendships that were made."

Recommended Reading: The Ties of the Past : The Gettysburg Diaries of Salome Myers Stewart, 1854-1922. Description: Do you want the past brought to life? It's books like "The Ties of the Past - The Gettysburg Diaries of Salome Myers Stewart" by great great granddaughter Sarah Sites Rodgers that will transport the reader through time and space into an 'era fastly becoming distant past.' Beginning in 1860 and taking us through the Battle of Gettysburg and beyond, we witness, first hand, the life of young Miss Myers - school teacher - and her daily excursions into life as it was for a young woman of the 1860's. We experience her fear while her father is off fighting a war that killed more Americans than all other American wars combined. Continued below.
We see through her eyes the first hand and very human affects of the battles - the side of war rarely discussed or portrayed: as the Gettysburg battle rages, Miss Myers unwittingly becomes a nurse to the wounded in her own home and in nearby field hospitals. The 1863 Battle of Gettysburg is only half the story. What happened in the town to its citizens is the oh-so-important other half not getting its just due. We also become privy to her life after the excitement at Gettysburg settled down: her marriage and ultimate widow hood shortly thereafter. If you are a Civil War buff / historian, or if you are a student of social history, you would do well to purchase this peek into the past that shaped our nation.

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Recommended Reading: Firestorm at Gettysburg: Civilian Voices (Hardcover). Description: The civilians who lived through the battle of Gettysburg recount this pivotal event in the American Civil War in their own words. The eyewitness accounts, spanning from June 15, 1863, through Lincoln’s address in November, are compelling tales told by those literally trapped inside the lines of the two great, warring armies. Continued below...
Over 160 historical photographs and illustrations accompany the text.

Recommended Reading: An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864, by Sarah Rosetta Wakeman (Author), James M. McPherson (Foreword), Lauren Cook Burgess (Editor). Description: "I don't know how long before i shall have to go into the field of battle. For my part i don't care. I don't feel afraid to go. I don't believe there are any Rebel's bullet made for me yet." --Pvt. Lyons Wakeman. Similar sentiments were expressed by tens of thousands of Civil War soldiers in their diaries and in their letters to loved ones at home. What transforms the letters of Pvt. Lyons Wakeman from merely interesting reading into a unique and fascinating addition to Civil War literature is who wrote them--for Private Wakeman was not what "he" seemed to be. The five-foot tall soldier's true identity was that of a simple young farm girl from central New York named Sarah Rosetta Wakeman. Her letters, the only such correspondence known to exist, provide a rare glimpse of what life was like for a woman fighting as a common soldier in the Civil War under the guise of a man. Continued below…

Written shortly after she left home to pursue her fortune in 1862, Rosetta's letters over the next two years tell of army life in the defences of Washington, D.C. and on the march and in battle during the 1864 Louisiana Red River Campaign. She wrote frequently to her family in Afton, NY, and her letters contain feelings and observations like those expressed by the majority of her fellow soldiers. We read of her determination to perform honorably the duty required of a soldier, the trials of hard marching and combat, her pride in being able to "drill just as well as any man" in her regiment, and her eventual fatalistic attitude toward military service, and her frequent expressions of faith in God and the afterlife. Although Rosetta did not survive the war, her letters remain as a singular record of female military life in the ranks, a phenomenon largely ignored by historians and researchers. Private Wakeman was not alone in embarking on her strange adventure. Hundreds of women, from both the North and South, disguised themselves as men and enlisted in the armies of our nation's bloodiest war. The experiences of these women during the Civil War are just beginning to be recognized as elemental to understanding the life of this country during those turbulent times. Little is known about these women precisely because they enlisted and served in constant secrecy, fearful of revealing their true identities. This unique collection of letters offers a firsthand look at the personality and character of a woman who defied convention to take a man's place in the Union army.


Recommended Reading: Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage. Description: America's Civil War raged for more than four years, but it is the three days of fighting in the Pennsylvania countryside in July 1863 that continues to fascinate, appall, and inspire new generations with its unparalleled saga of sacrifice and courage. From Chancellorsville, where General Robert E. Lee launched his high-risk campaign into the North, to the Confederates' last daring and ultimately-doomed act, forever known as Pickett's Charge, the battle of Gettysburg gave the Union army a victory that turned back the boldest and perhaps greatest chance for a Southern nation. Continued below...

Now, acclaimed historian Noah Andre Trudeau brings the most up-to-date research available to a brilliant, sweeping, and comprehensive history of the battle of Gettysburg that sheds fresh light on virtually every aspect of it. Deftly balancing his own narrative style with revealing firsthand accounts, Trudeau brings this engrossing human tale to life as never before.


Recommended Reading: Eyewitness to the Civil War (Hardcover: 416 pages) (National Geographic; Fists edition) (November 21, 2006). Description: At once an informed overview for general-interest readers and a superb resource for serious buffs, this extraordinary, gloriously illustrated volume is sure to become one of the fundamental books in any Civil War library. Its features include a dramatic narrative packed with eyewitness accounts and hundreds of rare photographs, pictures, artifacts, and period illustrations. Evocative sidebars, detailed maps, and timelines add to the reference-ready quality of the text. Continued below...

From John Brown's raid to Reconstruction, Eyewitness to the Civil War presents a clear, comprehensive discussion that addresses every military, political, and social aspect of this crucial period. In-depth descriptions of campaigns and battles in all theaters of war are accompanied by a thorough evaluation of the nonmilitary elements of the struggle between North and South. In their own words, commanders and common soldiers in both armies tell of life on the battlefield and behind the lines, while letters from wives, mothers, and sisters provide a portrait of the home front. More than 375 historical photographs, portraits, and artifacts—many never before published—evoke the era's flavor; and detailed maps of terrain and troop movements make it easy to follow the strategies and tactics of Union and Confederate generals as they fought through four harsh years of war. Photoessays on topics ranging from the everyday lives of soldiers to the dramatic escapades of the cavalry lend a breathtaking you-are-there feeling, and an inclusive appendix adds even more detail to what is already a magnificently meticulous history. (Includes rare soldiers photos and battlefield photo)


Recommended Reading: The History Buff's Guide to Gettysburg (Key People, Places, and Events) (Key People, Places, and Events). Description: While most history books are dry monologues of people, places, events and dates, The History Buff's Guide is ingeniously written and full of not only first-person accounts but crafty prose. For example, in introducing the major commanders, the authors basically call Confederate Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell a chicken literally. 'Bald, bug-eyed, beak-nosed Dick Stoddard Ewell had all the aesthetic charm of a flightless foul.' To balance things back out a few pages later, they say federal Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade looked like a 'brooding gargoyle with an intense cold stare, an image in perfect step with his nature.'

Although it's called a guide to Gettysburg, in my opinion, it's an authoritative guide to the Civil War. Any history buff or Civil War enthusiast or even that casual reader should pick it up.

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