Teenage Girl’s View of the Battle of Gettysburg
Matilda (Tillie) Pierce was born in Gettysburg in 1848. She was 15 at the time of the battle, and had lived her entire life in Gettysburg, a village of 2400 persons. Her father made a good living as a butcher, and the family lived a comfortable life above his shop at the corner of South Baltimore and Breckinridge Streets in the heart of town. In the summer of 1863, Tillie was attending the Young Ladies Seminary, a finishing school near her home.
Tillie had two brothers, James and William, and one sister, Margaret. At the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, her brother James was serving with the 1st Pennsylvania Reserves, and William had enlisted in the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry. Both survived the war.
Tillie Pierce wrote a book about her experiences during those trying days: At Gettysburg: Or What a Girl Saw and Heard at the Battle. It was published in 1889. I will allow her to tell some of her experiences in her own words.
Battle of Gettysburg Day 1 – July 1, 1863:
Fighting began at 5:30 a.m. northwest of Gettysburg, when the Confederate cavalry encountered Union horsemen on the Cashtown Road. Both sides sent for reinforcements. The rebels arrived first. The Union commander, realizing the importance of holding the town, where several roads converged, fought desperately to hold off the Rebels. But they drove the Yankees through town and into defensive positions on Culp’s and Cemetery Hills.
After I had eaten what that day I called dinner, our neighbor, Mrs. Schriver, called at the house and said she would leave the town and go to her father’s (Jacob Weikert), who lived on the Taneytown road at the eastern slope of the Round Top. Mr. Schriver, her husband, was then serving in the Union army, so that under all the circumstances at this time surrounding her, Mrs. Schriver did not feel safe in the house.
As the battle had commenced and was still progressing at the west of the town, and was not very far off, she (Mrs. Schriver) thought it safer for herself and two children to go to her parents, who lived about three miles to the south. She requested that I be permitted to accompany her, and as it was regarded a safer place for me than to remain in town, my parents readily consented that I should go.
Tillie’s parents had no idea that the second day’s fighting would rage around Little Round Top. Tillie and the others started out at 1:00 p.m. The most direct route was down Baltimore Street and through the Evergreen Cemetery to Taneytown Road. They encountered some Union soldiers, who told them they must hurry because the Rebels might start shelling that location at any moment. Tillie and the others started out at a fast pace. They soon reached the Taneytown Road, and a soldier commandeered a wagon to take them the rest of the way.
At last we reached Mr. Weikert’s and were gladly welcomed to their home. It was not long after our arrival until Union artillery came hurrying by. After the artillery had passed, infantry began coming. I soon saw that these men were very thirsty and would go to the spring which is on the north side of the house. I was not long in learning what I could do.
Obtaining a bucket, I hastened to the spring, and there, with others, carried water to the moving column until the spring was empty. We then went to the pump standing on the south side of the house, and supplied water from it. Thus we continued giving water to our tired soldiers until night came on, when we sought rest indoors.
Now the wounded began to come in greater numbers. That evening Beckie Weikert and I went out to the barn to see what was transpiring there. Nothing before in my experience had ever paralleled the sight we then and there beheld. There were the groaning and crying, the struggling and dying, crowded side by side, while attendants sought to aid and relieve them as best they could.
The first day had passed, and with the rest of the family, I retired, surrounded with strange and appalling events, and many new visions passing rapidly through my mind.
The first day’s action had resulted in a Confederate victory. After much fierce fighting and heavy casualties on both sides, the Federals were pushed back through the town of Gettysburg and regrouped south of the town along the high ground near the cemetery. Union Commander-in-Chief General George G. Meade arrived and anticipated reinforcements totaling up to 100,000 men to arrive and strengthen his defensive position.
Battle of Gettysburg Day 2 – July 2, 1863:
General Robert E. Lee was encouraged by his successes during the first day, and he decided to attack both Union flanks the following morning. On his right, Union troops mistakenly shifted out of position, leaving Little Round Top undefended. At the last moment, a Union general rushed troops in just in time to hold off the hard-charging Confederates.
Tillie remained at the Jacob Weikert house, carrying water to passing Union soldiers while others baked bread for the troops. She witnessed an incident at the front of the house:
This forenoon another incident occurred which I shall ever remember. While the infantry were passing, I noticed a poor, worn-out soldier crawling along on his hands and knees. An officer yelled at him, with cursing, to get up and march. The poor fellow said he could not, whereupon the officer, raising his sword, struck him down three or four times. The officer passed on. Little caring what he had done. Some of his comrades at once picked up the prostrate form and carried the unfortunate man into the house.
