Photo: The Common School on High Street was one of the many buildings that became field hospitals during the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863.
Many of the things that happen in Walk by Faith occurred over three days during the battle of Gettysburg. Numerous homes were used as hospitals, soldiers asked for or took outright food supplies from the populace, unoccupied houses often were ransacked but occupied homes usually were not, and Confederate troops generally were courteous to the town folk, even though they did tear down fences to create barricades and to create space for troop movements.
Stories of people trying to live with such chaos had an influence on some of the scenes in the novel. For instance, Gettysburg resident Lem Snyder hid his cow in the parlor (Slade and Alexander, 18), and Maggie and her family do it in Walk by Faith.
Lizzie Beard Plant of Gettysburg wrote that she remembered a doctor by the name of Dr. John Bodly of Georgia. The doctor seemed rather feminine and her family called him the “woman doctor.” Years later, Plant read a news story about a woman living in New England who had served as a doctor in Gettysburg (Slade and Alexander, 108). This story gave birth to the idea of Lydia wearing trousers while doing surgery.
Finally, during the battle curiosity could to unintended consequences, as in the case of Henry Garlach who went to Cemetery Hill to watch the opening salvos of the battle and found himself cut off from his family for its duration (Slade and Alexander, 64). I used this story as the foundation for Frankie’s adventures east of the town.
Now, imagine this: a town of about 2,400 suddenly is occupied by around twice as many soldiers (the total number of Confederate soldiers involved in the battle was 75,000 but they were dispersed throughout the general area and all were not in the town).
In those days, soldiers did not come with M.R.E.’s (Meals Ready to Eat). They had to depend on the people and the land around them for sustenance. Thus, Gettysburg’s food supplies quickly ran out. This in turned created a crisis immediately after the battle that lasted throughout the winter for the people of Gettysburg. Many household gardens had been ravaged by Confederate and Union soldiers, and families could not can the things they normally would have picked from their garden – things that would have sustained them through the long winter months. Outside assistance did arrive within a few days of the battle’s end, but over the long run the people were left to recover on their own. As a result, Gettysburg did not bounce back to its pre-battle prosperity.
While I am at it, the stench mentioned in Chapters 9 and 10 refers to the smell of all those decomposing bodies, both human and equine. Gerald R. Bennett suggests that more than likely something else helped contribute to the stench: human feces. It is altogether possible that with so many people occupying such a place the privies would overflow (Bennett, 62). Logic dictates that soldiers and citizens may have turned to using any convenient location to relieve themselves.
Historians focus a great deal on the battle between Union and Confederate forces, but we do not often hear about what happened to the people living in the town. Life in Gettysburg was part of what went into Walk by Faith, because I believe the battles and politics and big historical movements are, at their essence, the story of individual people.
Bennett, Gerald R. Days of “Uncertainty and Dread”: the Ordeal Endured by the Citizens at Gettysburg. Gettysburg, PA: the Gettysburg Foundation, 1994.
Slade, Jim and John Alexander. Firestorm at Gettysburg: Civilian Voices, June-November 1863. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1998.