On July 3, 1863, the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Mary Virginia “Jennie” Wade stood in the kitchen of her sister’s home making biscuits for Union troops. With the home they were staying in caught between the two armies, the 20-year-old seamstress and her family had already survived a number of close calls, including an artillery shell that had crashed through the roof. Yet Wade had neither fled nor taken shelter in the cellar. Suddenly, an errant Confederate bullet struck her in the back just below the left shoulder blade, killing her instantly. At least 7,600 soldiers died during the battle, but, remarkably, she was the only civilian to suffer that fate.
Born on May 21, 1843, in the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Mary Virginia Wade was called “Gin” or “Ginnie” as a child. But due to an apparent newspaper inaccuracy, she has become known to history as “Jennie.” Her father, a tailor, had frequent brushes with the law and was eventually confined to the poorhouse as a lunatic. With him out of the picture, Wade made ends meet by working as a seamstress alongside her mother. The two also served as caregivers for a 6-year-old disabled boy named Isaac Brinkerhoff.
When the Battle of Gettysburg broke out on July 1, 1863, Wade, along with her mother, her youngest brother and Isaac, took refuge at the home of her older sister, Georgia McClellan. The family wanted to help Georgia look after her 5-day-old son and also apparently believed it was safer there. But that afternoon, when Union troops retreated into the hills just south of town, the Wades found themselves directly in the line of fire. Remaining calm, Jennie reportedly went outside to distribute water and food to Northern soldiers.
Bullets continued flying the following day, shattering several of the duplex’s windows and denting its brick facade. Meanwhile, an artillery shell crashed through the roof, knocked a hole in a wall and came to rest in the eaves, where it remained for the next 15 years. Luckily for the family, it never exploded. Although Wade purportedly fainted sometime during the day, she stayed active, handing out food, starting the yeast for more bread and caring for her postpartum sister.
The next morning, she went out with her brother to gather firewood. Upon returning to the house, Wade ate breakfast and apparently read from the Book of Psalms. A bullet then flew through a window and lodged in the bedpost next to where Georgia was lying with her son. Around 8:30 a.m., Wade had nearly finished kneading the dough for biscuits when another bullet, having penetrated two doors, went into her back and through her heart.
After hearing Georgia scream, Union soldiers entered the house and led the remaining family members out through the hole created by the unexploded shell and down to the cellar, where they were safe from Southern sharpshooters. A day later, as the Confederate army prepared to retreat toward Virginia, Wade’s mother allegedly finished baking the biscuits. Wade was wrapped in a quilt and temporarily buried in the yard. In January 1864 she was transferred to a cemetery next to the town’s German Reformed Church, and in November 1865 she was moved once again to nearby Evergreen Cemetery, where she has remained ever since. A monument was erected over her grave in 1900.
Interred near her at Evergreen Cemetery is Johnston “Jack” Skelly, a Union corporal whose photo was found in Wade’s pocket at the time of her death. Historians believe they may have been engaged. Unbeknownst to Wade, Skelly had been seriously wounded a couple of weeks earlier at the Second Battle of Winchester in Virginia. Skelly supposedly asked a childhood friend, Confederate soldier Wesley Culp, to deliver a message to Wade, but Culp died in the Battle of Gettysburg before he could do so. Skelly likewise succumbed to his injuries on July 12.
The number of Union casualties at Gettysburg has been estimated at 23,000, including over 3,100 killed, while the number of Confederate casualties may have been as high as 28,000, including over 4,500 killed. It was the bloodiest battle of the entire Civil War. Nonetheless, Wade was the only civilian to die as a direct result of the three days of fighting. (Other civilians perished later upon finding artillery shells that exploded in their hands or loaded guns that accidentally discharged.) Press coverage soon came her way, some of it negative. Perhaps due to her father’s poor reputation—it didn’t help that he named his daughters Georgia and Virginia—Wade was accused of being a “she-rebel” sympathetic to the Confederacy. Her morals were also cast into doubt, exemplified by a letter from Skelly to his mother expressing concern about supposed late-night visitors.
Mostly, though, she was treated like a hero. A Gettysburg newspaper described her as “a young lady of good character and much respected”; a newspaper in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, called her a “lady of most excellent qualities of head and heart”; and a 1917 book called “The True Story of ‘Jennie’ Wade: A Gettysburg Maid,” rebutted the negative rumors as unable to “stand the searchlight of analytical examination, nor the acid tests of proof.” In the meantime, the so-called Jennie Wade House—a technically inaccurate title since it belonged to her sister—became a local tourist attraction. These days, both history and ghost tours take place there. “The tragedy of it” draws people in, said Roger L. Troxell, a tour guide at the house who dresses in a top hat and other period clothing. “It’s just one of those accidents of the war.”