A Song for Jennie

By Claire Bickers ’20


The above-pictured sheet music is an ode to Gettysburg’s own Jennie Wade, who was killed in the crossfire of July 3rd, 1863. The simple tune was created by lyricist E. B. Dewing and composer J. P. Webster who hoped they would inspire patriotism in their female audience while they worked to become accomplished musicians. When the Civil War broke out, the young women who played the piece had been left behind on the home front, only to imagine what horrors their men were facing. The government and the warfront alike relied on the homefront to present a brave and loyal face in order to maintain support for the war effort through the fostering of a nationalistic, sentimental culture that bled into all aspects of Union life. Music was a feminine expression of patriotic devotion that many women used to empathize with those on the battle front as well as to inspire themselves and their peers toward acts of patriotic sacrifice on behalf of their war-torn nation. After the war ended and America moved into Reconstruction, music like “Jennie Wade, the Heroine of Gettysburg” continued to inspire women, who were busy honoring the dead and healing the country’s gaping wounds.

In that vein, in 1865, Dewing and Webster produced a collection that was patriotically themed. One of the songs in that collection was “Jenny Wade, the Heroine of Gettysburg,” which was a simple tune included in an educational musical collection that described itself as being “divided into two kinds of lessons—the one for musical culture and the other for muscular culture… those lessons which are designed to awaken, develop, and strengthen a love for music.” Since the performers played this piece to develop their piano and vocal skills, it is likely that many of the earliest performers were young and still early on in their musical journey. It is also likely that many of the earliest performers of the song were in fact young women. Since musical ability was considered an asset for women’s marriageability and a marker of femininity and social class, many nineteenth-century young women were musically trained from an early age. If the intended audience for this music was indeed young women, then that makes it all the more interesting that the subject matter of this song is also a tribute to a woman. The women who played the music likely saw themselves in Jennie’s story; the shared experience of being a woman in a war-weary nineteenth century was a unifying force in the lives of both the consumer and the subject of the tune.

The message that these women consumed in the lyrics that Dewing wrote tap into nineteenth century ideas of sentimentalism. Soldiers and civilians alike relied upon the framework of sentimental thinking to understand and justify the brutality and fatality of war: Sentimentalism was an ideology that promoted unfailing courage in the face of seemingly overwhelming grief and honorable sacrifice in the name of a higher cause. Sentimentalism also emphasized the deep-rooted connection between soldier and home, reminding women on the homefront of their duty to remain stoic in the face of loss. Southern historian Lisa Laskin argues that “the people to whom the soldiers looked for emotional support also proved to be the group most capable of sabotaging soldier morale.” To protect soldiers’ morale, it was vital for women to maintain their patriotism during the war, and composers and lyricists such as Webster and Dewing monopolized upon the thirst for inspirational entertainment through the rapidly expanding genre of patriotic music.

At the onset of the Civil war, the patriotic music industry boomed, featuring many different styles of music, a large amount of which was styled after the Napoleonic epic of “The Battle of Prague.” Similarly styled songs, including “The Battle of Manassas” and “Battle of the Wilderness,” were composed throughout the war and attempted to capture the horrors of the battlefield through music, even calling for vocal sound effects (The “Battle of Manassas” encourages performers to exclaim “Chu Chu” at one point to imitate a train’s arrival) and dramatic gestures. Although the patriotic musical genre was dominated by battle songs and odes to the masculine, Dewing and Webster chose to honor a more feminine subject for a predominantly young, predominantly female audience. The song employs patriotic imagery as they praise her, saying her “spirit yet shall serve Free men defending right” because she died with the “courage of a woman true, [as she] Upheld the dear old flag.” Dewing intentionally chose these words to remind women of their bravery and sacrifice throughout the war, traits they would continue to need while facing its aftermath.

The publishers included a short line at the top of the sheet music that gives a brief explanation of the events that led up to Jenny’s death, noting that “the heroic girl…was making bread for our soldiers in a house between the two armies, and exposed to the fire of both, although repeatedly urged, she would not desist from her labors, and fell victim to her patriotism.” This story must have been striking to the young musicians who were playing the song for the first time. The young women who performed the piece doubtless all knew a man who had gone to war and would never return, but they were far less likely to have met a woman in the same situation. Being presented with the story of a young woman who died a bloody, masculine death must have been a stark reminder of the heavy cost of war: Even a northern woman, who was theoretically supposed to be safe from the danger of battle’s crossfire, could be killed in an instant and that minie balls did not discriminate on the basis of gender.

