A Confederate battlefield nurse drips water from a sponge onto the face of a wounded infantry soldier on the battlefield during a the Gettysburg
A Confederate battlefield nurse drips water from a sponge onto the face of a wounded infantry soldier on the battlefield during a the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee re-enactment on Thursday, July 4, 2013 in Gettysburg, Pa. (Jeff Lautenberger/The Evening Sun)

GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- The moans of dying and wounded men called to Elizabeth “Sallie' Salome Myers from inside the walls of St. Francis Xavier Church.

The 21-year-old schoolteacher who lived nearby on West High Street couldn't stand the sight of blood, but she went anyway.

Dozens of injured men lay on the pews and across the floor. The putrid smell of death and human excrement filled the air.

Myers went to a man by the door and asked what she could do to ease his suffering.

Sgt. Alexander Stewart of the 149th Pennsylvania Volunteers returned her gaze with mournful eyes. “Nothing,' he said. “I am going to die.'

Such stories were repeated time and again across the ravaged fields of south central Pennsylvania. Official estimates say 7,058 dead men and one woman “in rebel uniform' lay strewn across 25 square miles, writes Gregory Coco, author of the haunting “A Strange and Blighted land,' on the aftermath of battle. About 20,000 wounded were packed into every available building and grove of trees as the town of 2,400 struggled to cope, recover and rebuild.

Angels of mercy

At the center were the women who cared for the wounded and dying as the war went on and the fighting men marched away. Their stories always have been there -- sewn into the fabric of history in the homes, streets and field hospitals of Gettysburg. But only now, 150 years after the great battle, are their stories being shared with a wider audience.


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“The people who wrote about the war were men, the veterans, the historians,' explained author Gerald Bennett. “Since, it was a male experience, the war, the fighting, the pulling of triggers, and so very few women got involved ... that portion was never included.'

It was only this year that the Women Behind The Walls project, which highlights the role of about 100 of Gettysburg's women, started to come together. Placards now hang in the windows of dozens of Gettysburg homes detailing their stories.

The new attention on women might have something to do with people's interests, said Gettysburg National Military Park Ranger Caitlin Kostic.

“The study of history is always going to reflect the trends of society,' she said.

Unlike Sallie Myers, Gayle Ray was a nurse before she came to Gettysburg.

A volunteer with the Gettysburg Foundation, which partners with the park to interpret the battlefield, she began to explore history when her husband's job brought them from Littleton, Colo., to Parkesburg, Pa., in 2009.

The two-hour drive to Gettysburg wasn't far enough to keep her away. She went back to school and earned a degree in history. Now, she volunteers at the John Rupp house on Baltimore Street in Gettysburg, and she is working to pass the licensed battlefield guide test.

Of all she's learned, the stories of the Gettysburg women resonate the most.

“How frightened she might have been to be faced with these horrific sights, the blood, the gore, the amputated limbs,' Ray said of Myers. “And yet she didn't run screaming out of the building. I so admire that kind of courage.'

She also thinks of her distant ancestor, Adeline Bliss, who fled their 60-acre farm just south of Gettysburg with her husband, William, and their two daughters. The home and property sat on a ridge between the Union and Confederate lines. Both sides wanted control of the farmstead, and they fought over it until the 14th Connecticut Infantry finally burned the farm to the ground.

“The woman's sphere was in the home. Her entire world was gone,' Ray said. “They came back to utter devastation. (The women's) courage is completely different from those faced by soldiers; it's having to do what you can with little.'

William Bliss filed a claim for more than $2,500 in damages, the cost of the house, barn, their animals, clothing and other property. He wasn't compensated, and the family was forced to sell the farm at a loss and return to their native New York.

Family traditions

At least 160 field hospitals sprang up around Gettysburg during and after the battle, said Cindy L. Small, director of marketing and communications for the Gettysburg Foundation. Churches, houses and even groves of trees became makeshift medical centers.

Surgeons had learned a lot in two years of war and when the fighting reached Gettysburg, they were adept at extracting bullets and amputating limbs. They were learning that cleanliness was important.

But modern medicine was in its infancy.

“Antiseptics weren't (used) until after the war,' said Charles Teague, a Gettysburg National Military Park ranger. There was terrible cross-contamination by doctors and surgeons working on the thousands of injured.

In recent years, those hospitals have been getting renewed attention and interpretation by the park's Civil War experts.

The George Spangler Farm behind Union lines west of the Baltimore Pike was opened to the public just in time for the 150th anniversary. Seven to nine surgeons cared for about 2,000 men there, Teague said.

Among them was Confederate Gen. Lewis Armistead, who famously led the last Rebel attack at Gettysburg with his hat on the end of his sword.

But now, battlefield visitors can not only see the summer kitchen where Armistead died, they can learn about the Spangler family -- George, his wife and their four children -- who gave up all but one room of their home when the soldiers and surgeons arrived.

The story goes on for generations, as the Spanglers and other families rebuilt their lives.

But the scars of war would always be part of their stories.

Weeks after Sallie Myers held Sgt. Stewart's hand in that church during the battle, she received a letter from his brother, the Rev. Henry Stewart. The two met, fell in love and married.

But in the fall of 1868, he too died of wounds he'd received in the war.

Sallie gave birth to their only child, Henry Alexander Stewart, months later.

Henry would carry on the family tradition, becoming a physician and a founder of Gettysburg's Annie Warner Hospital.

And he would help establish the Adams County Historical Society, which still carries on Gettysburg's historical tradition today.

Evening Sun editor Marc Charisse and reporter Lillian Reed contributed to this story.