This is a story about patriotism, war, slut-shaming, and dough.
Lots of dough.
On July 3, 1863, Mary Virginia Wade was shot while kneading dough in her kitchen. She was the only “direct” civilian casualty of the Battle of Gettysburg, a stray bullet entering her shoulder, piercing her heart, and lodging in her corset.
Gennie lost her life first, her name directly after. “Gennie” became “Jennie” as newspapers rushed to get the story into print. Any sympathy for Wade’s death was fleeting. Within weeks her “heroism” came under fire from members of her own community, with one individual telling the newspaper “her sympathies were not as much for the Union as they should have been.”[i] It didn’t take long for rumors of “late night visitors” to circle. A bullet destroyed her body, but gossip killed her reputation.
In what is one of the odder details of the story, what Gennie actually had her hands in, not what she was suspected of having her hands in, was critical to settling her legacy. On July 4, Wade’s mother made 15 loaves of bread for Union soldiers using the dough her daughter had kneaded. Kneading dough- the evidence of Gennie’s “service to the Union cause” resulted in a government pension for her mother.
It took over 30 years for Gettysburg to come to terms with its famous casualty. The Gennie Wade memorial was erected in 1900. An American flag flies perpetually over her statue, one of two women awarded this distinction (The other is Betsy Ross.) The restored Wade house is now a museum that also offers ghost tours. “You never know what might later show up in your photographs,” touts one website. “Many who have done so have come to find inexplicable paranormal objects, possibly the disembodied spirit of Jennie Wade.”[ii] Wade’s tragedy is also a potential cure for the fiancée-deprived, quoting “local lore” that after putting your finger in one of the bullet holes in the door, “you will become engaged not long after.”[iii]
The tour guides aren’t sure how to answer questions about Wade’s manufactured reputation as a prostitute and Confederate-sympathizer. Disembodied spirits- not disembodied “prostitutes”- are not as easy to market in brochures.
Marble martyrs of men who fought for and against the United States dot the landscape of Gettysburg, their bravery and devotion unquestioned. Rumor still haunts Mary Virginia Wade. She is a curiosity, a commodity- she sells ghost tours and t-shirts. Spinning Gennie’s legacy for one cause or another continues to be an extremely profitable endeavor.
Following the Civil War, “the dead became what their survivors chose to make them,” wrote historian Drew Gilpin Faust.[iv] The commoditization of Gennie Wade is a good example of the malleability of history. It also proves the United States still doesn’t know how to process the Civil War. Statues, emblems, and flags come to represent a history made and remade on a whim. A stray bullet transforms a woman into a corpse; history turns that woman into a martyr, then a harlot, then a treasured patriot.
How we choose to spin the past reveals more truth about the living than it ever does the dead.
January 26, 2021
[i] Margaret S; Creighton, The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History. (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 195.
[ii] “The Jennie Wade House,” Civil War Ghosts.com, Accessed July 18, 2020, https://civilwarghosts.com/the-jennie-wade-house/
[iv] Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 269.
Image taken from American Battlefield Trust: https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/mary-virginia-jennie-wade