Monday, July 27, 2020

“At Gettysburg” by Matilda Pierce Alleman

You’re 15 years old. You live with your family in a small town, known for its college. Your brother is a soldier, and he’s currently away on duty. Your days are focused on household chores, looking after your younger siblings, and attending a girls’ school in town. There’s a war on, and occasionally you hear rumors of soldiers and action. But life is quiet, and it’s always good when the family receives a letter from the brother.

And then you’re in school one day, and enemy soldiers come running and riding through the streets. You hear gunfire. You see looting as you make your way home. This time, the rumors have turned out to be true.

From July 1 to July 3 of 1863, the life of Matilda Pierce Alleman (1848-1914), called Tillie by her family, was turned upside down. In 1889, more than 25 years after the battle, she published an account of those three days, At Gettysburg, or What a Girl Saw and Heard of the Battle: A True Narrative.

As the clash got underway, Tillie’s parents sent her with a neighbor and the neighbor’s children to a farm outside of the town of Gettysburg. They had to make their way through the cemetery, hearing gunfire the entire time, before reaching a safe road to the farm. What no one knew at the time was how the battle terrain would be constantly shifting. And the farm was located near an area Tillie knew from picnics – what locals called “Round Top.” 

Matilda Pierce Alleman at 15
The farm became a base for the Union army and especially for its field hospital. Over the next three days, Tillie became a witness to horrific scenes of battlefield casualties, makeshift surgical operations, and wounded and dying men. She would help army doctors, bring food and water to the wounded, and occasionally sit with and offer comfort to the dying. The girl who had been sitting in a classroom two days before became the girl who saw the pile of amputated limbs next to the barn.

Civil War memoirs became and remained extremely popular in the 1880s and 1890s. Ranging from Ulysses Grant’s Personal Memoirs to accounts by privates and officers on both sides of the conflict, these books also included accounts like Tillie’s. The story of a young girl caught in a conflict, hers is especially moving as she responds with courage a spirit of service. She doesn’t downplay the personal fear, either; at one point she and the other civilians in the farmhouse have to leave because the area is being blasted by shells. 

At Gettysburg is a novella-length memoir, made the more impactful by offering an often-poignant glimpse of what many civilians experienced and endured during the four years of war.

Top illustration: Gettysburg in 1863 by Alfred Guernsey (1824-1902) and Henry M. Alden (1836-1919), Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War (Chicago: Puritan Press, 1894), Wikimedia Commons

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