In 1887, Major General Dan Sickles introduced a measure to the Society of the Army of the Potomac to hold a reunion at Gettysburg July 1, 2, and 3, 1888, and he insisted that not only Union veterans be invited but also their former belligerents. The intent, according to Sickles, was as follows:
[It] might on that occasion record in friendship and fraternity the sentiments of good-will, loyalty, and patriotism which now unite all in sincere devotion to the country.
The event was indeed held, and in late June, tens of thousands of veterans and their families poured into Gettysburg. Though only about three hundred Confederate men were able to attend (the distance and expense were great), notables like Generals John B. Gordon and James Longstreet attended and gave speeches.
Historians and observers have hailed the various reunions held at Gettysburg as important moments of forgiveness and unity. One who was not pleased, though, was Georgia Wade McClellan, sister and memorializer of Mary Virginia “Jennie” Wade–the battle’s sole civilian death during its three days. In distress, Georgia wrote to General John Gobin on July 15, 1888:
The mystery to me is how can the Union Soldiers forget that horrid war and its sufferings and shake hands with Rebles [sic] on so sacred ground as Gettysburg, they surely have more forgiving grace than your humble correspondent, or they have lost sight of the object for which they fought.
I had no desire to go to Gettysburg this summer, I preferred to shed my tears at home.
That 1863 summer period may well have been the most challenging of Georgia’s life. Her husband was a member of the 2nd Pennsylvania Infantry and was not at home. On June 26, 1863, at 2:30 pm, Georgia delivered her first-born child, Lewis Kenneth McClellan. Scarcely an hour later, General Jubal Early and his five thousand men marched unchallenged into Gettysburg, requisitioning food stores, cattle, farm animals, and sundries as they went. Tensions were high everywhere–various men were thrown in prison, and neighbors accused others of aiding and abetting the Rebel cause, and the Wade girls’ younger brother Sam was captured by the Rebels while trying to get away with the family horses. Only after pleadings from the family and town members did the Rebel army return the 11-year-old to his family.
The Rebels departed after only a short stay, but a week later, both they and the Union armies converged at Gettysburg for the pivotal battle. Georgia’s mother, Mary Ann, had come over from her home at 51 Breckenridge Street (about a block and a half away) to assist with the baby. As the battle got underway, Mary Ann sent for Jennie and for the small disabled boy they cared for. The McClellan home at 548 Baltimore Street was at the base of Cemetery Hill appeared safer given that the Union occupied the hill, while Confederate sharpshooters occupied homes all over northern Baltimore Street and its side streets.
By now, the story of the shot that hit Jennie is well known. No one knows where the fatal shot originated: some believe it came from the Farnsworth House across the street, some point to the famous sharpshooters nest in the Shriver House (now a museum), and some have pointed to the John Rupp House. When Jennie fell, her mother found her, passed into the next room, and said, “Georgia, your sister is dead.” Georgia’s screams brought Union soldiers to the house. The soldiers wrapped Jennie in a carpet, and her body was either brought to the basement or outside for an unceremonious burial. In 1864, the family moved her body to the cemetery of the German Reformed Church, and then in 1865, she was moved a final time to Evergreen Cemetery where a statue commemorates her life, and an American flag adorns her grave.
The death deeply affected Georgia for the rest of her life. Immediately after the battle, she served as a nurse to wounded soldiers at the Adams County Court House. She attended Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, then served as a nurse in Washington, D.C.
In 1866, she and her young family moved to what became Dennison, Iowa, then Fort Dodge, Iowa. She was active in medical and temperance movements. Perhaps with memories of her time in the Alms House with her pregnant mother, she and the Iowa Women’s Christian Temperance Union created the Benedict Home as a reformatory for “fallen women.” From 1882 to 1943 the WCTU ministered to more than 1,900 single pregnant women and prostitutes who lived at the home.
One of the famous “Did they or didn’t they?” mysteries of the Civil War was whether Jennie Wade and Jack Skelly had ever agreed to marry. The first book about Jennie, published in 1917, is credited to J.W. Johnston (The True of “Jennie” Wade: A Gettysburg Maid), but the chief source of the information is Georgia herself. On page 7 of the work, the author asserts that Jennie was engaged some time in the spring of 1863 with Jack and Jennie intending to marry in September 1863 if he could secure a furlough. The documentary evidence for this claim is thin.
Georgia also returned to Gettysburg to dedicate a sign marking the Wade home at 51 Breckenridge Street. Her devotion to her sister never wavered, and her dedication to women’s causes and relief of single and poor women seems rooted in her own experiences, those of Jennie, those of her mother, and perhaps even those of the mother of her half brother, James A. Wade.