HER story is that of Gettysburg itself, one of being caught in the path of two advancing armies, displaced, disrupted and forever marked by calamity.
Tillie Pierce was 15 that summer, the daughter of a butcher who lived in one of the neat brick houses that line the hill of Baltimore Street. Her girlhood, she would later recall, was enriched by time enjoyed among the area’s natural features: picnics upon the boulders of Culp’s Hill, berry picking along the cool water of Spangler’s Spring, and sunsets admired from the ridge of Evergreen Cemetery.
All of her favorite places would be transformed and remembered for other, less peaceful things.
Tillie remembered, because she witnessed it from the beginning. Moreover, she would be caught up in it, separated from her family by the panic of battle. She would find herself tending suffering and dying Federal soldiers, all the while wondering whether she would have a home and family to return to.
She witnessed things a 15-year-old girl should never have to see. Years later, as a married woman, she gathered her experiences into a thin volume for her offspring. We are fortunate to have it, for it provides an incredible view into those three days of crisis.
(Late June, 1863)
It was a time when young girls attended private tutoring. School for Tillie was at the Young Ladies Seminary, a finishing academy at the corner of High and Washington streets, a few blocks from her home. Rumors of an impending Confederate raid had been swirling in the area for weeks, but all had been false alarms.
That morning her class was practicing literary exercises when a “storm cloud” came from the west and a cry was heard that, “the rebels are coming!”
“Rushing to the door and standing on the front portico we beheld in the direction of the theological seminary a dark, dense mass moving toward town. Our teacher, Mrs. Eyster, at once said, ‘Children, run home as quickly as you can.’ ”
By the time Tillie reached her house, dust-covered rebels had taken the streets.
“I had scarcely reached the front door when, looking up the street, I saw some of the men on horseback. I scrambled in, slammed shut the door, and hastening to the sitting room, peeped out between the shutters.”
“What a horrible sight. They were human beings clad almost in rags, covered with dust, riding wildly, pell-mell, down the hill toward our home, shouting, yelling most unearthly cursing, brandishing their revolvers and firing right and left.”
“Soon the town was filled with infantry and the searching and ransacking began in earnest. They wanted horses, clothing, anything and almost everything they could conveniently carry away.”
Among the items the rebels took was her favorite horse.
What she saw was the lead element of Confederate army, probing the area, and foraging supplies on its way to York, 25 miles to the east.
Days later, on June 30, she saw more horsemen ride into town, this time dressed in blue. They were the cavalry of Gen. John Buford, a small force sent north to find the Army of Northern Virginia. The next morning, they would be the first to clash with the rebels west of town on the Chambersburg Pike.
“They were Union soldiers and that was enough for me, for I then knew we had protection, and I felt they were our dearest friends.”
That protection would be short lived.
The Battle of Gettysburg began on July 1 after Tillie’s breakfast, while she and her sister were making bouquets of flowers to give to passing Union soldiers; it was that kind of an age.
“It was between 9 and 10 o’clock when we first noticed firing in the direction of Seminary Ridge. At first the sound was faint, then it grew louder. Soon the booming of cannon was heard. Then great clouds of smoke were seen rising beyond the ridge. The sound became louder and louder, and was now incessant. The troops passing us moved faster, the men had now become excited and urged on their horses. The battle was waging.”
After noon her neighbor, Henrietta Schriver, told Tillie’s parents she was taking her two small daughters, Mary and Sarah, to her father’s farm a few miles south of town and that Tillie should come too. It lay at the eastern base of Little Round Top. It would be safe there.
By 1 p.m. Tillie left her home and made her way down the Taneytown Road with her neighbors. Along the way she saw the world she knew change into the most dangerous place. Union cannon were now being unlimbered and readied amid the tombstones of the Evergreen Cemetery. Muddy roads were now cut and littered by the passing caissons and troops that were rushing to Gettysburg. An ambulance lumbered past her carrying the first dead body she was to see, that of Gen. John Fulton Reynolds who was killed that morning.
It was no less dangerous or chaotic when she finally reached the Jacob Weikert farm.
“Suddenly we behold an explosion; it is that of a caisson. We see a man thrown high into the air and come down in a wheat field close by. He is picked up and carried into the house. As they pass by I see his eyes are blown out and his whole person seems to be one black mass.”
The Weikert farm, like all others in that region, soon became an aid station, and Tillie instinctively did what she could to help by bringing buckets of cool spring water to passing soldiers. By the close of the day the barn became a hospital filled with the suffering, and she suffered as well.
“Now the wounded began to come in greater numbers. Some limping, some with their heads and arms in bandages, some crawling, others carried on stretchers or brought in ambulances. … Before night the barn was filled with the shattered and dying heroes of this day’s struggle. … Nothing before in my experience had ever paralleled the sight we then and there beheld. There were the groaning and crying, the struggling and dying crowded side by side, while attendants tried to aid and relieve them as best they could. We were so overcome by the sad and awful spectacle that we hastened back to the house weeping bitterly.”
More wounded would come the next two days, as well as more danger, for the battle had followed her. Confederate artillery to the west attacked Little Round Top on July 2, and occasional shells were lobbed over the summit and landed around the Weikert farm.
“The cannonading, which all the time appeared to be getting more and more severe, lasted until the close of day. It seemed as though the heavens were sending forth a peal of terrible thunder directly over our heads; while at the same time the very earth beneath our feet trembled.”
When not taking cover, Tillie spent that second day giving soldiers freshly baked bread, beef tea and water. At late afternoon on July 3 the noise had stopped but not the wounded. Incoming casualties overflowed from the barn and were placed in the home’s basement and barnyard. The battle had ended, but the grim work began.
“By this time the amputating benches had been placed about the house. I must have become inured to seeing the terrors of battle, else I could hardly have gazed upon the scenes now presented. … I saw them lifting the poor men upon it, then the surgeons sawing and cutting off arms and legs. … Some of the soldiers fairly begged to be taken next, so great was their suffering and so anxious were they to obtain relief. To the south of the house, and just outside of the yard, I noticed a pile of limbs higher than the fence. It was a ghastly sight. Gazing upon these, too often the trophies of the amputating bench, I could have no other feeling than that the whole scene was one of cruel butchery.”
Clogged roads and uncertainty over safety kept her from her home for several days after the fighting. On July 7 she started back on foot. It was the first view of what the battle had done.
“While passing along, the stench rising from the fields of carnage was most sickening. Dead horses, swollen to almost twice their natural size lay in all directions, stains of blood frequently met our gaze, and all kinds of army accouterment covered the ground. Fences disappeared, some buildings were gone, others ruined. The whole landscape had been changed, and I felt as though we were in a strange and blighted land.”