By James Duke ‘24
War on the Doorstep: Civilians of Gettysburg
By late June of 1863, alarms warning of approaching Confederate forces were nothing new for the 2,400 residents of Gettysburg. Living just ten miles from the Mason-Dixon line, small-scale raids, kidnappings of freed-people, and rumors of an imminent clash between the two great armies had long plagued the borough and its surrounding community. Nevertheless, none of these events could prepare Gettysburgians for the ferocious 3-day fight between 165,000 soldiers in early July of that year that would transform the lives and lands of Gettysburg’s civilians forever. However, these civilians’ experiences were not monolithic; while some were defined by tragedy and blight, others included remarkable episodes of perseverance, successful pragmatism, and creative profiteering. This blog series profiles the lives of diverse Gettysburgians who were forced to confront the war at their very doorsteps, each on their own terms, whose stories speak to the kaleidoscope of experiences of civilians struggling to survive, and thrive, along the Pennsylvania-Maryland border during the Civil War.
Elizabeth Salome ‘Sallie’ Stewart, born Elizabeth Myers on the 24th of June, 1842 to Peter Appel Myers (1816-1870) and Hanna Margaret Sheads (1818-1881), was a native Gettysburgian and impromptu nurse during the 1863 battle,. She was a teacher who worked in the town’s public school, the High Street ‘Common School.’ After the battle, Sallie acted as a nurse in St. Francis Xavier Church, which had been converted into a hospital to help the many wounded left behind by both the Union and Confederate armies. Thrust into the role of a caretaker, Myers took twelve soldiers in on her first day as a nurse, and every day afterward her home on west High Street would remain filled with wounded until the convalescents finally were able to leave the town. She published an account of her 1863 experiences in San Francisco’s The Sunday Call in 1903, and was also interviewed for the Philadelphia North American newspaper in 1909. She also kept a diary about the events that unfolded in her town in July of 1863, which was published in 1996. After the war, Sallie was elected Treasurer of the National Association of Army Nurses for her service, even though she had not officially been trained as a nurse– something she came to regret. She taught at the Franklin Street ‘Colored’ School for a time, eventually moving off of High Street into the 1st Ward of the Borough of Gettysburg where she lived out her days.
Sallie was twenty-one at the time of the battle, working as the principal’s assistant at the ‘Common School.’ She had been a teacher since the age of sixteen, and had a knack for nurture. She had eight siblings at home, the youngest of whom was around four at the time of the battle. Though she had older siblings, she still lived with her parents, no doubt helping to support the many mouths to feed. Her father, Peter, was a coach-builder who built all kinds of stagecoaches, buggies, and wagons. He volunteered in the 87th Pennsylvania from 1861 to 1862, but was released from service due to varicose veins and rheumatoid arthritis. Her mother, Hanna, was described in the census as a housekeeper.
Living on High Street would have been a benefit to Sallie, being so close to her work; however it also put the family in an interesting social position, as High Street was a part of Gettysburg’s Third Ward, the home to a large segment of the borough’s black community. It is in this area that Frederick Douglass spoke in 1869, that Pennsylvania College janitor Jack Hopkins owned a house, and that famed abolitionist and Congressman, Thaddeus Stevens rented out and sold homes to black folks. Living in the heart of the black community would have set the family apart from and may have raised the eyebrows of many of their white counterparts – It also certainly meant that they were the opposite of wealthy. Though there is no indicator of his salary, at his death, Peter’s estate was worth only about 150 dollars .
