“Spinning” Jennie

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. 

KMS

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/

[iii] Ibid.

[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

Book Reviews: How Fascism Works by Jason Stanley and On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

Stanley, James. How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. New York: Random House Publishing, 2018.

Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017.

When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labeled “made in Germany”; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, “Americanism…” The high-sounding phrase “the American way” will be used by interested groups intent on profit, to cover a multitude of sins against the American and Christian tradition, such sins as lawless violence, tear gas and shotguns, denial of civil liberties

Halford E. Luccock, “Keeping Life Out of Confusion,” September 11, 1938[1]

The past doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

Attributed to Mark Twain

History’s propensity to rhyme has always intrigued me; more recently it keeps me up at nights. You can ignore the individual warning signs only too long before they coalesce into a sustained feeling of dread. We can hope, as Martin Luther King, Jr. did, for the moral arc of the universe to bend towards justice, but more often human nature bends towards its baser instincts. Racism and prejudice is more prevalent than ever. In 2017, a politician used FDR’s policy of Japanese internment during WWII to justify a travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries. The quest to “Make America Great Again” is a policy of regression to eras when only white was right, women knew and were kept in their place, and anyone who didn’t fit the norm was criticized and ostracized.

Some historians see even more disturbing overtones in the current rhyme. In their recent books, Timothy Snyder and Jason Stanley sound a haunting alarm about the overwhelming similarities between current American domestic and foreign policies and those of fascist sites in the 1930s and 1940s.

 

Snyder and Stanley take different approaches to the topic, but each is effective, to the point, and as my Dad would say, scary as all get out. Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century reads as a handbook for resisting authoritarianism. “History does not repeat,” he writes, “but it does instruct.” (Snyder, 9).

Stanley, on the other hand, does not shrink from making pointed comparisons between Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, and Trump’s America. How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them is an indictment of the ways in which the President’s open nativism, racism, and sexism have opened the floodgates for others to openly express the same. Stanley does not place the blame for America’s woes solely on the President, however. He also indicts the whole of the President’s administration and Republican-majority Congress for aiding and abetting the presidential view of “Americanism.” Stanley’s narrative on the Republican response (or lack thereof) to the President’s boast to “grab ‘em by the p***y” should chill anyone who supports women’s rights to the bone.

Stanley’s and Snyder’s cogent use of historical evidence and documents makes their arguments even more persuasive. Stanley’s understanding of Mein Kampf probably rivals that of the author himself. Historians and layman readers who support the current Administration’s policies will no doubt say when you go looking for unicorns, you will undoubtedly find them. We still cannot afford to ignore the patterns Stanley and Snyder reveal. We cannot afford to ignore the ways in which our current rhyme fits nicely into the goose-stepped past. We cannot afford not to ask to what “American way” we are dedicated to returning: “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free,” or “I know nothing but my Country, my whole Country, and nothing but my Country.”

KMS

16 July 2018

Cartoon from University of California San Diego Library Digital Collections, https://library.ucsd.edu/dc/object/bb4164680v

[1] Halford E. Luccock, “Keeping Life Out of Confusion” The New York Times, 11 September 1938), 15.