May I Go?

Johnston Kelly, Jr.

For most, the story of Johnston “Jack” Hastings Skelly, Jr. is the bookend of the tragedy of Jennie Wade. Star-crossed lovers or maybe friends or maybe confidantes or maybe pen pals, she is waiting at home and helping the cause while he is wounded two weeks before the big battle at a much smaller battle and against his hometown pal, Wesley Culp. Culp goes to see Jack in the Confederate Hospital. Jack allegedly gives him a message to pass to Mrs. Skelly. Georgia Wade later tells people this was a proposal.

Days later, Wes visits his sister but never makes it to Mrs. Skelly. Jennie is felled by a Confederate sharpshooter. Wes is killed by a Union sharpshooter. Jack never hears of Jennie’s death. A week or so later, he slips into delirium, and a few days after, he dies.

The definitive authority on were they or weren’t they is Enrica D’ Alessandro who published five previously unpublished letters from Jennie to Jack, as well as most of Jack’s known correspondence to his mother, in My Country Needs Me: The Story of Corporal Johnston Hastings Skelly Jr.

In these letters, Jennie definitely declares her love for Jack and pleads for him to take a furlough. Writing to his mother, Jack addresses rumors from other Gettysburg citizens wherein they insinuated that Jennie entertained men late at night. He verifies that Jennie denies these rumors, and in her own letters, she tells of pointedly refusing the advances of an older “Dutchman” (mostly like a German man), possibly to establish her fealty and devotion to Jack. Interesting notes in the letters include Jennie sending a picture of herself to Jack, her telling him that she weighed 150 lbs (apparently, society wasn’t so weight conscious then), Jack dismissing the lot of Gettysburg citizens as not more trustworthy than “a worthless set of dogs,” Jack constantly sending most of his soldier’s paycheck home to support his mother (Jack’s father was also serving, but as a member of the 101st Pennsylvania), and Jack’s constantly addressing Jennie as “Jennie” and not “Ginny” or “Jinny” or other iterations (many assert that “Jennie” was a media creation and that she had been known as “Ginny” based on her middle name, Virginia).

Jack’s loyalty to Jennie, his family, and the Union cause are all notable and worthy of study (when the War broke out, Jack wrote his mother, “My country needs me. May I go?”). They are also reasonably well sourced in Alessandro’s book and other readily available sources. What is hardly covered at all are the final days of Jack Skelly. It may seem a stretch to assert, but Skelly was in fact killed as part of the Gettysburg Campaign. It’s possible that his death was preventable even after his wounding. And the battle, though comparatively small, was an abject disaster for the 87th Pennsylvania, which at least temporarily ceased to be a fighting force.

When Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia started north on its latest incursion into Union territory, it first had to clear Winchester of Federals. Winchester was the furthest city north in the Shenandoah Valley and the gateway both north and south to the valley. The map gives an overview of the entirety of the battle, which won’t be repeated here.

Overview of the Second Battle of Winchester

What is particularly of note is that Major General Robert H. Milroy ignored orders from the War Department in Washington to withdraw from Winchester. Vastly underestimating the size of the force moving toward him, Milroy elected to fight it out against Lee.

For Jack Skelly, this ultimately meant skirmishing in the city, falling back north at night to escape, then finding their escape blocked by the Stonewall Brigade among other units. The result for the 87th was a total disaster. At first, they tried to cut their way through not realizing the weight of what was against them. Overwhelmed, half of the men surrendered. The rest were left to themselves to figure out how to get away. They streamed into the mountains in disorganized fashion. Hundreds headed to Harper’s Ferry and joined the Federals there. Others simply walked home.

Jack Skelly was one of the last to be overtaken by Confederate troops. As the enemy drew close, they ordered Jack and fellow soldiers to surrender, but Jack and the others refused and fled. Jack was hit in the upper arm and brought down. He and a handful of others fell into Confederate hands.

Confederate soldiers brought Jack to the Taylor Hotel on the Valley Turnpike. The hotel had become a hospital yet again, and Jack spent the rest of his days, from June 15 through July 12, here. What were those days like?

George Fleming’s 1913 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has perhaps the only record of Jack’s time there, and even that is limited to only one day’s observation. Fleming quotes Gettysburg’s John Warner, a sutler for the 87th Pennsylvania, who had been captured:

When we arrived I inquired of the Confederate officer in charge of the hospital if any of the 87th Pennsylvania were in the hospital. He replied that there was one case, who was badly wounded, and at that time delirious and said he would take me to him. When I came to the bed I saw that it was Jack Skelly and that he was far gone. He did not recognize me and the surgeon said that he had not long to live. He died the next day. When I saw him, he did not seem to be suffering, just lying in a stupor.

Between his wounding and that point of delirium, what did Jack Skelly experience? It is hard to say for sure, but hospitals like the Taylor House were typically equipped with either cots or beds, as shown in the picture.

This is a typical field hospital in the Civil War, though not the Taylor House.

Nurses and doctors constantly noted the attempts made to keep hospitals ventilated. Without ventilation, odors in the hospitals frequently became overwhelming, and hospital workers typically associated these odors with disease (news of Louis Pasteur‘s experiments with pathogens had not yet reached the United States).

Warner does not note nor does anyone else mention Jack’s arm being amputated, so it is probably best to assume it was not. Various sources complain that Jack’s death resulted from the haphazard care of a drunken Confederate surgeon. This is likely bitterness speaking and not rooted in fact, but it might also suggest that amputation should have been performed and wasn’t. One of the best known somewhat analogous cases of a similar injury might be that of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (who used the Taylor House as a headquarters during his famous Valley Campaign). Jackson was similarly wounded in the upper arm. In his case, we know his arm bone was shattered, and he received the best surgical care–his arm was amputated near the shoulder, and he appeared to be well on his way to recovery when, like Jack, he became sick, declined, and died.

What illness claimed Jack? In Stonewall Jackson’s case, historical consensus is that he died of pneumonia, though forensic pathologists continue to debate today what triggered the pneumonia. Jackson also passed through a period of delirium in which he believed himself to be in battle. He called frequently for AP Hill to come up and deploy before eventually uttering his famous final words, “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”

The most common illnesses in the hospitals were malaria, typhoid fever, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. It is hard to say for sure which of these Jack contracted, though, given that the symptoms for all of them involve fever, weakness, and cardiovascular symptoms.

When Jack finally died, he was buried in the “Lutheran Cemetery.” This was most likely the grounds of what is now Mount Hebron Cemetery. He rested there until 1864 when his brother, Daniel, obtained a pass to go to Winchester and retrieve Jack’s remains. Daniel brought his brother home, and Jack was buried in Evergreen Cemetery about seventy yards from Jennie Wade.

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