Sarah’s Slice of Life: Built on Moments
The Battle of Gettysburg remains one of the Civil War’s bloodiest conflicts. Approximately 47,000 casualties were recorded on both sides. Around 8,000 soldiers died during the hot summer days of July 1-3 in 1863, laid to a final rest on the infamous battlefield in Pennsylvania.
However, only one civilian died directly due to the battle, and she was only 20 years old.
Mary Virginia “Jennie” Wade was kneading dough for bread to feed Union soldiers when a stray bullet ripped through the kitchen door and hit her on the morning of July 3. The shot killed her instantly.
Just hours earlier, Jennie Wade read Psalm 27 as a part of her morning devotions, holding fast to her ordinary routine even as bullets pinged against the brick house. When her sister expressed concern over their situation, Jennie Wade said some of her last words.
“If there is anyone in this house that is to be killed today, I hope it is me,” she said.
Later, after her death, Jennie Wade’s mother made 15 loaves of bread from the dough Jennie had been kneading when she was shot. Each loaf went to feed hungry soldiers.
This was the story I discovered when my family went to Gettysburg during the summer before my freshman year of high school. There, I visited the house where Jennie Wade died. I saw the almost neat-edged hole the bullet left in the red kitchen door. I felt the dank, cold air of the cellar where Union soldiers had temporarily placed her body. I stared up at the bronze statue of her in front of the house which showed her holding a single loaf of bread and a water pitcher.
I’ve always been fascinated with Jennie Wade’s story, namely because of how ordinary her life really was.
She worked as a seamstress to help support her family. She was romantically involved with her childhood friend Jack Skelly, a Union soldier who eventually died at the Second Battle of Winchester. She and her family attended St. James Lutheran Church every Sunday.
Before the war, she lived her whole life in the quiet town of Gettysburg near Pennsylvania’s southern border. I can imagine that in the summer, she may have liked to run across the green hills under the shadow of the mountains — the same hills that became the summits of war, shaken by the boom of cannons, the clash of rapiers and the roar of muskets.
Jennie Wade’s life now holds the unbearable weight of historic tragedy. Her experience details what happens when the ordinary becomes a legacy, when a second stretches into eternity and when a normal morning engraves itself on the historical stones that built a nation.
We often don’t connect history with ordinary life. In Jennie Wade’s case, her ordinary life became history because of the circumstances of her death. This will probably not be the case for most of us, but her story speaks about something we can all recognize and appreciate — the importance of moments.
The disruption of ordinary life often marks history, and inglorious moments of war and tragedy usually compose the past. However, we don’t have to view history so cynically. Don’t we all have a history, built on the backs of our most important and most ordinary moments?
When I think of my childhood, I think of an ordinary day spent playing outside, eating apple slices from an animal-shaped paper plate and going to sleep before 9 p.m. All these ordinary moments and days stretch to form the timeline of our own histories. In other words, these moments build over time and form the framework of our lives, which makes each one more important than we probably realize.
Jennie Wade was an ordinary 20-year-old girl from a small town in the middle of nowhere. Her death sprung her into history’s spotlight, illuminating the timeline of her relatively normal life. One moment catapulted her into historical stardom, but the multitude of ordinary moments in her life are what really form the complete picture of who she was.
During your next ordinary moment of driving to work, studying or taking a walk around your neighborhood at sunset, try to be as grateful as possible for every second. It just might form the cornerstone of your own history.
Tate is the Editor-in-Chief for the Liberty Champion. Follow her on twitter