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The Jennie Wade Birthplace: Humble & Historic Beginnings
The Jennie Wade Birthplace, Gettysburg
The Jennie Wade Birthplace, Gettysburg

Jennie Wade is most remembered for being the only Gettysburg civilian killed during the famous battle. At just twenty years old, the young woman was shot, accidentally, by a sharpshooter’s bullet that pierced the northern door of her sister’s rented duplex, where Jennie, her mother, and three young boys were staying with Jennie’s older sister, Georgia McClellan, who had given birth to a son just days before the beginning of the pivotal fight in the early summer of 1863.

It is thoroughly plaintive to be remembered solely for how one died. It is important to see instead, how Jennie Wade lived her short life, all within a few blocks on the southern edge of the borough of Gettysburg.

Mary Virginia Wade was born on May 21, 1843 in a small clapboard house that her parents, Mary Ann Filby Wade and James Wade, Sr., had rented from owner John Pfoutz on the corner of Baltimore Street and what is today known as Wade Avenue. The current address for the quaint, early 19th century home is 242-246 Baltimore Street. While records are scant for the exact year of the house’s creation, an historical architect who helped to restore it estimated that the home was built between 1814 and 1820. The two-story frame house has an addition to the back that was added sometime after the war, most likely about 1870. 1 

There is no record of James Wade before 1840 in Gettysburg. According to his daughter, Georgia McClellan, he was born in Virginia, the grandson of a Revolutionary War colonel who was killed in the Battle of Brandywine. James’s father, John Wade, was also in the battle that killed his father. The younger Wade was an aide to the Marquis de Lafayette. James Wade married and had a son, James Jr., in Virginia. After the death of his wife, he married Mary Ann Filby of York. The couple rented the small house on Baltimore Street, with James’s 5-year-old son and a daughter, twenty-month old Georgia, when Mary Virginia was born. Another daughter, Martha, and three sons were born to the couple: John James (or Jack), Samuel, and Harry. Martha did not survive infancy. Jennie, as Mary Virginia came to be called, was baptized in the German Reformed Church on High Street, but when she was older she became a confirmed member of the St. James Lutheran Church in Gettysburg. 2 

The Wade family lived at the clapboard Baltimore Street home until 1853, when Jennie was ten years old. The Wades were experienced tailors. It appears that Jennie’s father had health problems, likely diabetes, and mental issues. In 1850 he was arrested in Washington, D.C. for larceny, having taken funds from a businessman in Gettysburg. With his arrest, the Wade family had to keep working to make ends meet. In 1852, Mrs. Wade had Mr. Wade pronounced “very insane” and he was taken to the Alms House for the poor and destitute in Gettysburg. The Wades then left the rented house on Baltimore Street to inhabit a newly built home on Breckinridge Street. Records indicate that the newer clapboard home – located directly across the street today from the AME Zion Church on the corner of Breckinridge and Washington Streets, had the title transferred to Mrs. Wade's name. It was here that the family lived when the Battle of Gettysburg occurred. Both Georgia and Jennie worked with their mother as seamstresses. They also took in a disabled boy, Isaac Brinkerhoff, whose mother worked during the week. When Georgia married John Lewis McClellan, on April 28, 1862, the bulk of the workload fell upon Jennie and her mother. 3 

When war came, Georgia’s husband, John Lewis McClellan, and Jennie’s beau, Jack Skelly, enlisted to fight in the conflict. Mr. McClellan fought with the 165th Pennsylvania, and Skelly in the 87th Pennsylvania. James Wade, Jr. and Jack Wade were also soldiers for the Union. Jack Wade was in the 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry as the bugler for Company B. 4 

On June 26th, 1863, General Jubal Early’s Division of The Army of Northern Virginia invaded the town of Gettysburg. Searching for horses, shoes, and supplies, the army soon absconded with most of what the town possessed. A neighboring butcher, James Pierce, had employed young Sam Wade as a delivery boy. When the Confederates came looking for horses, the Pierces asked Sam to take one of their gray mares and ride her out of danger. Unfortunately, Sam and the horse were captured – and Jennie was an eyewitness. Jennie alerted her mother, and Mrs. Wade hurried to the town square and met with General Early. She was able to procure Sam’s release. 5

