Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

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Tillie Pierce: Eyewitness to the Battle of Gettysburg

CW150Pierce[1]Recently a writer asked me how I kept from going off on a tangent when I’m researching a subject. It may sound like an odd question, but it made perfectly good sense to me. I’ve been in that situation many times. It happens when I’m researching for a current project and I run across information about an entirely different, but interesting, subject. If I’m not careful, I’m soon off researching that other topic. It’s certainly not a good use of my time, especially when I’m working on a deadline as I usually am.

The way I avoid going off on a tangent is to put notes about the topic that’s tempting me into an “ideas” file. That way, when I’m ready to start a new project, I have a file of possibilities. Of course, sometimes in spite of my best efforts, I go off on one of those research tangents. Some stories are too hard to resist. That was the case with Tillie Pierce.

I discovered her when I was researching the Civil War, particularly the Battle of Gettysburg. Tillie grew up in Gettysburg. She was 15 years old in 1863 when she became an eyewitness to the famous battle fought there.

For weeks, all the news in town had been about the approach of the Rebels. On June 26, the reports became reality. Tillie was in school when she heard shouting in the street. “The Rebels are coming!” the voices called. She later wrote about the terror of that day. “Rushing to the door, and standing on the front portico we beheld in the direction of the Theological Seminary, a dark, dense mass, moving toward town. Our teacher, Mrs. Eyster, at once said: ‘Children, run home as quickly as you can.’”

The teacher did not need to repeat herself. The whole class scattered, racing for their homes. Tillie had just reached her front door when she turned and saw men on horseback riding down the street. She ran inside and slammed the door behind her. Then she peeked through the shutters in the family’s sitting room to watch as the Rebel soldiers filled the town. “What they would do with us was a fearful question to my young mind,” Tillie recalled.

There was relief among the people of the town when Union soldiers began to arrive on June 30. That was short-lived as the battle between the Rebel and Union soldiers began on July 1. Tillie witnessed the first day’s battle from her home. Before the day was over, Tillie’s parents decided that she should travel with a neighbor to the Jacob Weikert farm about three miles south. The intention was to get Tillie out of danger. As it turned out, she was traveling towards danger and the heart of the next day’s battle.

For a brief time, I thought I would like to write about Tillie. I gave up on that idea because I knew I would never be able to tell her story better than she did. Twenty-five years after the Battle of Gettysburg, Tillie wrote about her experiences in a book titled At Gettysburg or What a Girl Saw and Heard of the Battle. Thanks to the digital library at the University of Pennsylvania, I was able to find a copy of her book. It’s a short book, less than 30 pages, but it’s a fascinating read.

Both the barn and house on the Weikert farm quickly filled with wounded soldiers, and Tillie went to work helping to tend to them. She got a first-hand look at the horrors of war and she describes them in detail in the book. However, that is only part of the story she tells. She also includes anecdotal information about particular soldiers and generals she met. Details about life in Gettysburg before the war and again years after the war when she was writing her book serve as bookends to her story. The book is good reading for anyone with even a passing interest in the Civil War. For me, it was a tangent I was happy to follow.

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