Since June 15, Gettysburg’s citizens and the Powers women had been preparing for the arrival of the Army of Northern Virginia by moving money out of banks, hiding livestock and valuables, and sending the vulnerable to other cities. On June 26, their fears were realized when Jubal Early’s men swung through town sponging up money, food, livestock, and valuables, but the rumors about the roving armies didn’t cease with their departure. On June 30, John Buford and his cavalry arrived in town to the great relief of residents terrified of another Confederate stay, but when they didn’t move on quickly, many began to fear battle itself was coming.
On July 1, Jane Powers McDonnell and her husband John Henry were planning to go about their normal routines with their two small children. They owned a small farm on what is now Confederate Avenue and had a couple of heads of milk cows and a number of other livestock. By 7 am, the tranquility of their existence was fully shattered as the cannons and musketry opened. Like others, the McDonnells sheltered in their home as shells and bullets fell around them and smacked the house. (Jane would later count seven shells in the walls of the house.)
And then the unthinkable. As the Rebels overran Seminary Ridge, the Confederates stormed the property and took John Henry into custody. The capture of civilian men as prisoners happened sporadically on day one and part of day two. In the fog of battle, it became difficult to tell who were Union soldiers hiding from Confederates and who were townspeople. Several Gettysburg men were taken and eventually shipped south to Libby prison before being returned a couple of months later. John Henry was marched away from the family and kept in a holding area south of Round Top.
With no other options, Jane decided to take her two small children to her parents’ house on West High Street. But she couldn’t just pick up and go with Confederate units all about. Instead, she had to obtain passes to go through the lines. The Gettysburg Times noted that “The younger of the children, Charles, has the distinction, probably, of being the only child who was carried through the lines of battle by a Confederate lieutenant, for such was the case. Little Charles was carried all the way to the Powers home by this Confederate lieutenant, with a pass.”
What she found at her parents’ house was not much better. The basement quickly filled up with wounded men—twenty-eight according to the women in an interview with the Gettysburg Times, but more like fifteen or sixteen according to historians. The truth is likely that the number fluctuated over days and a couple of weeks. In addition, the family had a granite fenced-in yard, and on day one, Confederate troops used it as a holding pen for Union prisoners.
The house was full to bursting, and the work was grueling. The family matriarch, Catherine Powers, was made up of hardy American stock—she had sat on the knee of George Washington and, as a little girl, helped pour hot metal into moulds to make bullets for American use in the War of 1812. She helped create order in the house.
Over the next couple of days, Jane used her pass to return to her home, milk her cows, and bring fresh milk to the wounded. She continued with this until the Confederates took the cows with them during their withdrawal.
Cynthia Powers was married to apprentice stonecutter Daniel Pittenturf; she helped tend the wounded, despite being six months pregnant with her second son, whom she would give birth to in October of that year. In time, though, she acquired a respiratory illness, and the strain of pregnancy, post-birth recovery, and her lung illness led to her death at age thirty in 1864.
Alice Powers, who would have a legendary forty-nine year career in the Gettysburg and Adams County public schools, was home for the summer from teaching and did double duty at the Powers home and among the wounded at the Catholic Church.
Virginia Powers personally attended to a Captain Reynolds who appeared to have died a few days after the battle. Fellow soldiers put him on a litter and started to bear him away to a burial crew, and as Virginia wept, she noticed his eyelids flutter. Virginia screamed and threw herself on the stretcher; the soldiers brought the captain back and called the doctors who confirmed Reynolds was still alive. Virginia nursed him personally back to health, and Captain Reynolds appeared to have fallen in love with her—he returned twice to the town to ask for her hand, but she was betrothed to local David Smith and kept her vow to marry Smith.
On July 4, John Henry McDonnell was recognized by farmers around Round Top; they vouched for him to Confederate officers who then set John Henry free. He ultimately headed to the Powers home where he not only found his wife, children, the wounded, and all his in-laws—the Powers had also taken in John Henry’s sister, Susan McElroy. Susan, however, was quarantined behind a curtain in one of the rooms because shortly after she had fled to the Powers house for shelter, doctors discovered she had smallpox. Somehow, their quarantine was successful, and smallpox did not spread among the wounded or among those tending them.
In addition to Susan, the Powers had also taken in Catherine and Lizzie Sweeney whose home was at the base of Cemetery Hill and caught between the two lines on July 1 and 2. Catherine’s husband Harry stayed at their home at what is now known as the Farnsworth house and the site where some historians believe the sharpshooter who killed Jennie Wade was positioned.
In 1912, Jane Powers McDonnell told a local paper, “There is nothing unusual in what we did for our boys. We would have been hard-hearted, indeed, if we had not done everything in our power, even if it cost us our lives, for a more appreciative and loyal lot could not be found anywhere. Every one was a gentleman, and not once in all my ministering to the wounded did I ever hear one word out of the way.”
Indeed, the battle likely cost Ann’s sister Cynthia her life, and for all the sisters, life was never really the same again.