When young Mary Virginia Wade was only seven, her father James was arrested trying to flee across the Maryland state line with $300 cash he had found. Pocketing found cash without trying to find the owner was such a bizarre act that his wife Mary went to court to have him declared legally insane.
Whether due to her father’s brushes with the law, his failing health, or both, Capt. James Wade, Sr. would spend his last days institutionalized in the local alms house. Mary and her daughters “Jennie” and Georgia, along with three sons, John, Samuel and Henry would make do the best they could, with the women picking up the seamstress duties of their now absent tailor father.
Jennie would roam the fields of Gettysburg with her childhood pals Jack Skelly and Wesley Culp, and dutifully attend church on Sundays with her family at Trinity German Reformed Church in Gettysburg. The church, like so many others in that fated city, would see its pews and floors forever stained with the blood of the dead and dying soldiers. As a converted field hospital, the church was attended by local volunteers who ministered to both Union and Confederate wounded.
And like most of us, there won’t be much of a story told about our lives unless we happen to be swept up in the momentous events of our given time. Such was the case for Jennie. Her boyhood chum, who many assume to be her abiding romantic interest, as well, had trudged off to war, along with Jennie’s brother and most of the other local boys. As the flow of events would have it, the Southern armies abandoned their defensive war, realizing that unless they struck a decisive blow on Northern soil, their cause was doomed. The place where those armies would meet was the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Jennie and Georgia had become favorites of the local Union soldiers who, after the war would come to the defense of their reputations. The
girls routinely visited the camps to mend uniforms and often to bring baked goods. Unescorted females visiting soldier camps would raise eyebrows and, after the war, a jealous local war “hero” attempted to impugn their honor since, for reasons we shall share, Jennie’s heroic reputation exceeded his own. (The local “hero” even darkly suggested the Wade family was secretly pro-Southern since the girls were named Virginia and Georgia.)
An author who interviewed Northern soldiers after the war discovered nothing but praise for the girls. Many recalled that Jennie frequently invited soldiers in the camp to attend church with her, and others noted her gentle habit of quoting Bible verses. As the impending battle loomed, young Sam was given the task of hiding a prized horse outside of town. The horse belonged to the man with whom he was apprenticing. Sam, however, didn’t get far before he was captured and imprisoned by the Confederates. Mary immediately marched to the Confederate camp, confronted General Jubal Early and asked that he release the boy, to which Early agreed.
As the battle commenced, Mary and her daughters moved to Georgia’s house which they thought might be safer, but that was still close enough that they could take water, food and supplies to the troops. Although the house was not directly in the path of the battle, there was a federal skirmish line nearby that occasionally resulted in short run-ins with the Confederate scouts. As the Wade women worked in the kitchen, Jennie remarked that she hoped that if one of them were to die that day it would be she, since her sister Georgia had recently become a mother.
The day before, Jennie had baked fresh biscuits and took them down to the road where the temporarily defeated Union soldiers were retreating. She passed out biscuits and fresh water and, unlike many others in Gettysburg, did so without asking for anything in return.
The next morning, as the battle raged and Confederate sharpshooters shot out all of the house’s windows, Jennie began baking biscuits, as usual. More than 150 bullets would strike the house, as the battle drew
closer and closer. Sadly, Jennie’s baking would be cut short when a musket ball penetrated both the exterior and an interior wall, striking her in the left shoulder blade. She was killed instantly. Union soldiers, responding to the women’s screams, entered the house and urged the women to move to the basement. The battle’s casualty list would include almost a third of Lee’s army, and almost an equal number of federals, but Jennie Wade would be the only civilian.
She was buried in a family plot, but was later moved to the Reformed Church cemetery. Unbeknownst to Jennie, the man whom many presumed to be her sweetheart since childhood, Jack Skelly, lay mortally wounded in a hospital near Winchester. He had been taken to the hospital after being found along the side of the road by the third member of the childhood trio, Wesley Culp. Culp, a Confederate, was headed north to Gettysburg, but took the time to help Jack compose a farewell letter to Jennie. Culp told friends and family that he saw at Gettysburg about the letter, but refused to give it to anyone, having promised Jack he would share it only with Jennie.
All three would perish, Jack as a result of his wounds sustained at the Battle of Winchester, Jennie as she stood making biscuits, and Wesley, who would be buried near the Gettysburg battlefield, along with an unopened letter. When Jack’s body was eventually brought home for burial, Georgia would have Jennie reinterred alongside him at Evergreen Cemetery.
Abraham Lincoln, so moved by the story of Jennie’s service and devotion, would ask Georgia to sit beside him as he delivered what has become known as the Gettysburg Address. Today, the American flag flies 24 hours a day alongside Jennie’s grave, the only other woman besides Betsy Ross who is so honored.
There are a number of books and articles that tell portions of the Jennie Wade story. We list here two that provide good summaries, and from which we have largely compiled the basic story printed.