Monday, December 24, 2012

Daniel Skelly: A Young Gettysburg Hero Part One

To tell the truth is very difficult, and young people are rarely capable of it.
                                                                                                       ― Leo Tolstoy

     What makes any memoir of value to a historian is its attention to detail, its objectivity, its descriptive qualities, and if the author is someone of historical importance, its interpretive analysis. What is remarkable about the memoirs by Daniel and Tillie are the details they remembered years later about what they witnessed, and their honesty. Each had a remarkable story to tell. Tillie would meet General Meade as she passed out water alongside the road. Much of her time over the three days of battle was spent at the Jacob Weikert farm helping the wounded. She also gave one of the most remarkable and accounts of the battle's aftermath--a catastrophe she described as "a strange and blighted land." 
     Daniel Skelly gave his own detailed account of the battle from his vantage point within the town of Gettysburg.  Daniel was an eighteen-year-old employee of the Fahnestock Brothers dry goods (clothing and supplies) company in Gettysburg. His brother, Johnston Hastings "Jack" Skelly, was a Union soldier—a corporal in the 87th Pennsylvania. Rumors of a coming invasion by a Confederate army were rife in the months preceding the battle. He wrote in his memoir years later:

Daniel Skelly in 1863

     The month of June, 1863, was an exciting one for the people of Gettysburg and vicinity. Rumors of the invasion of Pennsylvania by the Confederate army were rife and toward the latter part of the month there was the daily sight of people from along the border of Maryland passing through the town with horses and cattle, to places of safety. Most of the merchants of the town shipped their goods to Philadelphia for safety, as was their habit all through the war upon rumors of the Confederates crossing the Potomac.

     The 28th and 29th were exciting days in Gettysburg for we knew the Confederate army, or a part of it at least, was within a few miles of our town and at night we could see from the house-tops the campfires in the mountains eight miles west of us. We expected it to march into our town at any moment and we had no information as to the whereabouts of the Army of the Potomac. 

     The next day, Tuesday June 30, two brigades if Union cavalry arrived in Gettysburg--almost 3,000 troopers and six cannons under the command of Brigadier General John Buford. The citizens of Gettysburg rejoiced and welcomed the soldiers as heroes. Daniel watched them arrive through town along Chambersburg Street:

     Surely now we were safe and the Confederate army would never reach Gettysburg.… General Buford sat on his horse in the street in front of me, entirely alone, facing to the west in profound thought... It was the only time I ever saw the general and his calm demeanor and soldierly appearance... made a deep impression on me.

Tillie Pierce witnessed the arrival of the troopers with awe remembering years later:

     It was to me a novel and grand sight. I had never seen so many soldiers at one time. They were Union soldiers and that was enough for me, for I then knew we had protection, and I felt they were our dearest friends.

 Brigadier General John Buford

     Little did they know that two entire Confederate corps--50,000 men, were headed towards Gettysburg and would begin to arrive the following morning. General Buford knew their only chance was to delay the enemy long enough for the Union army to arrive in force before his two brigades were pushed aside. When one of his brigade commanders spoke confidently of whipping any rebels the next day, Buford said, “No, you won’t. They will attack you in the morning; and they will come ‘booming’—skirmishers three deep. You will have to fight like the devil to hold your own until supports arrive.” 

     Daniel knew none of this except that the next day he might get to see some real action. He made plans to be in a position to witness the big show....

To Be Continued....

Look for my new book on Gettysburg for teens this June from Sky Pony Press: Gettysburg: The True Account of Two Young Heroes in the Greatest Battle of the Civil War. It can be pre-ordered at Amazon, and Indiebound. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Tillie Pierce: A Young Gettysburg Hero Part One

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.
                                                                       --Mark Twain

     The 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg battle is next July. A year ago I decided that I wanted to write an account of the battle and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address for young readers. The question became, how could I find a way of approaching this epic event in a way that could captivate teens? How could I find a way of telling this story in a way that could interest young women as well as young men?

     Digging around the original accounts of the battle I quickly learned that two of the best civilian accounts were written by teenagers. Daniel Skelly was an 18 year-old store clerk with a young man's penchant for adventure. Tillie Pierce was an innocent 15 year-old student, the daughter of a well-to-do Gettysburg family. Each of them witnessed and participated in the events of those three tragic days in July 1863 that marked them forever. Decades later, each would pen those experiences in a short memoir.

     Daniel's family urged him to write his memories a few months before he passed away in 1932 in a self published volume: A Boy's Experiences During The Battle of Gettysburg. Tillie Pierce wrote her own memoir in 1889: At Gettysburg, or, What a Girl Saw and Heard of the Battle. A True Narrative.

     I realized between the two accounts there was the kernel of a joint narrative that would be ideal for retelling the Gettysburg story from their own voices.

                                                                  Tillie Pierce photographed in 1863 when she was fifteen.

Daniel Skelly photographed in 1863 when he was eighteen.