Jennie Wade   (National Park Service)
Jennie Wade (National Park Service)

On the same day, Georgia Wade McClellan gave birth to a son, Lewis K. McClellan, who was considered by those who knew the family in town as the youngest veteran of the Battle of Gettysburg. Mrs. Wade took Sam and went to care for Georgia in the couple’s rented duplex on Baltimore Hill. Jennie remained in the house on Breckinridge Street to tend her brother Harry and the family’s charge, Isaac Brinkerhoff. 6

On July 1, Jennie noticed the havoc created from the battle that had begun west of town. Alone with the two boys, and deciding the family would be safer at Georgia’s house, she brought Isaac and Harry with her to her sister’s place, a brick house separated into two units. Another married couple, the MacLeans, rented the south side; the McClellans lived on the north side of the house. Like Georgia, Mrs. MacLean lived there alone at the time, with her husband Isaac serving the Union cause as well.

Jennie spent much of July 1 feeding the soldiers and giving them water from the well at the south side of her sister’s house. She also filled canteens for the soldiers as they passed, heading for nearby Cemetery Hill. William Otto Kohlar of the 94th New York Infantry, remembered that Jennie handed him two biscuits that evening. 7

That night the women and children in the house got little sleep, as the noise of battle and wounded men in distress reached their ears. Unable to rest, Jennie went outside in the dark and filled a bucket with water from the well, dispersing the water to the wounded. On July 2, the family were terrified as a shell from a Parrott gun, fired from Oak Ridge several miles away hit the building, breaking a large gap in the wall that separated the duplex. Fortunately, the shell did not explode, but the incident unnerved Jennie, who began to feel that perhaps the house was not safer after all. It was too late to go home – Confederates occupied the area below Baltimore Hill, including her birthplace and the home they currently occupied on Breckinridge Street. Jennie could not have known, but it was her last full day on earth.

On the evening of July 2, soldiers came continually to the door, asking for bread. Jennie gave them all they had, and realized that she needed to make more for the following day. That night she prepared the dough, and at first light the next day, while the early battle on Culp’s Hill began, Jennie and Sam went out for firewood for the stove. It promised to be a sultry day, and the earlier the bread and biscuits were baked, the better.

At about 8 a.m., fifteen loaves had been baked. The three Wade women and the boys feasted on bread, butter, and applesauce. Soon, Union soldiers were back at the door. They could smell the aroma of the baked bread. Thinking that biscuits could feed more men than loaves, Jennie went back to the stove and prepared to make more food. 8

It appears that a Confederate sharpshooter hidden in one of the garrets on Baltimore Street, noticed the comings and goings of men in blue at the McClellan House. Deciding to shoot, he took aim at the doorknob to see how accurate his rifle would be, and fired.

The minie ball pierced the door and struck Jennie, bent over the dough tray, behind the left shoulder blade, penetrating her heart. Without a groan, she fell dead. Screams from Georgia brought in more soldiers, who decided it would be safer for the survivors in the cellar. Crossing over the gap made by the Parrott shell, the family descended to the basement. Mrs. Wade would not leave her slain daughter, and a soldier wrapped her in a quilt and carried her into the cellar with the rest.

Jennie Wade was buried in the garden, with dough still clinging to her fingers. In her apron pocket were two items: a photograph of Jack Skelly (who died of wounds less than two weeks later), and the key to their house on Breckinridge Street. She would need them no longer.

Jennie’s body was later buried in the German Reformed Churchyard, and after the war, she was disinterred again and buried in Evergreen Cemetery. Jack Skelly, whose remains were returned to Gettysburg, is also buried nearby.

