After the Cannons Fell Silent: The Gettysburg Civilians

Mom & Kid 2The Battle of Gettysburg is known as one of the epic military encounters of all time. But the civilians living in the town and farms where the armies clashed lived with the aftermath long after the soldiers moved on.

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Photo Courtesy: candlelightatchrist.com

As soon as the first shots of the battle were fired, wounded men began streaming into town. Every public building, church, school, business, and many private homes became hospitals. Doctors operated around the clock while housewives became nurses and boys fetched water and helped move the wounded. Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church was one of those hospitals. For days after the battle, the church sanctuary witnessed the evidence of man’s least sacred actions.

“Songs and Stories of a Civil War Hospital” is an hour-long program held at the church on Saturday nights from June through August. In the candlelit sanctuary, a group of musicians play hymns and songs familiar to the combatants and their caregivers while the audience sits on pews once used as makeshift beds.

Hospital

Photo Courtesy: candlelightatchrist.com

Costumed parishioners-turned-townspeople read from journals and letters written by nurses, wounded soldiers, young boys, and other residents. Poems by Walt Whitman inspired by his Civil War experiences and accounts of the action around the church are all the more poignant when heard in the room where the silence holds echoes of the past. While the museums and monuments display artifacts of the battle, this service displays the artifacts of the soul.

David Wills was a successful lawyer and businessman in Gettysburg. When the fighting ended, he was one of the community leaders who organized the work needed to deal with its aftermath. Sanitation, medical care, transportation, food distribution, housing for displaced residents, burial details and dealing with tourists coming to view the carnage (!) all needed immediate attention. Wills was instrumental in creating the National Cemetery where the fallen Union soldiers were buried. (Confederates were left in mass graves or shallow graves, if they were buried at all. It was nearly a decade before most of them were returned to their homes.)

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Photo Courtesy: David Wills House, Carl Whitehill

When President Lincoln agreed to make “a few remarks” at the dedication of the cemetery, he stayed at Wills’ house in the center of town. It is now a museum dedicated to the aftermath of the battle on the town of Gettysburg. There are interactive displays and two short videos describing how the town coped and how it prepared for the dedication of the cemetery and Lincoln‘s visit. The bedroom Lincoln used and where he finished writing his address remains with the furnishings he used.

Most visitors to Gettysburg arrive to see the battlefield and learn about the epic struggle between two armies. But the full story must include the fate of the civilians caught between them. These places fill that need in a moving and meaningful way.

David Wills House: 8 Lincoln Square. $6.50 adults, $5.50 seniors, $4 kids (6-18) www.davidwillshouse.org 717-334-2499

“Songs and Stories of a Civil War Hospital”: Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church, 30 Chambersburg St. Program starts at 7:30. No charge, but donations are accepted. www.candlelightatchrist.org. 717-334-5212

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