I’ve been to Gettysburg National Park several times over the past four years in a reenacting capacity, which while fun, means I am the tourist program, so I don’t actually get to do the touristy things. This summer, hubby and I decided we were going to go ‘off season’ to actually enjoy the town and museum. Since we’ve done the battlefield monuments and military exhibits ad nauseum as reenactors, I thought it only fitting to check out the Shriver House Museum, which explains the civilian experience and the battle’s aftermath on the surrounding area. On the tour (which was excellent, by the way, definitely check it out if you’re ever in Gettysburg), our guide suggested two books from their gift shop that would give more information than the 30 minutes she was allotted on our tour. I totally fell for the shameless plug, and bought The Shrivers’ Story and At Gettysburg: Or What a Girl Saw & Heart of the Battle. A True Narrative.
Most of what’s in The Shrivers’ Story was highlighted on the actual tour, although the book is able to give an in detail play-by-play of where the family members were and the types of things they were doing while the battle was going on. Along with a more detailed understanding of the family’s experience and the fate of their house and lives after history passes them by, The Shrivers’ Story also has a few chapters on how the museum came to be, as well as a little on the restoration process and the uncovering of artifacts, photographs, and ancestral connections. The most interesting part of the whole story for me, was how the Gudmestads (the couple that owns and operates the museum), had no idea who the Shrivers were or their connection to the battle when they bought the house. They had simply wanted to restore one of the original 1860s homes to make a ‘civilian experience’ space for visitors. Upon restoring the house, the Shrivers’ story came to life, with most of the information coming from the writings of a next-door neighbor.
Cue Tillie Pierce Alleman. At Gettysburg, or its extremely long and boring second title (so 1880s….) is Alleman’s first-hand account of her experiences living through the battle of Gettysburg as a fifteen-year-old. Published in 1889, Alleman is looking back some two decades, but her prose is easy to follow, and her memory of the events is obviously very clear as evidenced by the unbelievable details she’s still able to recall. By happens-chance, she was next-door neighbors with the Shrivers, and ended up accompany Mrs. Shriver to hide out at her parents’ farm, where the townsfolk thought it would be safer to go. Little did anyone know that the battle would happen in farmers’ backyards, and Tillie ended up with a front row seat to the glories of war, spending the entirety of the battle dodging bullets and shells as she ran water back and forth to the wounded troops. Her account is as traumatic and harrowing as one would assume, but the chapters I found most intriguing were the aftermath. I feel it’s one of the most overlooked portions of all history….the aftermath of historical events, and Gettysburg is no different. At the museum, the monuments, in the town itself, everything is about the nuance of the 3-day battle. Whole tomes have been written about literally 4 hours of the 1st day, but there are no books about what happened when the armies left.
But Alleman lived there, and had no choice but to stay there after the ‘exciting’ part of history happened. She spares no detail in describing the houses stuffed with wounded, in her own house they cared for 5 men, and she and her sister volunteered every day in the large hospital in town where wounded were still laying 4 months after the battle. She discusses the empty pantries from scavenging soldiers, the lack of water since wells had been poisoned by decaying bodies, the lack of food since all the crops had been destroyed, and the hideous overcrowding from so many people coming to get their loved-ones’ bodies, or to sit in the hospitals to take care of the wounded. She talks about the stink, and the corpses just left to rot in the sun because there weren’t enough townsfolk to clean up the mess. The smell of decay was so bad, Harrisburg could smell it thirty miles away. But in the midst of the terrible, there are some sweet moments — a soldier coming back 20 years later to thank her mother and sister for keeping him alive in their house — Tillie being presented a gun with a private’s name inscribed on it as a thank you for nursing his officer — all the women of the Shriver family baking bread in the basement kitchen while bullets whizzed through their house so that the wounded soldiers would have something to eat….
As with all real stories, there’s always humanity buried in the horror, and learning about the civilian experience at Gettysburg was both an informative and moving discovery.
Bingo Square: History/Schmistory