July 1-3, 1863 was an unprecedented time in the town of Gettysburg. When we look back at these three days we remember the famous generals who led here and the countless soldiers who died. Rarely do the citizens of this small town enter into the picture. Over the course of three days these townspeople had their entire lives turned upside down. Some fled the approaching conflict, but others decided to stay, despite their fear, and face the horrors of war head on. One such citizen was Mary McAllister.
In 1863, at age 41, Mary was considered a spinster. She lived with her sister Martha and Martha’s husband, John, and they made their livelihood by running a small general store on Chambersburg Street. When the battle commenced Mary did what she could to aid the wounded and feed the hungry soldiers. While she may have been no hero, there is little denying her bravery.
On the first day of battle Mary left her home to go across the street to aid the wounded soldiers at Christ Lutheran Church. There, Mary experienced the grim outcome of battle firsthand. Mary recalled that the church was packed with the wounded as surgeons and doctors went about their business:
“Every pew was full [with the injured]; some sitting, some lying, some leaning on others. They [the surgeons] cut off their limbs and threw them out the window.”
Mary pressed-on in the horror, doing what she could, until “a shell struck the roof and they got scared…” Mary was so frightened by the incident that she ran to her home. Sadly for Mary, she could not escape the war there: “The rebels were sending grapeshot down the street and everyone who was on the street had to get into the houses or be killed and that is the way some of these Union men got into our [the McAllister] house.”
Most of these Union soldiers did not stay long in Mary’s home as they soon found themselves trapped by the Confederates. The injured remained in Mary’s house but the rest were taken away as prisoners. After they left, Mary went to the church again to retrieve a surgeon for the wounded. The surgeon suggested to Mary that she and Martha should hang something red outside the house to indicate that it was a hospital so that the Rebels would leave them alone. Mary and Martha took his advice, but as they were fastening a red shawl to a broom to hang out their window, they witnessed a rather disturbing scene. Some of the Confederate soldiers came riding down the street, firing off their guns and yelling.
They stopped in front of the church where they exchanged some words with the wounded men on the steps. A few minutes later Mary heard a pistol shot and she saw a man lying dead on the pavement. She heard the men on the steps say “Shame! Shame! That was a Chaplain!” and the men on horseback responded that “He was going to shoot.” But the wounded men retorted by saying “He was not armed.” A few minutes later the Rebels “…rode off again, shooting as they had come.”
The second day of battle was calmer for Mary. She cooked and baked for the wounded and at one point she left her home to get a few Union officers some liquor that they had requested. She went to a drug store and made her purchase, but before she left, a shell struck the building, leaving a hole, and the store owner warned her “you will be killed if you stay.” Mary went home and gave the liquor to the officers whom she assumed would be giving it to injured men. Instead, the men divided the alcohol amongst themselves and Mary “never went for any more.”
On the final day of battle Mary went to her warehouse to retrieve a barrel of molasses she had there. Inside she discovered some Rebel soldiers eating it. When Mary told them to stop they insulted her and one of them even threatened to shoot her. Mary solved the issue by confronting a Rebel officer who made the men leave. He told Mary if she was disturbed again to go to his headquarters and he would handle it. Mary was not bothered any further.
Mary’s story may seem mundane in comparison to other accounts of the battle. What makes Mary’s story compelling, though, is that it is of an ordinary civilian caught in the Battle of Gettysburg; she was trying to live her life amongst the turmoil of war. The citizen’s story is often overlooked but Mary’s narrative offers us a rare insight into just what the ordinary civilian faced when war came to their doorstep.
McAllister, Mary. An Account of the Battle of Gettysburg by a Citizen of Gettysburg. Gettysburg College Special Collections: 1938.