Unfortunate Events and Special Circumstances: Why the Rupp Family Tells the Civilian Experience at Gettysburg

By Savannah Rose ’17

Is the Jennie Wade story important to remember? Is she the ideal image of the civilian experience during the Battle of Gettysburg? When it comes to the civilian experience at Gettysburg, tourists flock to the Jennie Wade House Museum to hear the tale of a young girl caught in the crossfire of a major battle. Wade’s circumstances were unusual for the battle, but her story is better known due to its excitement and tragedy than because of its representativeness. The lesser-known story of the Rupp family gives us a better idea of what civilians experienced when the two armies entered their town. Like most families during the battle, the Rupps escaped danger by avoiding the conflict, emerging unharmed. So what was the civilian story of the Battle of Gettysburg? Whose struggle better conveys the civilian experience? Is it the tragic story of a single civilian casualty, or the experience of a family that hid in their basement to escape harm?

The Rupp Tavern, currently owned by the Gettysburg Foundation, stands at the intersection of Baltimore and Steinwehr Avenue. Photo by the author.
The Rupp Tavern, currently owned by the Gettysburg Foundation, stands at the intersection of Baltimore and Steinwehr Avenue. Photo by the author.

What attracts people to the Rupp Tavern is not a famous story that accompanies the building or the family, but normally their interest in seeing living historians standing on the front porch. John Rupp owned and operated the tavern during the time of the battle, taking refuge from the gunfire in his basement. Confederates occupied his tannery during the battle, using it as a station for rest as well as a sharpshooter post. The only signs of war at the Rupp Tavern were a dead Union soldier in the yard, a few broken windows, and a raided house.

As a volunteer at the Rupp Tavern, I often encounter visitors whose only vision of the civilian experience of Gettysburg is Jennie Wade. Aside from Jennie Wade, no civilians perished during the battle. As most families fled town or hid in their homes, this was a rare occurrence for this battle. The Rupp family exemplifies the average civilian experience during the battle, the story of hiding away to avoid danger.

Each weekend, I stand inside the Rupp Tavern waiting for visitors to enter our museum. Due to its close proximity to the Jenny Wade House, most visitors that come to the Rupp Tavern tend to visit both civilian houses during their stay. As the Rupp tour progresses, visitors ask several questions pertaining to the Tavern itself, as well as the family that inhabited it. Very few ask about Jennie Wade on the tour, but I know her story will be the one that stands out in their minds after they leave Gettysburg. Her story is more exciting than that of the Rupp family; thus, hers is more likely to be the civilian experience they remember. Does excitement and memory determine the civilian story of Gettysburg? For visitors, yes. For me, though, the civilian story is not one of death and destruction, but rather of the concealment of a family and battle wounds to buildings.

Memory plays a large role in remembering the Battle of Gettysburg, and has proved to play a large role in determining the civilian experience. Many visitors I encounter at the Rupp Tavern know Jennie Wade’s tale often before they enter our museum, but few remember the story behind the Rupps after a few hours. To visitors, what makes Jennie Wade’s story the leading civilian experience is the fact that she perished in her home from a stray bullet. Frankly, that’s more exciting to listen to than a family hiding in their basement for a few days. The Rupps hid from the fighting, emerging unharmed as most civilians did, only to find destruction surrounding them. Why isn’t this civilian story better known to people? It’s because it is the average civilian story, and it’s not ‘special’ to those who visit Gettysburg. To visitors, what’s special and important to remember are the tales of unfortunate events and special circumstances. That’s Jennie Wade’s story. The story behind the Rupp Tavern gives visitors a better idea of what civilians experienced, sharing with us the story of a family simply trying to survive during the Battle of Gettysburg.

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