Sallie Robbins Broadhead

Civil War Nurse and Teacher

Sallie Broadhead lived in Gettysburg and witnessed the battleImage: Coming Rain
June 30, 1863
Dale Gallon, Artist
Brigadier General John Buford at McPherson's Farm
Buford and his brigade commanders, Devin and Gamble, discuss the impending battle.

Sallie Robbins Broadhead, a teacher in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, lived on the western end of Chambersburg Street in the end unit of a row house called Warren's Block with her husband Joseph and 4-year-old daughter Mary. Sallie, a thin, plain-looking young woman, kept a daily diary from mid-June to mid-July 1863, providing a graphic firsthand account of the ordeal endured that summer by the civilians of Gettysburg.

Gettysburg's residents, about 2400 in number, knew that Southern troops were not very far away. On June 21, Captain Robert Bell's local cavalry company and members of the Philadelphia City Troop had exchanged shots with Confederate pickets at Monterey, less than 20 miles from Gettysburg. The Adams Sentinel, one of Gettysburg's weekly newspapers, had reported on June 23 that sizable Confederate forces had entered nearby towns to look for supplies and horses.

On June 23, 1863, Sallie Broadhead wrote in her diary:

As I expected, the Rebels have, several times, been within two or three miles, but they have not yet reached here. Two cavalry companies are here on scouting duty, but they can be of little use, as they have never seen service. Deserters come in every little while, who report the enemy near in large force.

The townspeople had heard false alarms and conflicting stories. On June 24, Sallie Broadhead had tried to convince herself that all would be well. "We are getting used to excitement, and many think the enemy, having been so long in the vicinity – without visiting us, will not favor us with their presence," she had written in her diary.

The experiences that Sallie would never forget began on the morning of June 26, 1863. She was sound asleep when her daughter Mary cried for water. When Sallie got up, she heard a commotion and looked out the window to see a large fire, and citizens were calling out that the rebels were coming.

General Early's Raid
On that rainy Friday afternoon of June 26, Confederate Major General Jubal A. Early and his division, some 5,000 men, were marching toward Gettysburg. Seven or eight miles from the small Pennsylvania town, he heard rumors that an enemy force of unknown strength awaited him there. Early approached Gettysburg from the west, and skirmished with 750 green troops in the 26th Pennsylvania Emergency Volunteers.

Early had only planned to stop in Gettysburg long enough to collect supplies for the army. Lt. General Richard S. Ewell, commander of the 2nd Corps during Gen. Robert E. Lee's great invasion of the North, had given Early some other urgent tasks. After hurrying through Gettysburg, he was supposed to cut the Northern Central Railroad, at York, then destroy the imposing Columbia Bridge across the Susquehanna River at Wrightsville. If successful, he would help to pave the way for the capture of Harrisburg, the state capital.

From the top of a ridge about four miles outside Gettysburg, Colonel William W. Jennings, using his field glasses, eventually spotted Early's approaching troops. Attempts to raise 50,000 militia for Pennsylvania's defense had not met with much success. Jennings' outfit, the 26th Pennsylvania Militia, was one of the groups hastily thrown together to challenge the Southern invaders. Among its 743 members were young men from Pennsylvania College and the Lutheran Theological Seminary, two schools in Gettysburg.

Galloping down Chambersburg Street into town, Early's advance troops put on a performance that disgusted the Reverend Dr. Michael Jacobs, a prominent citizen. "The advance guard of the enemy, consisting of 180 to 200 cavalry, rode into Gettysburg at 3:15 PM, shouting and yelling like so many savages from the wilds of the Rocky Mountains; firing their pistols, not caring whether they killed or maimed man, woman, or child; and rushing from stable to stable in search of horses," he wrote, in an account published several months later.

From her house, at the far western end of town, Sallie Robbins Broadhead was one of the first to witness the arrival of Confederate troops on the afternoon of June 26. From her upstairs window, she watched the invaders. Her husband Joseph's job as a railroad engineer had taken him out of town.

We all stood in the doors while the cavalry passed, but when the infantry came, we closed them, for fear they would run into our houses and carry off everything we had, and went upstairs and looked out of the windows. They went along very orderly, only asking every now and then how many Yankee soldiers we had in town. I answered one that I did not know. He replied, "You are a funny woman; if I lived in town I would know that much.

