Thursday, January 3, 2008

Salome "Sallie" Myers: how a Gettysburg schoolteacher spent her vacation in 1863

[Note: In 1863, 21 year-old Elizabeth Salome "Sallie" Myers was on summer vacation. The Gettysburg native was in her fourth week off from teaching in the town's public school when, with little warning, she found herself faced with a terrible decision, to hide in the cellar of her home or help the injured and dying. Forty years later, she authored "How A Gettysburg Schoolteacher Spent Her Vacation in 1863", first published in The Sunday Call newspaper in San Francisco, California. Myers was later interviewed for a news article in the July 4, 1909 Philadelphia North American.]

"I was not an enlisted nurse. At the breaking out of the war I was a teacher in the public schools of Gettysburg, my native place, and the home of my maternal ancestors who were its first settlers. On may 31, 1863, I finished a nine months' term as second assistant to the principle of our schools. Of the experiences of the inhabitants of the Southern border counties of our state that Spring and Summer, I need not speak.More...

Business of all kinds was paralyzed and the daily reports of the coming of the rebels kept us in a constant fever of excitement. On June 26 they came, spent the night and passed through... burning bridges and spreading consternation everywhere. Little we dreamed of the far greater horrors that were in store for us.

"On Wednesday July 1, the storm broke. We were brimming over with patriotic enthusiasm. While our elders prepared food we girls stood on the corner near our house and gave refreshments of all kinds to 'our boys' of the First Corps, who were double-quicking down Washington Street to join the troops already engaged in battle west of the town. After the men had all passed, we sat on our doorsteps or stood around in groups, frightened nearly out of our wits but never dreaming of defeat. A horse was led by, the blood streaming from his head which was covered. The sight sickened me. Then a man was led by supported by two comrades. His head had been hastily bandaged and blood was visible. I turned away faint with horror, for I never could bear the sight of blood. After a while the artillery wagons began to go back and we couldn't understand that. The came the order: 'Women and children to the cellars; the rebels will shell the town.' We lost little time in obeying the order. My home was on West High Street, near Washington (Street) and in the direct path of the retreat. From 4 to 6 we were in the cellar and those two hours I can never forget. Our cellar was a good one and furnished a refuge for many besides our own family.

"The noise above our heads, the rattling of musketry, the screeching of shells, and the unearthly yells, added to the cries of the children, were enough to shake the stoutest heart. After the rebels had gained full possession of the town, some of our men who had been captured were standing near the cellar window. One of them asked if some of us would take their addresses and the addresses of friends and write to them of their capture. I took thirteen and wrote as they requested. I received answers from all but one, and several of the soldiers revisited the place of their capture and recognized the house and cellar window. While the battle lasted we concealed and fed three men in our cellar.

"Before 6 o'clock the firing ceased and we came up from the cellar. They had begun bringing wounded and injured into town. The Catholic and Presbyterian churches, a few doors east of my father's home were taken possession of as hospitals. Dr. James Fulton (143rd Pennsylvania Volunteers) did splendid work getting things in shape. From that time on we had no rest for weeks. 'Girls,' Dr. Fulton said, ' you must come up to the churches and help us- the boys are suffering terribly!' I went to the Catholic church. On pews and floors men lay, the groans of the suffering and dying were heartrending. I knelt beside the first man near the door and asked what I could do. 'Nothing,' he replied, 'I am going to die.' I went outside the church and cried. I returned and spoke to the man- he was wounded in the lungs and spine, and there was not the slightest hope for him. The man was Sgt. Alexander Stewart of the 149th Pennsylvania Volunteers. I read a chapter of the Bible to him, it was the last chapter his father had read before he left home. The wounded man died on Monday, July 6.

"Sgt. Stewart was the first wounded man brought in, but others followed. The sight of blood never again affected me and I was among wounded and dying men day and night. While the battle lasted and the town was in possession of the rebels, I went back and forth between my home and the hospitals without fear. The soldiers called me brave, but I am afraid the truth was that I did not know enough to be afraid and if I had known enough, I had no time to think of the risk I ran, for my heart and hands were full. One of our boys had lost a leg. He had been with us several days and had become very fond of my little sisters. Very frequently they sang for him, 'There is No Name So Sweet on Earth', at that time a popular hymn. He suffered from indigestion and one night in his restlessness, the bandages came loose. It was after midnight. The nurse, tired out, had fallen asleep and before we could find a surgeon he was so weakened by loss of blood that he died the next morning. A few days later his wife came. She was young and had never been away from home. When she heard of her husband being wounded, she started for Gettysburg, leaving a babe that he had never seen. She did not know of his death until she came to us and her grief was heartrending.

"I went daily through the hospitals with my writing materials, reading and answering letters. This work enlisted all my sympathies, and I received many kind and appreciative letters from those who could not come. Besides caring for the wounded, we did all we could for the comfort of friends who came to look after their loved ones. Many pleasant and enduring friendships were the result of this part of my work. It is a great pleasure to remember that during that long, trying summer, I was treated with the greatest courtesy and kindness by the soldiers, not one, in either army, ever addressing me except in the most respectful manner. They were men. They bore their suffering in the hospitals with the same matchless courage and fortitude with which they met the dangers and endured the hardships of army life. Their patience was marvelous. I never heard a murmur. Truly, we shall not look upon their like again.

"I would not care to live that summer again, yet I would not willingly erase that chapter from my life's experience; and I shall always be thankful that I was permitted to minister to the wants and soothe the last hours of some of the brave men who lay suffering and dying for the dear old flag."

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