My Favorite Historical Person: Sarah Broadhead

“The following pages were begun for no other purpose and with no other thought than to aid in whiling away time filled up with anxiety, apprehension, and danger; and after the danger had passed away, the practice of noting down the occurrences of each day was continued until disease incapacitated the hand for writing.”

That’s how A Lady of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, started the introduction to her journal entries when they were prepared and published in 1864. Though at the time of publication she disguised her real name in typically mid-19th Century feminine fashion, historians decades later are fortunate that she kept a detailed record of her civilian experiences during the Battle and Aftermath of Gettysburg.

Her real name? Sarah Broadhead. Mrs. Broadhead’s courage and writings influenced my research and writing, and she is definitely one of my favorite historical persons from the Civil War era. 

Sarah Broadhead (no known image restrictions)

In her early thirties in 1863, Sarah Broadhead and her husband, Joseph, lived in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania which was an average county-seat town during the first half of that year. The war seemed a safe distance away, and life was good for the young couple. They lived with their four-year-old daughter, Mary, in a comfortable two-story, brick home at 217 Chambersburg Street in town and not far from the Lutheran Seminary. Joseph worked for the railroad line between Gettysburg and Hanover and served as a lieutenant in a local militia unit while Sarah.

Sarah was an ordinary woman, but events in her crossroad town and her response to them makes her extraordinary. Her response began on June 15, 1863, when she penned the first words of her journal: “Today we heard that the Rebels were crossing the river in heavy force, and advancing on to this State.”

She continued to keep a daily record of rumors, false alarms, and thoughts as the days passed, giving historians and interested readers a glimpse into the “real-time” thoughts and feelings of a Gettysburg lady. This is especially helpful for research; while many Gettysburg civilians wrote down their experiences, most tended to write what happened after it had happened – sometimes a long time afterward. Thus, those civilians wrote their stories after Gettysburg battle and sometimes after Gettysburg took its place as a decisive battle in American History books, giving folks a chance to add hindsight or extra color to their stories. Sarah’s journal is “real-time,” meaning she wrote what happened pretty much as it occurred which provides a different recorded experience. She about the elements of fear, suspense, and unknown dangers. And she recorded it beautifully; her former experiences as a school teacher gave her better spelling and a good vocabulary to explain the happenings in her town.

Map of the Gettysburg area

On June 26th with her husband away at work for the railroad, Sarah met Confederate soldiers who she described as “a miserable looking set.” Alone and at home, she “passed the most uncomfortable night of my life,” afraid that her husband would be captured or the Rebels would cause trouble. The following day the Confederates left town, and after a  few more anxious days, Joseph returned, just in time to hear or see more enemy soldiers “reconnoitering the town… [and] we were told that a heavy force of our soldiers was within five miles.”

The following day – July 1 – was baking day for Sarah. She had just finished preparing her bread to go in the ovens when she heard cannons. “What to do or where to go, I did not know.” She experienced the Battle of Gettysburg from the shelter of a cellar, coming above ground during lulls in the fighting to cook for her family. Her impressions of the battle were quite different than those of the generals and soldiers, but her writing revealed her thoughts and fears for those on the battlefield.

Sarah continued her journal through the aftermath days, recording her experiences of cooking for soldiers, taking care of the wounded, comforting the dying, saving nearly one hundred wounded men from drowning in the flooded basement of the Seminary, and trying to comfort a widow who came looking for her fallen husband. The hurry, urgency, and grief of those weeks concluded with her final entry of the published journal, written on July 14th – just one month after she began the record. The final words gratefully and wearily record that “A weight of care, which we took on us for duty’s sake, and which we had learned to like and would have gladly borne, until relieved by the complete recovery of our men, has been lifted off our shoulders, and again we have our house to ourselves.”

The Lutheran Seminary in the distance. Sarah volunteered to take care of wounded soldiers at the Seminary after the battle.

The following year Sarah privately published a pamphlet form of her journal, donating seventy-five copies to the U.S. Sanitary Commission for a fundraiser fair. In later years, Sarah and Joseph moved to New Jersey, Sarah’s original homestate. Joseph Broadhead died in 1903, and Sarah lived with her daughter in Pennsylvania until her death in 1910; Sarah is buried in Pleasantville, New Jersey.

Sarah Broadhead kept a journal with the purpose of recording events to ease her own anxiety about the 1863 invasion of Pennsylvania. In the end, she left a valuable historical source, allowing historians and readers to glimpse what it was like for a Gettysburg civilian wife and mother, living in the town during the battle and aftermath days. Her perspective is insightful and, although not likely to be of much use while researching about troop movements, it provides a startlingly clear glimpse into the meaning and reality of the battle.

In closing, here is Sarah’s account of the afternoon of July 3, 1863 – the hours leading to and completing the Confederate charge by Picket, Pettigrew, and Trimble.

July 3 – Again the battle began with unearthly fury. Nearly all the afternoon it seemed as if the heavens and earth were crashing together. The time that we sat in the cellar seemed long, listening to the terrific sound of the strife, more terrible never greeted human ears. We knew that with every explosion, and the scream of each shell, human beings were hurried, through excruciating pain, into another world, and that many more were torn, and mangled, and lying in torment worse than death, and no one able to extend relief. The thought made me very sad, and feel that, if it was God’s will, I would rather be taken away than remain to see the misery that would follow. Some thought this awful afternoon would never come to a close. We knew that the Rebels were putting forth all their might, and it was a dreadful thought that they might succeed. Who is victorious, or with whom the advantage rests, no one here can tell…

She did not see the battle lines, but she still had a clear report and idea of what was happening. Thankfully, she wrote it down.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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3 Responses to My Favorite Historical Person: Sarah Broadhead

  1. tuffncuddly says:

    Awsome choice Sarah, never heard of her. It’s great to hear the “play by play” of the battles and the emotional trauma it caused her in “Real Time”, the paragraph you posted from when Mrs. Broadhead was experiencing the run up to the Pickett, Petigrew, and Trimble attack was frightening, great read

    • Thanks, Jeffrey. Her journal has a wonderfully real and emotional quality to it. She was not a panicky woman, but she certainly thought a great deal about what was happening around her and could sympathize/empathize.

  2. Pingback: ECW Week in Review June 12-18 | Emerging Civil War

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