Though there are no records of such things happening in Gettysburg, well known race riots occurred in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania around 1830-1842 due to disgruntled Irish Immigrants accusing free African Americans of stealing jobs. In the “free labor” climate of the north, this competition for employment was common, though violence was relatively rare. Gettysburg, with a sizable free African American community, can be seen as a microcosm of the success that African Americans saw in Philadelphia, the largest free black community at the time. Though there were no such incidents of violent racial discord recorded in Gettysburg, it is difficult to decipher the exact nature of the relationship between the Myers family and the African Americans who lived around them. The Third Ward was known for being the only area in downtown Gettysburg where people would rent or sell to people of color – what was the Myers family doing there? Were the family’s finances too strained for them to purchase a home in the white sectors of town? However, the census states that not only Sallie worked as a teacher, but her sisters did as well. How would a poor family have afforded to educate multiple daughters who would later themselves become teachers? Did the Myers family perhaps choose to live in the Third Ward, and might they have had a stronger relationship with Gettysburg’s black community than did most whites?
Coming from such a large family, it is no wonder that Sallie grew to be such a nurturing individual. With so many mouths to feed, as an older sister she probably served as a second mother to many of her siblings. The career of an educator is a natural extension of this nurturing attitude, not to mention one of the few public professions deemed respectable for women during the time. By July of 1863, Sallie was on summer vacation from school, relishing the time away from work to spend more time assisting her family at home–until the fateful day of July 1st. Sallie noted in her diary, “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.” With Federal protectors entering her beloved town, Sallie felt that urge to nurture once more; giving the haggard but heroic marchers refreshments was one way in which she could sate her patriotic fervor. However, as much as she wished to welcome the Federal Army into her beloved town, news of the brutal fighting west of town quickly reached the borough bringing with it the sobering reality of war. A more subdued Sallie later noted that, “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.” Though Sallie could not fight, it was her duty to believe in and support the cause of democracy and to help uphold the morale of the troops and on the home front. In a way, as much as she was counting on those brave men to protect her, they were in fact counting on her. Her identity as a faithful “daughter of the Union” would swell the hearts and minds of every good man in the Union Army.
However, Sallie’s early and idealistic patriotic fervor was harshly challenged by the sight of the battered retreating men who would pass her hours later. The sight of blood sickened her and made her weary; by the afternoon she was in her cellar, hiding from Confederate shells and minie-balls flying through the air over the heads of the retreating Union soldiers making their way through town. Where once an outpouring of patriotic love reined, terror gripped the small cellar as the bass of booming artillery shells exploded outside the home. Much of the black community had fled, fearing capture by the Confederate Army; many went to nearby Quaker communities or to the Lancaster area. Alone in the neighborhood with no sign of their Federal protectors, the only thing to do was hide. Peter, having been rejected by the Army, was not fit to defend his family. No doubt this was frustrating to him as the male head of the household, but there was safety in numbers. Where once many children laughed and played, silence fell for fear of being discovered by the enemy. By the evening, the bombardment had stopped. Sallie and her family emerged from the cellar as the wounded were brought into town.
After receiving a message from Dr. James Fulton of the 143rd Pennsylvania Volunteers, Sallie came to the aid of wounded men at the Presbyterian and Catholic churches nearby her home. Women all over town began to heed his call. Like many women her age, Sallie was expected to take up the matronly mantle of caregiver at a moment’s notice, even if the graphic nature of such duties was entirely new to her; it was her duty, just as a soldier’s was to fight. Upon arriving at Saint Francis Xavier Catholic Church, she rushed to the nearest man, Sergeant Alexander Stewart of the 149th Pennsylvania Volunteers. He was dying, and they both knew it. The terror of the day’s events fully sank in, and, overwhelmed, she ran outside. Stewart, she wrote in her diary, had been shot through the lung and spine, without the ‘slightest hope’ for survival. She cried on the doorstep of the church before composing herself once more; her compassionate, caring spirit had returned. If she would not care for him, who would? She sat by Alexander, reading to him a selection from the Bible: John chapter Fourteen – “Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God. Believe also in Me. 2 In My Father’s house are many dwelling places. If it were not so, I would have told you. I am going to prepare a place for you. 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, you may be also. 4 You know where I am going, and you know the way.” Though he was suffering, she could give him some peace. To hear the word of God just as he would have likely heard it every Sunday, before every meal, and now before his untimely passing might ease his racing heart and give him the Victorian “Good Death” he deserved. Providing such comfort was the least Sallie could do for a man that had sacrificed so much for her beloved nation. However, Sallie no doubt also found comfort in the familiar readings which likely helped to calm her own nerves and steel herself for the grim task ahead. Now with a markedly stronger and more stoic heart with regards to coping with the stresses and sickening scenes of suffering and death around her, Sallie sought to ease Stewart’s his passing further by moving him into her home alongside other wounded men where, despite her care, he would pass away on the 6th of July. To give a dying man the peace he deserved would be all the thanks she would get.