     One passage of Tillie's truly inspired me to writing their story. When the fighting on July 1 could be heard approaching Gettysburg, Tillie's neighbor, Mrs. Schriver, arrived and suggested she evacuate with her family to her father's farm a few miles outside of town along the Taneytown road.  No one could know that Jacob Weikert's farm, located at the foot of Little Round Top, would be a mere few hundred yards from some of the most savage fighting of the Civil War the next day.

                 The Jacob Weikert Farm as it looks today. Photo courtesy of The Gettysburg Daily.

She spent that afternoon passing out water to Union soldiers as they marched past the front of the house along the road. That night, she decided to explore what was happening as more of the wounded began to arrive. This passage is from Tillie's memoir:

     That evening Beckie Weikert, the daughter at home, and I went out to the barn to see what was transpiring there. Nothing before in my experience had ever paralleled the sight we then and there beheld. There were the groaning and crying, the struggling and dying, crowded side by side, while attendants sought to aid and relieve them as best they could.

     We were so overcome by the sad and awful spectacle that we hastened back to the house weeping bitterly.

     As we entered the basement or cellar-kitchen of the house, we found many nurses making beef tea for the wounded . . . a chaplain who was present in the kitchen stepped up to me while I was attending to some duty and said:

    “Little girl, do all you can for the poor soldiers and the Lord will reward you.”

     The first day had passed, and with the rest of the family, I retired, surrounded with strange and appalling events, and many new visions passing rapidly through my mind.

The Jacob Weikert Barn as it appears today. Photos courtesy of The Gettysburg Daily
     Thus began what must have been a terrible and quick journey for Tillie from the warm security of childhood to the stark realities adult responsibilities over the next few days. Telling of the grit this girl was made of, she wiped away her tears, and went back to help those men. Over the next two days she would see much worse.

     This was my inspiration to write a new book for teens. Nothing could make history more alive for readers that putting the experiences of Tillie and Daniel onto the page in their own words.  Their courage and determination, not to mention the honesty of their memoirs, are truly inspiring even 150 years later.

To Be Continued....

Look for my new book on Gettysburg for teens this June from Sky Pony Press: Gettysburg: The True Account of Two Young Heroes in the Greatest Battle of the Civil War. It can be pre-ordered at Amazon, and Indiebound.   

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The American Civil War: The Crossroads of Our Being

Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing.

                                  Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.--Memorial Day Speech, Keene, NH, 1884.

     I have started this journal to share some of the things that inspire me as a writer. For the last year or so I have been working on a new book for teens to mark the 150th anniversary of the battle at Gettysburg in July 2013. The project is entitled, Gettysburg: The True Account of Two Young Heroes in the Greatest Battle of the Civil War. Essentially it is the Gettysburg story as told by those who were there, but especially from the memoirs of two teenagers caught in the epic struggle--Tillie Pierce, the 15 year old daughter of a well-to-do family, and Daniel Skelly, an 18 year old country store clerk. Each witnessed great moments of the battle and participated in events that helped shape the course of history. More on them later...

     I thought it might be worth starting this journal by reflecting on why history is so important. The American Civil War is now an event 150 years in the past. Why should we care? Is the Gettysburg epic nothing  but a dusty story of an age long gone? What relevance does the study of history give us in our modern age? In regards to this new book, why should young people care about our shared past as Americans?

 The High Water Mark by Don Troiani

     Bruce Catton was a great Civil War historian who won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1954. As a young boy growing up in the small town of Benzonia, Michigan, he would sit on the front porch of his neighbor’s house and listen to the stories of Union veterans. Speaking in 1961 on the meaning of the Civil War, Catton noted, “It was the biggest single event in our national history. In a way it is the central theme of our existence as a people; it is our Iliad, our Odyssey , the one tremendous legend which expresses what we are and what we mean. We can no more ignore it than we can ignore the American Revolution itself. Here was our most significant and tragic experience.”

Bruce Catton

     If we are to understand ourselves as Americans and as a unified nation, we must have an understanding of the Civil War. Shelby Foote, an eminent historian from Mississippi, put it this way: “The Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became, good and bad things . . . It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads.”

Shelby Foote

     Gettysburg was one of the great turning points of American history. Certainly there were other battles and other turning points of equal importance that decided Union victory. Yet Gettysburg is the one battle Americans seem to remember the most. For the South, it was a supreme moment of honor, courage, and sacrifice for their cause of independence. For the North, it was another step toward what Lincoln called “a new birth of freedom.” And what ultimately emerged from the Civil War was a united country free of slavery. Today, looking back, we understand that the war between North and South is the American story and in every way worth knowing so that we might better understand ourselves and our country.

Look for my new book on Gettysburg for teens this June from Sky Pony Press: Gettysburg: The True Account of Two Young Heroes in the Greatest Battle of the Civil War. It can be pre-ordered at Amazon, and Indiebound.