Despite the potential for trouble, the evening of June 26 was relatively quiet. A Confederate band played Southern tunes, including Dixie, at the town square, annoying many residents. Most of Gettysburg's residents had little to say to their overnight guests.

The hours passed slowly for Sallie Broadhead the night of June 26:

I was left entirely alone, surrounded by thousands of ugly, rude, hostile soldiers, from whom violence might be expected. Even if the neighbors were at hand, it was not pleasant, and I feared my husband would be taken prisoner before he could return, or whilst trying to reach me.

Early's soldiers left Gettysburg on the morning of June 27, on their way to York, Pennsylvania. On the evening of June 29, it was said the people of Gettysburg could see Confederate campfires flickering on the eastern slopes of South Mountain. As Gettysburg's citizens would soon discover, Early's raid had been a mild preview of war.

Many of the residents were still not convinced of the danger, but Sallie Broadhead wasn't one of them. She wrote in her diary entry for June 30:

This morning the Rebels came to the top of the hill overlooking the town on the Chambersburg Pike and looked over our place. It begins to look as though we will have a battle soon, and we are in great fear.

The men Sallie saw were from Confederate General Johnston Pettigrew's Infantry Brigade. This force had been sent forward to reconnoiter the town and search for supplies. When Pettigrew spotted General John Buford's Federal Cavalry riding into town, he withdrew to his camp at Cashtown, as per his orders not to engage.

When the people spotted Buford's troopers coming up, they gave them a warm and enthusiastic welcome. Men, women, and children lined both sides of Washington Street waving, cheering, and singing patriotic songs. Buford allowed the young boys to follow along as the horses were lead to water, and quieted the worst fears of the town's population. The citizens were unaware that two armies – numbering 170,000 – were so near their town.

Union general's headquartersExpecting a Battle
Meade's Headquarters
Dale Gallon, Artist
Major General George G. Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, speaks to Major General Winfield Scott Hancock of the Second Corps while fighting commences on the Union left.

As the two great armies probed each other’s movements slowly northward, neither expected to fight one of the Civil War’s most momentous battles in the crossroads Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. But during that summer, the citizens of Gettysburg had kept a wary eye on those movements, fearful that the ravages of war would disturb, and perhaps destroy, their tranquility.

The fateful day of July 1, 1863, dawned rainy and misty and by 7 am, it was cloudy and 72 degrees. As the sun rose, the fog and clouds cleared – the day was to become very hot and humid. By 8 am, the largest and most costly battle of the Civil War had erupted. The citizens would no longer need to worry about rumors.

Union General John Reynolds received orders from the recently appointed Union Commanding General George Meade at 4:00 am, instructing him to move the First and Eleventh Corps toward Gettysburg. At 5:00 am, Confederate General Henry Heth began to move his Confederate troops east towards Gettysburg. Heth's skirmishers came within sight of Union pickets at 7:30 am, July 1, 1863.

I got up early this morning to get my baking done before any fighting would begin. I had just put my bread in the pans when the cannons began to fire, and true enough the battle had begun in earnest, about two miles out on the Chambersburg Pike. What to do or where to go, I did not know. People were running here and there, screaming that the town would be shelled.

Confederate General A. P. Hill's brigades were clashing with General John Buford's Union cavalry, and Hill encountered stubborn resistance. While both sides sent couriers off for reinforcements, Buford held his ground – and the Battle of Gettysburg was under way.

Sallie wrote on July 1:

People are running here and there "screaming that the town would be shelled. No one knew where to go or what to do. My husband went to the garden and picked a mess of beans, for he declared the Rebels should not have one.

When she turned to her diary at nightfall, "the town was full of the filthy Rebels," cock-a-hoop with success: "all is quiet, but 0! how I dread tomorrow."

On July 2, shells and bullets began to hiss and whine once more; but in his Gettysburg garden Sallie Broadhead's husband doggedly "picked a mess of beans... [and] persevered until he had picked all, for he declared the Rebels should not have one."

During the first three days of July, the town and its people shook with the fury of deadly fighting. Sallie spent most of the daylight hours with her family and immediate neighbors, huddled in the safety of the large basement of the David Troxell house next door. "The time we sat in the cellar seemed long, listening to the terrific sound of the strife; more terrible never greeted human ears."

