Critical Essays The Battle of Gettysburg — the Civilian Experience


Little is said in the novel about the civilians in the Gettysburg area and how the battle affected them. However, this battle did not take place in isolation; it had a devastating effect on the people living there.

During the battle, inhabitants of Gettysburg hid in their houses, often in basements. They generally did not venture upstairs until night because it wasn't safe. In fact, reports tell of women killed by stray bullets while baking in their kitchens.

Many of the inhabitants risked death by hiding Union soldiers trapped behind Confederate lines after the Union retreat through Gettysburg. Those soldiers had to remain hidden for the three days of the battle, while the Confederates searched residences to find them. Protecting the Union soldiers required courage and creativity.

While July 4th brought the end of battle and cheers from the victorious soldiers, the after-effects of the battle would be felt for months. Out in the open, surgeons continued to amputate, embalmers worked on those that didn't make it, soldiers searched for anyone who might still be alive, and curiosity-seekers came out to gawk at the destruction and collect souvenirs. Local people took wounded into their homes, public buildings were also used as hospitals, and a tent hospital was set up on the east side of town. A number of the wounded remained in Gettysburg for several months, and the local population also took in a number of relatives who came to care for wounded soldiers.

The battlefield itself was a disaster. The original fields of wheat, barley, oats, corn, and grass became crater-marked muddy expanses with blood-filled ditches. Wounded soldiers groaned as they waited in pouring rain and blistering sun to be rescued.

The hospitals were no better than the battlefield, except that some of the men got some medical care, some coffee, and a cracker or two. Otherwise, their hospital beds were the muddy hillsides, with no tents, blankets, fires, or water. Many of the men waited days for any care, and those with severe head injuries were often set aside to die as the surgeons could do nothing for them.

Graves were hurriedly dug to deal with the decomposing bodies. Given that thousands were killed, there was little time to bury them properly. Instead, 50 to 100 bodies were lined up in rows, the Confederates in one row, and the Union soldiers in another. They were then buried in trenches three feet deep and seven feet wide. Unfortunately, these trenches were often dug up by farmers hurriedly plowing new crops or by hogs and other animals rooting around for food. It would be a long time before the bodies were either removed for proper burial elsewhere, or a national cemetery could be established. Gettysburg would never be the same, and neither would its inhabitants.