Ambulance outside Lutheran Seminary, Gettysburg.
On July 4, 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee began his retreat after the Battle of Gettysburg with an ambulance and wagon train that was about seventeen miles long. Nine Gettysburg men accused of spying or other suspicious activities went with them. Captured African Americans headed south along with thousands of military prisoners. Confederate sharpshooters continued to shoot at Union soldiers in town.
Confederates no longer controlled Gettysburg. The townspeople, who endured a nightmare during the battle, ventured outside their homes to a new ordeal. Their town didn’t look the same nor would it ever be the same.
Homes had been damaged by bullet holes and cannon balls. Soldiers’ discarded knapsacks, blankets, cartridge boxes, bayonets, ramrods, broken guns, food, and letters littered the streets and fields. Broken wagons, wheels, and unexploded shells remained after the battle.
Groans and shrieks from the wounded in churches, the courthouse, homes, and barns tugged at citizens’ hearts. Injured soldiers lay in tents in the fields and under blankets hung over cross-sticks.
Wounded from both sides lay on the battlefields, awaiting rescue. Some had waited since the first day of the battle.
Dead horses lay in the streets. Soldiers killed in battle needed to be buried. (Some 7,000-8,000 soldiers died—sources vary on exact numbers. See my article on Gettysburg’s numbers.) People, even in the stifling heat, closed their windows to block out the terrible odor. They treated the streets with chloride of lime. They cremated bodies of mules and horses with kerosene, adding to the smell.
The town mourned the loss of Jennie Wade, who was buried with dried dough on her hands. She’d been kneading dough when a Confederate bullet aimed at Union soldiers claimed her life.
General Lee left almost 7,000 men too wounded to travel. These soldiers ended up in area hospitals, and were transported to prisoner-of-war camps like Fort McHenry once they recovered.
Damaged rail lines were repaired about a week after the battle ended. About 800 men were then moved daily by train to larger city hospitals.
The Sanitary Commission gave food to several hospitals—10,000 loaves of bread, 11,000 pounds of poultry and mutton, 7,100 shirts, 8,500 dozen eggs, and more than 6,000 pounds of butter. The Christian Commission also gave out supplies.
Drinking water was in short supply.
The demand for food for so many extra people had local farmers charging steep prices. For example, a loaf of bread cost ten cents before the battle and seventy-five cents after it.
On July 7, 1863, Gettysburg resident Sarah Broadhead wrote, “I am becoming more used to sights of misery. We do not know until tried what we are capable of.”
-Sandra Merville Hart
Creighton, Margaret S. The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History, Basic Books, 2005.
McGaugh, Scott. Surgeon in Blue: Jonathan Letterman, the Civil War Doctor who Pioneered Battlefield Care, Arcade Publishing, 2013.
Sheldon, George. When the Smoke Cleared at Gettysburg: The Tragic Aftermath of the Bloodiest Battle of the Civil War, Cumberland House, 2003.
Slade, Jim & Alexander, John. Firestorm at Gettysburg, Schiffler Military/Aviation History, 1998.
Thomas, Sarah Sites. The Ties of the Past: The Gettysburg Diaries of Salome Myers Stewart 1854-1922, Thomas Publications, 1996.