On the afternoon of July 3, after Pickett's Charge had failed, the most optimistic Southerner knew that the Confederates had lost the day. When General Robert E. Lee told General George Picket to rally his division together Picket answered "General, I have no division." He never forgave Lee for what happened to his men at Gettysburg.

battle of GettysburgThe Day Is Ours
Pickett's Charge July 3, 1863
Dale Gallon, Artist
Brigadier General Lewis Armistead leading the heroic and tragic moments at the High Water Mark

General Lee, "the saddest man in the Army of Northern Virginia," passed among his retreating, exhausted men, begging them to keep their ranks and assuring them: "It was my fault this time." Sir Arthur Fremantle found Confederate General James Longstreet sitting glumly on a fence and said tactlessly: "I wouldn't have missed this for anything." Replied the beaten general: "I would like to have missed it very much."

Sallie wrote on July 3, 1863:

We knew that with every explosion, and the scream of each shell, human beings were hurried, through excruciating pain into another world, and that many more were torn and mangled and lying in torment worse than death, and no one able to extend relief. The thought made me very sad, and feel that, if it was God's will, I would rather be taken away than remain to see the misery that would follow.

On July 4, General Lee packed up his troops and headed back to Virginia in a sudden downpour that washed the blood from the grass and pelted the wounded Confederate soldiers in the wagons heading home. The men who were too wounded to travel were brought to houses and laid side-by-side in the halls and rooms. Carpets, walls and books that were used as pillows were stained with blood.

For the townspeople, the horror did not end with the Battle of Gettysburg, it continued on through summer and into fall with the stench of death and the agony of wounded Union and Confederate troops. The town of 2400 civilians had become one gigantic hospital, staffed by shopkeepers and lawyers, by housewives and teachers, and by children whose summer vacation became a learning experience in the realities of life. The needs of 22,000 wounded men saw to that.

During the struggle, and its aftermath, Gettysburg's civilians faced almost incomprehensible situations. As the bodies of the dead quickly became infested, the battle wounds of the living also became flyblown. Maimed and wounded soldiers sometimes remained for days on the battlefield before receiving attention or being moved to a hospital. The exposed and open wounds also became prime breeding and feeding sites for carnivorous species of flies.

Confederate generalReady to Fight Again
Dale Gallon, Artist
General Robert E. Lee among the guns of Colonel E. P. Alexander's artillery prepares for a Union counterattack shortly after the failure of Pickett's Charge.

Sallie recorded the following incident just a few days after the battle:

I assisted in feeding some of the severely wounded, when I perceived that they were suffering on account of not having their wounds dressed. I did not know whether I could render any assistance in that way, but I thought I would try. I procured a basin and water, and went to a room where there were seven or eight, some shot in the arms, others in the legs, and one in his back, and another in the shoulder.

I asked if anyone would like to have his wounds dressed? Someone replied, "There is a man on the floor who cannot help himself, you would better see to him." Stooping over him, I asked for his wound, and he pointed to his leg. Such a horrible sight I had never seen, and hope never to see again. His leg was all covered with worms [maggots].

By July 13, the small Broadhead home housed more than a family of three:

The town is as full as ever of strangers, and the old story of the inability of a village of 2500 inhabitants overrun and eaten out by two large armies to accommodate from 10 to 12,000 visitors, is repeated almost hourly. Twenty are with us tonight, filling every bed and covering the floors.

Churches continued to be used as hospitals, causing parishioners to forgo normal services, prompting her to note in her diary, "We have had no Sundays... the churches have all been converted into hospitals." She also volunteered her services at the hospital in the Lutheran Seminary.

On July 14, Sallie made a diary entry that probably reflected the feelings of all the townspeople:

Little did I think... that I would have to record such terrible scenes as I have done. Had anyone suggested any such sights as within the bound of possibility, I would have thought it madness.

Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle in the war. About one third of those engaged were lost – the North had 23,000 casualties, but the South lost 28,000 soldiers. The Confederates couldn't afford such a loss.

Sallie Broadhead privately published her diary in 1864, as The Diary of a Lady of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, from June 15 to July 15, 1863, in a 24-page pamphlet. It was intended solely for "the kindred and nearest friends of the writer," but it was printed as a fund-raiser for the Sanitary fairs in the Pennsylvania area.

SOURCES
Gettysburg
They Saw It Happen
Gettysburg's Good News
Insects and the Civil War
War Comes to Gettysburg
The Women of Gettysburg – PDF FILE
Historic People and Places of Gettysburg – PDF FILE

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