John Burns said of Jennie Wade, after her death, that she was “a she-Rebel” – likely because her father came from Virginia – and because the state was also her middle name. Her brave actions during all three days of the battle, however, and her generosity to the Union soldiers prove otherwise. 9

In visiting the three houses that Jennie inhabited during her short life, one notices that all three are humble. The clapboard house in which she was born is perhaps the most quaint. During the battle, the house was owned by retired farmer Peter Frey, and it appears that he and his wife, Catherine, occupied the house in 1863. After the deaths of the Freys, the home saw various owners, and by the turn of the century it fell into disrepair. 10

The fame brought to Jennie Wade by her untimely death saved the little house of her birth. In 1920 J.W. Johnston, a native of Rochester, New York who was interested in the legacy of Jennie Wade, came to Gettysburg and purchased the birthplace, as well as the house on Breckinridge Street. In 1901, the house where Jennie had died, owned by the Miller family, was converted into a museum. Johnston interviewed Georgia McClellan, who after the war had moved with her family to Iowa, and was able to document much of Jennie Wade’s brief existence. In 1922, with Georgia McClellan, Johnston saw that the house was dedicated and put on a local register of historic places. Today, the plaque remains. 11

In the ensuing years, the Jennie Wade birthplace had lost much of its fame. The McClellan house, where she had died, was still a museum and place for tours. After the death of J.W. Johnston, the clapboard house on Baltimore Street was soon forgotten.

In the early 1980s, a real estate agent and his wife, Randall and Martha Inskip, purchased the ramshackle house and spent time researching the edifice. Saving the home from destruction, the Inskips restored the house to what it had been like in the mid-19th century, leaving the addition from the 1870s as well. 12

While the Jennie Wade birthplace is far from grand, its significance remains, and it still commands notice from those who pass by on Baltimore Street. A girl, born in poverty, who lived and died within sight of the small house, personified in the summer of 1863 what was happening to sons and daughters of thousands of the American people, North and South.

Though the manner of her death is significant, it is important to remember the manner in which she lived her life. Hard-working, humble, and giving all she had – when she had so little herself – is the true legacy of the girl who was born in Gettysburg one hundred and seventy-four years ago this month, in the small gray house on one of Gettysburg’s most historic avenues.

Sources: The Gettysburg Compiler, Sep. 9, 1850. Copy, Adams County Historical Society (hereafter ACHS). The Peter Frey Farm File, Gettysburg National Military Park. “Iowa Women Honor Gettysburg Heroine”, The Philadelphia Ledger and Daily Transcript, 16 Sep. 1901. Copy, ACHS. Johnston, J.W. “The True Story of Jennie Wade”, published in 1917. Copy of manuscript in Wade File #1, ACHS. Letter from John Burns about Jennie Wade, Wade File #2, ACHS. Lewis K. McClellan Obituary, McClellan Family File, ACHS. Newton, Pat, “Inskips’ Attention has Jennie Wade’s Birthplace Shining Again”. The Gettysburg Times, Oct. 9, 1985. Small, Cindy. The Jennie Wade Story . Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1991.

End Notes:

1. Small, p. 9. The Gettysburg Times, Oct. 9, 1985.

2. Johnston, p. 3.

3. The Gettysburg Compiler, Sep. 9, 1850. Johnston, p. 3. Marriage Certificate, McClellan/Wade, Wade File #2, ACHS.

4. Wade Tax Records, 1853, Wade File #2, ACHS. Johnston, p. 3.

5. Philadelphia Public Ledger and Daily Transcript, 16 Sep. 1901. Johnston, p. 4.

6. Lewis K. McClellan Obituary, McClellan File, ACHS.

7. Johnston, p. 5.

8. Ibid.

9. Letter from John Burns, Wade File #2, ACHS. The letter is illegible as to the recipient and is photocopied.

10. Frey Farm File, GNMP.

11. Small, p. 70. Information also provided by birthplace plaque.

12. Gettysburg Times, Oct. 9, 1985.

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