Growing more and more accustomed to the sight of gore all around her, Sallie continued to steel herself before the men she cared for, even while the bullets of battle still flew. She notes in her diary that she moved between her home and the many hospitals around town without any fear; the soldiers commended her, but she would not have it. In her own words, “I had no time to think of the risk I ran, for my heart and hands were full.” Ever busy, she eventually moved to a hospital at Wible’s Woods, in the area called Rose Woods today. This was a triage-type of field hospital where men would go before being taken to the larger hospital at Camp Letterman, on the eastern outskirts of Gettysburg. There, she mostly focused on writing letters for wounded men, as well as those who knew they would not even make it to the camp – a task no less grave than dressing wounds. Providing the casualties of war, both the recuperating and the dying, the ability to send what might be their one last letter home was common practice – it was a final testament that every soldier wished to have. However, the emotional toll on the scribe was enormous. Nevertheless, through her actions, Sallie enabled many men to achieve some semblance of the antebellum ideal of a “Good Death” – the ability to convey final thoughts and wishes to loved ones, contemplate death with comforting Biblical readings, and hear a few words of comfort, albeit from a stranger, before joining God in Heaven above. Such was the opposite of being savagely and unexpectedly cut down on the battlefield, or left to die alone in agony while outside, exposed to the elements.
Sallie’s care for these men would not go unnoticed after the battle. Later in the month, she received a letter from Henry Stewart, the younger brother of Sergeant Alexander. He endeavored to visit the nurse who cared so for his brother, his mother by his side. After a lengthy series of correspondence, Henry finally visited the quant town of Gettysburg with his mother in 1866. To meet the woman who gave his dying brother the peace that he could not was a way to achieve some semblance of closure to the death of such a close loved one. To hear from Sallie directly what happened to his brother, his final words, and just how he was cared for in his final moments was a vital substitute for not being able to witness these moments himself. In an interesting twist of fate, Elizabeth would go on to marry Henry Ferguson Stewart in 1867 . Such romances were not completely uncommon in the postbellum years, as unlikely relationships did form between civilians or caregivers and soldiers who found themselves forging bonds of affection through mutual or interrelated experiences of grief. Additionally, some soldiers felt it their paternalistic duty to provide for the poor, widowed, or simply kind-hearted women who had cared for a relative or comrade, which also resulted in numerous marriages.
Tragically, only a year later, Henry, who suffered from uremia and arteriosclerotic cardiorenal disease, was ultimately struck down by terminal pneumonia. Soon after his death, Sallie moved back into her family’s home with her son, Henry Alexander Stewart. By 1880 she was living on Baltimore Street, a significant upgrade – the more economically successful First Ward. She would continue to teach until 1905, when she became involved with the National Association of Army Nurses until her death in 1922. Her son, Henry, would (quite fittingly) be one of the founders of the Adams County Historical Society, and was an accomplished surgeon. His obituary stated that in 1902 he built one of the first X-Ray machines in Adams County. When Sallie wrote, “Besides caring for the wounded, we did all we could for the comfort of friends who came to look after their loved ones,” it would be remiss not to note that she married one of the very brothers of those loved ones she wrote about so many years ago. Through both literary means and through childbirth, Sallie helped to ensure that the sacrifices of those loved ones would not be lost to time, and that the ideals for which they fought would be preserved and passed on to future generations.