However, the description that Dewing wrote about Jennie’s death sanitized her passing as much as possible, distancing her death from the battlefield and aligning it with the feminine sphere. Dewing and Webster did not specifically mention how exactly Jennie died; they simply alluded to it and allowed players to infer the rest. Instead, the two men focused on what Jennie was doing at the time of her death – baking bread. This choice in details conveyed the message that Jennie’s physical and symbolic role in the war like all other women and civilians, was meant to be separate from the front-line action. Instead, a woman should prove her patriotic devotion by selflessly serving in the feminine sphere.

At twenty years old, Jennie Wade was probably not much older at her death than many of the musicians who played this piece. The song’s attempts to sentimentalize her death by laying Jennie to rest “with our bravest,” implied to performers that her sacrifice was just as deep and meaningful as the deaths of the more than seven thousand young men who fell on the Gettysburg battlefield. Consumers of “Jenny Wade, the Heroine of Gettysburg” and its message were presented with a sentimental interpretation not of those men’s deaths, but of the death of the one and only civilian killed during the battle. The song gives a face to this feminine martyr while inextricably linking the necessary and heroic sacrifices and sufferings of both the battlefield and the home front. Dewing and Webster’s song inspired their audience with the heroism that was expected of every American, civilian or soldier, in their country’s time of need.


Laskin, Lisa. “”The Army Is Not near so Much Demoralized as the Country Is”: Soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia and the Confederate Home Front.” In The View from the Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers, 91-120. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2007.

Marisi, Rossella. “Female Music Making in the Nineteenth Century.” Review of Artistic
Education, no. 5/6 (September 2013): 18–24.

Morgan, Elizabeth. “Combat at the Keys: Women and Battle Pieces for the Piano during
the American Civil War.” 19th Century Music, 40, 1 (2016):7–19.

“Welcome To Jennie Wade House.” Jennie Wade House | Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Accessed  March 26, 2019.

The Third-Annual Abolitionists’ Day Event

By Claire Bickers ’20

Three years ago, Adams County declared the first ever Abolitionists Day—a day dedicated to honoring the lives of the county’s abolitionists. The county’s abolitionists were a varied group, comprised of both whites and free blacks, men and women. Through their efforts, thousands of slaves were able to find their freedom in the North. One impressive couple, William and Phebe Wright, helped approximately one thousand men, women, and children to freedom. Adams County was also home to Thaddeus Stevens, a Gettysburg resident who used his position in the US House of Representatives to fight against the institution of slavery. With people as distinguished as these in the county’s history, it is fitting that the county has set aside a day to commemorate them. To aid in this commemoration, several groups from the county came together to create a two-hour program that honored these abolitionists and educated modern county residents about their legacy in a performance that featured a collection of skits, talks, and music.

The skits were all based on the true stories of the county’s fight for emancipation. One portrayed the kidnapping and daring escape of a young freewoman who had been mistaken for a slave. Another skit, performed by Isaiah Washington, depicted the risks that newly freed James Pennington was willing to take to be educated that eventually led to his rise as a prominent intellectual. Washington, who has given past performances as a slam poet, delivered some of Pennington’s anti-slavery writings with a poet’s outspoken fervor, which was fitting for material that was every bit as passionate. This skit particularly emphasized the interracial cooperation that defined the anti-slavery movement in Adams County by depicting the roles that both black and white members of the county took on to fight the institution of slavery. Max Weikel, acting as Gettysburg College Professor William Reynolds, gave another striking performance as he delivered an impassioned speech for emancipation and anti-slavery. Weikel’s portrayal of Reynolds was outspoken and eloquent—it was easy to imagine how Reynolds’ public speaking skills, cultivated in the classroom, might have captivated a town meeting. As a Gettysburg College student, it was especially moving to see the role that one of our own professors once took in the fight against slavery.

The program alternated between these anti-slavery skits and musical performances of abolitionist music. The music was performed by Dearest Home, a folk music group, and Judy C. Williams, a skilled reenactor. Dearest Home played traditional pro-abolition songs with nineteenth century instruments, including a piano and a banjo. The group was careful to prepare the audience with context for the songs they sang, especially when the songs dealt with racially sensitive issues: For example, songs that included words that, in the nineteenth century, were considered common-place but have since changed, gaining newer, darker connotations. Because the band was careful to prime the audience with the necessary context, they allowed the audience to appreciate the songs in their intended light. Dearest Home’s performances were a reminder that the phenomenon of political music is anything but new; music has long been a vehicle of political movements.

