A Young Mother At Gettysburg

Georgia McClellan, on the left (no known restrictions)

Happy Mother’s Day to all the wonderful moms!

In honor of the day, I wanted to share some an account of motherhood in Gettysburg during July 1863. Since this is a day of celebration, no sad war stories from me today – rather a remembrance of women’s courage and mothers’ dedication and care for little ones…and a reminder that motherhood and all its joys and challenges continues no matter what happens.

June 26, 1863, is remembered in Gettysburg military history as the day Confederates came to town. Mothers worried about their children’s safety, hurrying them inside. Many civilians claimed it was day they’d never forget. For one young woman, though, it was an especially memorable day, even before the Rebels charged through Gettysburg. That day she held her precious, healthy baby for the very first time.

About half-past two, twenty-one year old Georgeanna “Georgia” Wade McClellan gave birth to a son, but an hour later, shouts, pistol shots, and frightened cries disturbed her much-needed rest as Confederate raiders dashed passed her home on Baltimore Street. War disrupted what should have been sweet, quiet moments with her baby. Though, her family initially kept the details from her, Georgia’s brother – Sam Wade – had been captured by the Confederates as he tried to escape and get the family’s horse to safety; Georgia’s mother and sister berated the raiders outside the house and eventually got Sam returned but didn’t have such luck with the horse.[i]

John Louis McClellan, no known restrictions.

John Louis McClellan – Georgia’s husband and the new baby’s father – served in the 165th Pennsylvania Infantry during 1863, and he was away in Virginia in June. John and Georgia had married on April 15, 1862, and happily John would return home, mustering out of his unit at the end of July 1863. Still, when her baby was born and in the days afterward, Georgia depended on her mother and other family members to care for her, while she rested and adjusted to looking after her infant son.

Georgia still convalesced in bed, recovering strength after her recent labor and delivery, when battle exploded in and around the town of Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. Georgia’s mother and siblings took refuge at the McClellan home, and they moved the bed, the baby, and the invalid mother to the downstairs parlor for safety. Still, the house stood in the way of artillery and sharpshooters; one missile – artillery shot – crashed through the house and penetrated into the brick wall.[ii]

Early in the morning of July 3, 1863, mother and baby were almost miraculously spared when, according to a later account approved by Georgia, “about seven o’clock the Confederate sharpshooters again began firing at the north windows of the house. Every pane of glass was soon broken, one bullet on entering the front room struck the southwest bed post, then hit the fireplace or wall, finally falling on the pillow at the foot of the bed toward which Mrs. McClellan and the child had been turned as a measure of safety…”[iii]

Detail from William-Adolphe Bouguereau artwork “Premières caresse”(1901)

From primary sources, we can piece together an image of a young mother caught in the war’s horrible storm. Her baby – less than a week old – heard the sounds of destruction and probably wailed in fright. Though terrified by the battle and seemingly too weak to care for herself, Georgia McClellan looked after her son, probably sheltering him with her body, trying to hush his cries, and tending to his infant needs. It’s an image from Gettysburg often overshadowed by the battlefield happenings or the fate of Georgia’s sister, Mary Virginia Wade. An image of motherhood and a mother’s protecting, nurturing role in the midst of one of the worst battles in history.

Courage takes many forms in life and history. Perhaps an underestimated glimpse of courage is personified in Georgia McClellan: a mother’s courage. To shelter, protect, love, and cherish a child no matter what conflicts rage outside.

Postscript:

Young Mrs. McClellan and her son – Lewis Kenneth McClellan – survived the battle and the unsanitary aftermath at Gettysburg. After the war, the reunited McClellan family moved to Iowa, and throughout her life, Georgia actively supported temperance and other social reforms.[iv]

 

Sources:

[i] Conklin, Eileen F. Women at Gettysburg, 1863, Revisited. Thomas Publications, 2013. Page 140.

[ii] Ibid, Page 143.

[iii] Ibid, Page 143.

[iv] Find A Grave – Georgeanna McClellan https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/60505475/georgeanna-mcclellan