After several hours of hard work the sufferer was brought back to consciousness. He seemed quite a young man, and was suffering from sunstroke received on the forced march. As they were carrying him in, some of the men who had witnessed this act of brutality remarked: ‘We will mark that officer for this. It is a pretty well established fact that many a brutal officer fell in the battle, from being shot other than by the enemy.’
Toward the middle of the afternoon heavy cannonading began on the two Round Tops just back of the house. This was so terrible and severe that it was with great difficulty we could hear ourselves speak. Some of the soldiers suggested that we had better go to a farm house about one-half a mile across the fields to the east; and acting on their advice we ran thither as fast as we could.
Here we were permitted to remain but a few minutes, for hardly had we arrived at our supposed place of refuge, when we were told to hurry back to where we came from; that we were in a great deal more danger, from the fact that the shells would fall just about this place, whereas at the house near Round Top the shells would pass over us. So there was no alternative but to retrace our steps about as fast as we came.
During the whole of this wild goose chase, the cannonading had become terrible! Occasionally a shell would come flying over Round Top and explode high in the air over head. Just before leaving so hurriedly, a baking had been put in the old-fashioned oven; when we came back we expected to find it all burned, but fortunately the soldiers had taken it out in good time. They doubtless had their eye on it as well as on the enemy. The cannonading, which all the time appeared to be getting more and more severe, lasted until the close of day.
On this evening the number of wounded brought to the place was indeed appalling. They were laid in different parts of the house. The orchard and space around the buildings were covered with the shattered and dying, and the barn became more and more crowded. The scene had become terrible beyond description.
That night, in the house, I made myself useful in doing whatever I could to assist the surgeons and nurses. Cooking and making beef tea seemed to be going on all the time. It was an animated and busy scene. Some were cutting bread and spreading it, while I was kept busy carrying the pieces to the soldiers.
After a long day of fighting, the Union troops barely held their positions. Some were pushed back through the Peach Orchard, the Wheat Field and Devil’s Den. Lee’s forces had again gained ground, but had failed to dislodge the Union troops from their strong defenses.
Battle of Gettysburg Day 3 – July 3, 1863:
General Robert E. Lee’s plan for this morning was to bombard the Federal positions with 140 cannon, and then to send in the infantry to smash the Union center. At 1:00pm, General James Longstreet opened the great bombardment, and the Federal army replied with some 80 guns. The boom and crash of artillery sounded throughout the countryside for nearly two hours.
Image: The Jacob Weikert House, where Tillie witnessed the battle
Then the Confederate infantry went forward, about 13,000 of them, marching across the field in front of Cemetery Hill. Federal artillery and musketry blasted through their formations, inflicting heavy losses. This attack has come to be known as Pickett’s Charge. It ended in disaster, with more than 5000 Confederate casualties.
Tillie continued her tale:
I was told by someone, that the carriages were in waiting out at the barn, to take us off to a place of safety. Already there was occasional musketry and cannonading in the direction of Gettysburg, and we expected greater danger than at any time before.
Some of the soldiers told us that they had planted cannon on two sides of the house, and that if the Rebels attempted to reach the Taneytown Road, as they had the day before, there would likely be hard fighting right around the house; and that if we remained, we would be in the midst of flying bullets and shell. Under these circumstances we made all possible haste to depart.
After proceeding a mile or so down the Taneytown road, we turned to the left and crossed over to the Baltimore Pike, near the Two Taverns. We finally arrived at a farmhouse beyond the pike, and found the place full of people who had also fled from their homes, to get beyond the dangers of the battle.
Toward the close of the afternoon it was noticed that the roar of the battle was subsiding, and after all had become quiet we started back for Mr. Weikert’s home. As we drove along in the cool of the evening, we noticed that everywhere confusion prevailed. Fences were thrown down near and far; knapsacks, blankets and many other articles lay scattered here and there. The whole country seemed filled with desolation.
Upon reaching the place I fairly shrank back aghast at the awful sight presented. The approaches were crowded with wounded, dying and dead. The air was filled with moanings and groanings. As we passed on toward the house, we were compelled to pick our steps in order that we might not tread on the prostrate bodies.