The other musical performances were sung by Judy Williams, who played the role of Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield. After escaping slavery, Greenfield became so famous for her musical prowess that she was called “The Black Swan.” Her songs were heartbreakingly beautiful, as she sang songs that mourned the loss of a son to slavery, and the hopes of emancipation. She even sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” a song rendered particularly tragic against the backdrop of slavery. Watching Williams sing as Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield was particularly thought-provoking because, although, based on the contemporary descriptions of her music, she was a similar talent to “The Swedish Nightingale,” Jenny Lind, Greenfield’s name does not retain the same power as the European songstress’s. Although it can be difficult to ascertain exactly why one person is remembered in history and another is not, it is difficult not to wonder if Greenfield would be better remembered if she was white and not an African American. Regardless, it was refreshing to actually be educated about Greenfield’s legacy as both an early African American concert musician and an anti-slavery activist, while heartwrenching to hear Williams’ emotive voice sing from the perspectives of slaves searching for hope in the bleak realities of slavery.

The emotional performances described were all put together by the Thaddeus Stevens Society, the Gettysburg & Menallen Friends Meetings (Quakers), Adams County Human Relations Council, YWCA of Gettysburg & Adams County, and the Interfaith Center for Peace and Justice. These groups put a lot of hard work and passion went into this public history project, and I would definitely recommend attending next year if you can—you’ll leave with a greater appreciation for the important humanitarian work done in this county before it gained infamy in 1863.


The Remnants of the Crater

By Claire Bickers ’20

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series. 

In the final years of the Civil War, the Army of the Potomac laid siege to Petersburg, Virginia.  Petersburg was the center of supply for both the city of Richmond and Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and Grant understood that he could cripple the Confederate army by capturing the city.  He hoped to end the battle quickly, but through a series of missteps and complicated battle scenarios, the siege lasted more than nine months—longer than any other Civil War battle.

The most notorious battle during this campaign was the Battle of the Crater.  On land that had once been part of the Griffith plantation, Union soldiers dug a mine and detonated black powder underneath Confederate lines to create a gap through which Union troops could march on the city.  The situation quickly deteriorated as unit after unit charged into the Crater.  The Confederates were enraged to realize that many of the troops they were fighting were USCTs (United States Colored Troops), and treated them with particular cruelty.  The men who charged into and around the Crater were in frenzied disarray; the battle devolved into hand to hand combat and bayonets were used with abandon.

Many men did not survive that battle.  Neither did their rifles.  What remains of their weapons are shattered, bearing the scars of the savagery of the fighting.  Many are still loaded, Minie balls ready for the assault that will never come.  They are the remnants of a brutal battle unlike the noble picture that Lincoln painted at Gettysburg.  The men who died July 30th, 1864 in the Crater didn’t nobly sacrifice their lives for a comrade, breathing their last breaths in the arms of a friend.  Instead, they died frantic and alone, a teeming mass of men trying to escape disaster.

After the end of the war, the Griffith family moved back to their plantation.   Seeing an opportunity to capitalize upon the relic hunting that was already becoming commonplace, they created a small museum (of sorts) on their property, featuring the vestiges of the most notorious battle of the siege.  The Griffiths preserved rifles that were cracked in half, bent and splintered, or otherwise destroyed by the trauma of battle.  Not long after the Civil War finally ended, people lined up to see these remnants from Petersburg that they already understood to have been sanctified by blood; Frederick Douglass himself visited the Crater and Crater Museum in October of 1878.  When the National Battlefield was eventually created, the Griffith collection changed hands.  Many of the same artifacts that they chose to display are still exhibited by the park to this day.

At most Civil War sites, weapons such as rifles or cannons provide visitors a tangible link to the past.  To ensure the continued survival of these  important Petersburg artifacts, many of these Crater rifles were sent to conservation treatment last year, from which many of them just returned.  This care will help ensure that their voices can remain poignant reminders of the brutality of battle for generations to come.

Bickers rifle
A remnant of a Crater rifle, after conservation treatment. Photo courtesy Claire Bickers.


Bowery, Charles R., Ethan Sepp Rafuse, and Steven Stanley. Guide to the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2014.

Kidd, Sherry Williams. “Petersburg National Battlefield Opens New Exhibit Honoring Frederick Douglass
.” The Prince George Journal, March 13, 2018.