The Life and Crimes of Captain James Wade

If the early sources are to be believed, the difficulties could not be attributed to genetics or family history. In fact, Captain James Wade hailed from a fine Virginia military family. His grandfather, Colonel Chidley Wade, was killed September 11, 1777, at the Battle of Brandywine. His father, Thomas Wade, was aide de camp to the Marquise de Lafayette and was wounded at the same battle. One might say that spilling their blood for the United States was a Wade family tradition, and in fact, James Wade tried to do his part: he was a captain in the 80th Pennsylvania Militia in the 1840s.

Of course, by the 1840s, Captain Wade had already been in trouble by the legal and moral standards of the day. In the 1830s, he was accused of “using force of arms to commit fornication which begat a male bastard child.” Charges were ultimately drop, but the child was not–he became James A. Wade and was raised in the Captain James and Mary Ann Wade household as Jenny’s brother. His birth mother is unknown to history. (Unfortunately, James A. Wade didn’t make the cut on Find-a-Grave or in the early twentieth-century book published on Jennie, the chief source for which is probably her sister, Georgia. Why? At age seven, he was living in the Alms House at which time he was bonded out–in other words, he was placed with a family to do farm labor. He lived among citizens until he joined the army in the 1860s.)

In 1836, an unassuming tailor named Johnston Skelly came to Gettysburg, settled, and opened a business. A year later, he married Elizabeth Finefrock. Meanwhile, in 1841, Captain Wade was accused of setting fire to a stable in Bendersville. In 1842, he was charged with assault and battery, though the charges against him were dropped. Some time in the 1840s, according to the Gettysburg Compiler, the captain lived with the Skellys for two or three years while serving as an apprentice to Johnston Skelly. Johnston, Jr. was born to the Skellys in 1841 while Mary Virginia was born to the captain and his wife in 1843. The Skellys and the Wades raised their children (nine Skellys and anywhere between five and seven Wades, depending on whether you count James A. and a disabled child that the Wades raised) together, and they grew up as friends and confidants. The relationship between the families did not spare the family from difficulty times: Alms House records show Mary Ann, Georgia, and Jennie living there in 1846 until Mary Ann gave birth to John James Wade at which point they were discharged. Why would they have stayed during pregnancy and birth? Doctors and nurses resided at the Alms House, and for the poor with small children, it was a means of getting both pregnancy and child care.

Domestic life didn’t settle the captain–in 1850, he was charged with assault and battery; he was also convicted of larceny and spent some time in prison. By 1852, Mary Ann had had enough. She went to court and had Captain Wade declared insane whereupon he was committed to the Adams County Alms House.

The intent of alms / poor / work houses was reasonable enough–help provide for people who couldn’t take care of themselves and put them to work doing labor that they could manage. The reality? Not good. In practice, they were a catch all for the criminally insane, the disabled, the poor, the ill with no family to provide for them, and recovering drug and alcohol addicts (yes, there were drug addicts in those days, too). The Adams County Alms House had five buildings for lodging, eating, and, uh, “restraints.” Yes, restraints. Of the five buildings, three were the main centers: one an infirmary, another for the poor and elderly, and the final for the “insane.” An 1886 document refers to orderlies putting difficult inmates into the “dungeon.” Other records indicate that the “very insane” were frequently chained to huge metal balls, possibly for years on end (You may recall two men in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol saying that many people would “rather die” than go to the poor / work houses, which inspired Scrooge’s infamous retort, “They’d better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”)

This is where Captain Wade spent the rest of his life, including most likely the entirety of the battle. Of course, it’s curious, then, that Mary Ann turned up pregnant in 1854 with Harry Marion Wade, who would be born in early 1855, suggesting that the captain was occasionally furloughed or that there were conjugal visits or that . . . what we can say is that Captain Wade stood as the father at Harry’s baptism after birth.

The captain’s history (and possibly Mary Ann’s last pregnancy too) and the family’s time in the alms house inspired a lot of talk in town. Johnston, Jr. (aka, Jack) answered at least two letters from his mother in defense of Jennie when she was accused of entertaining men at “late hours.” Even after Jennie’s death, Union Colonel David Hunter Strother decried Jennie as being of poor character and also, worse, a Copperhead or Southern sympathizer (this unfounded accusation probably stems from her father’s being a Virginian). And of course, citizen hero John Lawrence Burns said of Jennie:

I knew Miss Wade very well. The less said about her the better. The story about her loyalty, her being killed while serving Union soldiers, etc., is all fiction, got up by some sensation correspondent. The only fact in the whole story is that she was killed during the battle in her house by a stray bullet. Charity to her reputation forbids any further remarks.

Further, he backs up his remark by referring his reader to C. Wills, esq., as well as Postmaster Buehler, who apparently shared a similar uncharitable opinion.

And what of Captain Wade during the battle? No one knows for sure how the administrators handled the Alms House residents. Historians have speculated that the residents were made to sit out the battle in the basements and suggested that some of the more difficult residents might have been “restrained.” That would have made for a doubly uncomfortable situation when the wounded and dying from the fighting on Blocher’s Knoll began arriving (some soldier records indicated that later artillery barrages made for miserable experiences for both the wounded and the residents), the most famous of which was Bayard Wilkeson, son of New York Times battle correspondent Samuel Wilkeson. Writing home, Samuel announced his son’s death as follows (and note his description of the Alms House basement):

Bayard was on his horse in command of his battery giving special attention to the right section, a long shell struck the horse and passed through it and hit him on his right leg below the knee, crushing it shockingly. When he fell, his men put him in a blanket and carried into the rear into a low damp basement room in the county poorhouse, as wretched a place as well can be imagined…On the floor of the room where he was laid, I saw today a bloody mark about the size of a large man giving the outlines the human figure, that mark was made by Bayard as he lay six or eight hours dying from neglect and bleeding to death…After a while he became weak and suffered dreadful pains, moaning and groaning and calling loudly upon his father and his mother, writhing in tortures most horrible, and so continued till about 10 o’clock when he died.

In his July 4, 1863, article for the Times, Samuel penned this now famous opening, and when we consider Captain Wade’s place in life at that moment, the words might sting a bit more:

Who can write the history of a battle whose eyes are immovably fastened upon a central figure of transcendingly absorbing interest–the dead body of an oldest born son, crushed by a shell in a position where a battery should never have been sent, and abandoned to death in a building where surgeons dared not to stay.

Confederates overran the position, and Union surgeons likely pulled out. The residents of the Alms House? Almost certainly left in the their buildings. Captain Wade? In the 1860 Census, he was listed as very insane. So who knows . . . maybe chained to a wall.

Back to Jennie Wade and Her Network.

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