Gettysburg Civilians: Evil Beasts or Compassionate Heroes?

Today, we are pleased welcome back guest author Sarah Kay Bierle

“Few good things can be said of the Gettysburg farmers, and I only use Scripture language in calling them ‘evil beasts.’” ~ Georgeanna M. Woolsey[i]

 Gettysburg civilians faced heavy criticism in newspaper accounts and in some of the journals and papers of military men and medical personnel. Harsh details of residents charging for bandages, food, and transportation abound. G.A. Coco – a historian of Gettysburg’s aftermath – recorded seventy-five complaints in the personal writing of individuals at Gettysburg. At the time and in the following decades, the residents of the town of Gettysburg were able to redeem their reputation, but a slur has remained against the names of the civilians in the countryside. Perhaps they do not receive open criticism now, but the unknowing acceptance of a prejudiced views and stereotypes from a past era has limited the available information about these people.

First, there was a political difference between the majority of Gettysburg town residents and those living in the countryside. Many of the town citizens had Republican views while the farmers leaned Democratic. During the war years, Democrats were viewed with suspicion; were they Copperheads, opposing the war effort?

The Trostle Farm
The Trostle Farm after the battle. Gettysburg farmers faced harsh criticism after the battle.

Secondly, compounding the political problem was social prejudice. Many of the farmers were German-American, usually first or second generation immigrations. There was much ethnic tension in mid-nineteenth century America, and the German immigrants were often treated poorly.[ii] There is not much evidence of open prejudice in the actual Gettysburg community, but the German accents, appearance, and mannerisms of the country residents were noted, scorned, and mocked by outside reporters and medical personnel.

Thirdly, patriotism produced a harsh view on anyone not in uniform. Significantly, farmers (the men) received much of the criticism. Consider the feelings of the Union officers, soldiers, and surgeons, though. They had been fighting and dying for their country. They finish burying their dead comrades and head to the field hospital to check on a wounded friend; then they meet a German farmer bemoaning the loss of the his crops and wondering when he will get paid back for the damages while his wife is wailing about her torn linens. The circumstances of these encounters alone, combined with the social prejudice, probably prompted the bitter tone and complaints against these civilians.

Having examined three compounding issues consciously or sub-consciously influencing the writers’ accounts, it is now time to take the civilian’s side of the story. There would be little value in trying to redeem the culprits who charged for bandages and food. (Perhaps they were worried about how they would survive the winter without the income and food from their fields; but this would be a poor defense. Their selfishness was not commendable in anyway.)

So acknowledge the civilians who really did disgrace themselves, but stop viewing all the Gettysburg farmers in this way. Is it fair to let the views or actions of the minority influence how we view an entire group of people? Some Civil War soldiers were undoubtedly thieves, bounty-hunters, and scoundrels, but has this minority influenced the way historians think of all soldiers? Perhaps it could be argued that the minority of Southern gentlemen who owned slaves have been used as the stereotypical example of the Confederate soldier…and the effects have not been good. Thus, while understanding the factors influencing the reporters’ views and accepting the truth that there were some very selfish civilians, it is time view these families of the Gettysburg countryside as individuals…and stop labeling or ignoring them because of the actions of a few.

Digging into the primary sources regarding the farmers and families of the Gettysburg battlefield reveals a new perspective on their courage and sacrifice. Unlike the town residents who might have had the option to volunteer to bring wounded soldiers into their homes, the country families had no choice. Medical staff took any and every standing structure and turned it into a field hospital, whether the owners approved or not. Civilians in the direct area of the battle (for example, the Sherfy Family who owned the Peach Orchard) fled from their homes. When they returned their crops and gardens were ruined, their livestock was dead, roaming the countryside, or butchered for rations, and their homes and barns were blood-splattered field hospitals. Some civilians, not in direct battle lines, decided to stay on their property and thus became “staff” in the medical facility in their home.

George Meade's Headquarters
George Meade’s Headquarters

One task which many women and girls performed during and after the battle was baking bread or cooking food for the soldiers. Josephine Miller was a young German woman living and working at Peter and Susan Roger’s farm off Emmitsburg Road. Union General Slocum recorded the following incident: “[Union General Carr, whose troops were in the area] informed her that a great battle was inevitable, and advised her to seek a place of safety at once. She said she had batch of bread baking in the oven, and she would remain until it was baked and then leave. When her bread was baked, it was given to our soldiers, and was devoured so eagerly that she concluded to remain and bake another batch. And so she continued to the end of the battle, baking and giving her bread to all who came. The great artillery duel which shook the earth for miles around did not drive her from her oven. Pickett’s men who charged past her house found her quietly baking bread and distributing it to the hungry.”[iii]

Curiously, not many accounts by country civilians detail their experiences caring for wounded soldiers, while there are an abundance of these accounts from town residents. There are likely several reasons for this. Firstly, they may have been illiterate. Secondly, they were too busy with the tasks to write. Thirdly, nobody bothered to interview them in later years because of the prejudices. However, they are mentioned occasionally by soldiers or surgeons, and here is one of the most eloquent examples by Confederate officer Henry K. Douglas. After detailing the Picking Family’s care for him during his recovery at their farm on the Hunterstown Road, he writes: “God, every now and then, does make such people as Mr. and Mrs. Henry Picking and breathes into them His spirit of Christian charity, beneficence, and unpretentious nobility…” Douglas goes on to detail another incident, “Mr. Picking showed like kindness to the wounded in the barn, and it is no wonder that as soon as they were convalescent, a number of them took his wagon and horses, hauled in his wheat from the field and stacked it where he wished.”[iv]

Josephine Miller
Josephine Miller

One of the best and most moving accounts comes from a civilian writer on the John Cunningham Farm (near Marsh Creek, south of the Fairfield Road). The house and barn had been taken over as a field hospital shelter, and the women had turned many barrels of flour into bread while Father interacted with and aided the injured soldiers. Thus, the physical needs of the wounded were met, but so was the need for comfort as the daughter records: “Mother was unable to keep the children away from the homesick soldiers. They would carve them toys…and play with them endlessly. The children would trot to the well with canteens strung around their necks, carrying cold water to the men. When Mother would go to the barn…she would sometimes find a soldier asleep on the hay with a sleeping child on each arm.”[v] An entire family – children included – was working to assist, save, and encourage the wounded men.

Josephine Miller, Mr. and Mrs. Picking, and the family at the Cunningham farm hardly fit the “evil beast” image of miserly, unpatriotic, selfish farmers. It is time to identify and acknowledge the prejudices which have clouded the perspective about these people. Though there were certainly instances of selfishness, there were also many courageous and sacrificial actions which should be honored and remembered. Since the country civilians were too busy assisting or were not given the opportunity to tell their story of Gettysburg, it is time to look back and find their courage, faith, and nobility of character.

[i] Gregory A. Coco, A Strange and Blighted Land: Gettysburg – The Aftermath of a Battle, (1995), page 251

[ii] M.S. Creighton, The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History: Immigrants, Women, and African   Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle, (2005).

[iii] Jim Slade & John Alexander, Firestorm at Gettysburg: Civilian Voices, June – November 1863, (1998), page 118

[iv] Henry Kyd Douglas, I Rode With Stonewall (1940), 253.

[v] Gregory A. Coco, A Vast Sea of Misery: A History and Guide to the Union and Confederate Field Hospitals at Gettysburg, (1988), 152.

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