― Ernest Hemingway
People are always moved by the courage of everyday people doing a heroic act to help someone. A few years ago, a 50-year-old construction worker named Wesley Autrey became a New York hero when he rescued a man who had fallen onto the subway tracks. With total disregard for his own safety he leaped into the path of an onrushing train to save a complete stranger. He later told the New York Times, "I don’t feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help. I did what I felt was right.”
That is raw courage, to put oneself in harm's way to save the life of another person.
But there is another kind of courage--the courage to face down one's own fears. Some of us fear the dark, or fire, while others cringe at the even the suggestion of a spider. If we had to face one of our own greatest fears in order to help someone, would we all have the same courage to do what is right in the event of an emergency?
Elizabeth Salome Meyers was just like most of us. She was from a well-to-do family that lived in Gettysburg in 1863. Just 21 years old, she was a devoted school teacher. "Sallie" had never been witness to much suffering in life. She was terrified by the sight of blood. Yet she would take part in the battle of Gettysburg and overcome her fears to do whatever was required to assist the wounded. Gettysburg would become the defining moment of her entire life, and she would devote all her remaining years to the study and practice of nursing.
When the Confederates moved to occupy Gettysburg on the morning of July 1, they were opposed by two brigades of Union cavalry. The Federals were soon reinforced by an entire corps of 20,000 men. By mid afternoon both armies were locked in a savage fight for control of the lands just outside town. When the Union army began to fall back through Gettysburg, the people realized their streets would soon become the next battlefield. Trapped between two massive armies, the townspeople took shelter in their cellars and prayed.
Elizabeth Salome "Sallie" Myers
While our elders prepared food, we girls stood on the corner near our house and gave refreshments of all kinds to ‘our boys’ of the First Corps, who were double-quicking down Washington Street to join the troops already engaged in battle west of the town. After the men had all passed, we sat on our doorsteps or stood around in groups, frightened nearly out of our wits but never dreaming of defeat.
"Water for the Marching Troops", from Clifton Johnson's Battlefield Adventures, 1915.
Then came the order: ‘Women and children to the cellars; the rebels will shell the town.’ We lost little time in obeying the order. My home was on West High Street, near Washington (Street) and in the direct path of the retreat (of the Union Army).
We knelt, shivering, and prayed. The noise above our heads and from the distance, the rattle of musketry, the screeching of shells, and the unearthly cries, mingled with the sobbing of the children shook our hearts. Three soldiers crept down into the cellar, and we concealed and fed them.
After the Rebels had gained full possession of the town, some of our men who had been captured were standing near the cellar window. One of them asked if some of us would take their addresses and the addresses of friends and write to them of their capture. I took thirteen and wrote as they requested. I received answers from all but one, and several of the soldiers revisited the place of their capture and recognized the house and cellar window. While the battle lasted we concealed and fed three men in our cellar.
... 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, BN.com and Indiebound.