Healing side of history comes to light at Gettysburg

Saturday July 6, 2013

GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- The moans of dying and wounded men called to Elizabeth "Sallie Salome Myers from inside the walls of St. Francis Xavier Church.

The 21-year-old schoolteacher who lived nearby on West High Street couldn’t stand the sight of blood, but she went anyway.

Dozens of injured men lay on the pews and across the floor. The putrid smell of death and human excrement filled the air. Myers went to a man by the door and asked what she could do to ease his suffering.

Sgt. Alexander Stewart of the 149th Pennsylvania Volunteers returned her gaze with mournful eyes. "Nothing," he said. "I am going to die."

Such stories were repeated time and again across the ravaged fields of south central Pennsylvania. Official estimates say 7,058 dead men and one woman "in rebel uniform" lay strewn across 25 square miles, writes Gregory Coco, author of the haunting "A Strange and Blighted Land," on the aftermath of battle. About 20,000 wounded were packed into every available building and grove of trees as the town of 2,400 struggled to cope, recover and rebuild.

At the center were the women who cared for the wounded and dying as the war went on and the fighting men marched away. Their stories always have been there -- sewn into the fabric of history in the homes, streets and field hospitals of Gettysburg. But only now, 150 years after the great battle, are their stories being shared with a wider audience.

"The people who wrote about the war were men, the veterans, the historians," explained author Gerald Bennett.

It was only this year that the Women Behind The Walls project, which highlights the role of about 100 of Gettysburg’s women, started to come together. Placards now hang in the windows of dozens of Gettysburg homes detailing their stories.

Unlike Sallie Myers, Gayle Ray was a nurse before she came to Gettysburg.

A volunteer with the Gettysburg Foundation, which partners with the park to interpret the battlefield, she began to explore history when her husband’s job brought them from Littleton, Colo., to Parkesburg, Pa., in 2009.

She went back to school and earned a degree in history. Now, she volunteers at the John Rupp house on Baltimore Street in Gettysburg, and she is working to pass the licensed battlefield guide test. Of all she’s learned, the stories of the Gettysburg women resonate the most.

"How frightened she might have been to be faced with these horrific sights, the blood, the gore, the amputated limbs," Ray said of Myers. "And yet she didn’t run screaming out of the building. I so admire that kind of courage."

In recent years, those hospitals have been getting renewed attention and interpretation by the park’s Civil War experts.

The George Spangler Farm behind Union lines west of the Baltimore Pike was opened to the public just in time for the 150th anniversary.

Weeks after Sallie Myers held Sgt. Stewart’s hand in that church during the battle, she received a letter from his brother, the Rev. Henry Stewart. The two met, fell in love and married.

But in the fall of 1868, he too died of wounds he’d received in the war. Sallie gave birth to their only child, Henry Alexander Stewart, months later.

Henry would carry on the family tradition, becoming a physician and a founder of Gettysburg’s Annie Warner Hospital.

And he would help establish the Adams County Historical Society, which still carries on Gettysburg’s historical tradition today.

Brandie Kessler writes for the York Daily Record.


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