When the war came to the doorsteps of Gettysburg, most residents had to retreat to their cellars for protection. But there were some who took calculated risks with the exception of Jennie Wade. She has the distinction of being the only civilian killed in the battle. Today there is a statue of her outside the house where she was shot by a sniper’s bullet.
Wade and her mother worked as seamstresses to support the family when her father became too ill to work. To earn extra income, Jennie cared for a disabled six-year-old boy. On July 1, along with her mother, brother and the boy in her care, Jennie visited her sister, a woman whose new-born was only five days-old. With bullets flying from every direction, the two boys sought cover. Though frightened, the three women were making no apparent effort to take extra protective measures.
Union soldiers were falling dead and wounded all around them. A 10-pound cannon ball crashed through the roof, but failed to explode. Soldiers who came to the house asking for bread no doubt offered plenty of warnings and advice to seek safer shelter. An additional one-hundred-and-fifty bullets slammed into the sides of the house. Although difficult to imagine, she and her mother acted as if completely unaware that the kitchen in which they stood was between Union and Rebel snipers, an unforgiving, no-exceptions killing zone. To no avail, Jennie’s sister finally pleaded with her mother for both of them to take cover.
While ignoring the glaringly obvious explosion of shells and blazing guns outside her door on the morning of July 3, Jennie prepared to make bread. At approximately 8:30 a.m., a single bullet struck Wade from behind, penetrating her heart. Only when it was too late for Jennie did everyone in the house finally seek shelter in the cellar, remaining in relative safety until the next day.
Having willingly placed herself in mortal danger, one could suggest that her statue, one of more than thirteen hundred monuments in the Gettysburg area, is dedicated to either poor judgment or youthful innocence.
Failure is ignoring the obvious.
Facts that are inconvenient, particularly dangerous ones, should never be ignored. When a threat to you is real, as it was for Wade, you need to take measures to reduce or eliminate it. Though Wade was a positive influence with her generosity of bread to soldiers, caring for two children, and having a strong religious sense, her apparent naiveté simply frustrated the common sense needed to save her. Wade embodied the values that make America great, but a nation’s successful war against a sworn enemy, and ultimately its survival, can make no allowances for Jennie Wade behavior.
Copyright 2012 Paul Lloyd Hemphill