When we entered the house we found it also completely filled with the wounded. We hardly knew what to do or where to go. They, however, removed most of the wounded, and thus after a while made room for the family.
As soon as possible, we endeavored to make ourselves useful by rendering assistance in this heartrending state of affairs. I remember that Mrs. Weikert went through the house, and after searching awhile, brought all the muslin and linen she could spare. This we tore into bandages and gave them to the surgeons, to bind up the poor soldier’s wounds.
By this time, amputating benches had been placed about the house. I must have become inured to seeing the terrors of battle, else I could hardly have gazed upon the scenes now presented. I was looking out one of the windows facing the front yard. Near the basement door, and directly underneath the window I was at, stood one of these benches.
I saw them lifting the poor men upon it, then the surgeons sawing and cutting off arms and legs, then again probing and picking bullets from the flesh. Some of the soldiers fairly begged to be taken next, so great was their suffering, and so anxious were they to obtain relief.
Twilight had now fallen; another day had closed; with the soldiers saying that they believed this day the Rebels were whipped, but at an awful sacrifice.
The Battle of Gettysburg was over. General Lee lost a third of his men before retreating into Virginia. General Meade decided that the losses his army had sustained were sufficient, and he only halfheartedly pursued the Rebels. Union military officials thought Meade had missed an opportunity to crush Lee, and he was amply criticized for that failure.
Tillie related the aftermath:
For a number of days after the battle, amputating, nursing and cooking continued on the premises, after which the wounded were removed to the different corps hospitals. During this time many a brave and noble spirit went from its tenement, and passed to the great beyond.
Sometime during the forenoon of Tuesday, the 7th, in company with Mrs. Schriver and her two children, I started off on foot to reach my home. As it was impossible to travel the roads, on account of the mud, we took to the fields.
While passing along, the stench arising from the fields of carnage was most sickening. Dead horses, swollen to almost twice their natural size, lay in all directions, stains of blood frequently met our gaze, and all kinds of army accoutrements covered the ground.
Fences had disappeared, some buildings were gone, others ruined. The whole landscape had been changed, and I felt as though we were in a strange and blighted land. We finally reached and passed through the Evergreen Cemetery, and beheld the broken monuments.
After a few minutes more we reached our homes. I hastened into the house. Everything seemed to be in confusion, and my home did not look exactly as it did when I left. Large bundles had been prepared, and were lying around in different parts of the room I had entered. They had expected to be compelled to leave the town suddenly.
I soon found my mother and the rest. At first glance even my mother did not recognize me, so dilapidated was my general appearance. The only clothes I had along had by this time become covered with mud, the greater part of which was gathered the day on which we left home.
As soon as I spoke my mother ran to me, and clasping me in her arms, said: ‘Why, my dear child, is that you? How glad I am to have you home again without any harm having befallen you!’
For many weeks after the battle my thoughts and attention were directed to the General Hospital, located about one mile east of the town. This was a large collection of tents, regularly laid out in Camp style.
The friends and relatives who came to minister to the wounded were, on account of the crowded condition of the hotels, compelled to ask accommodations from private citizens. In this manner quite a number were taken into our home. Most of their time was spent at the hospital, some coming back to us in the evening, and leaving as soon as possible the next morning. I was frequently invited to accompany these visitors, and in this way often found myself by the bedside of the wounded.
Years have come and gone since the happening of the events narrated in the preceding chapters, but they are as indelibly stamped upon my memory as when passing before me in actual reality.
On the very spot where in their blindness they shed the blood of fratricide, I have seen the Blue and the Gray clasp hands, and in the presence of their fellow countrymen and before High Heaven, pledge their devotion to each other, and to a renewed and purified government.
On this memorable ground I have seen Generals Longstreet, Gordon, Hooker, and Sergeant Jones (who bore the colors of the 53rd Virginia in Pickett’s charge), with many others of the Gray, standing together with Generals Sickles, Slocum, Beaver, Curtiss and others of the Blue; and like men and true patriots freely forgive and mourn the past.
Tillie Pierce married Horace Alleman, an 1869 graduate of Pennsylvania (Gettysburg) College, and moved with him to Selingrove, Pennsylvania, where they lived for the rest of their lives. They had three children.
Horace practiced law until his death in 1908. Tillie died in 1914 and was buried in the Trinity Lutheran Cemetery at Selingrove.
What a wonderful record she left us of the greatest battle on American soil.