This summer, living in Gettysburg, I walk past a wayside marker just about every day.

That in itself isn’t particularly unusual — like many historic downtowns, you could while away hours reading the signs. Nor is the delightful prospect of walking just about everywhere — not only am I being ever so green, I get the added benefit of saving people from the certain homicidal rages engendered while waiting for me to parallel park in a tourist area — not a pretty prospect!

The marker in question reads, “Mary Virginia Wade — Heroine of the Battle of Gettysburg was born in this house on May 21, 1843.” So, do you know Jennie Wade? If you’ve been in Gettysburg longer than 36 minutes, you’ve probably heard some variation of her story. If you haven’t — the quick synopsis is that on the last day of the battle (7/3/1863), she was at her sister’s house baking bread when a bullet went through two doors, through her corset and killed her instantly. Thus she became the only civilian casualty of greatest battle ever fought on American soil.*see note below

Tragic, yes…. Bad luck, yes…. Heroic, hmmmmm, really? Does being in the wrong place at the wrong time truly make one a hero? Did it mean anything?

Of course it did — but maybe not in the sense that I’ve come to understand heroism. The fact that, even today, she’s a mythologized figure within the story of the battle argues for a greater meaning. For the sake of discussion, I’ll make the case that she serves as a conduit into the stories of the 2400 citizens who were living in Gettysburg at the time. And by extension, she becomes — as the histories of the war come to the created — a symbol of the homefront, innocent victims of tumultuous carnage.

For me, on the other hand, she’s become a symbol of martial restraint. I find it quite astonishing in our era of “collateral damage,” where hundreds and thousands are routinely killed and/or displaced by war, that there aren’t far more civilians dead as the result of three days of heavy fighting within the relatively confined areas of Gettysburg.

Still there’s the dilemma… does symbol = hero? And passive symbol to be defined and re-defined by history at that.

That settles it in my mind — I want my heroes, women and men to do and not just be.

Reaching out, accomplishing, striving and passionately living to the highest aspirations and ideals they’ve set. And it’s neither a matter of fame, nor success that defines the hero: it’s the commitment, the 100% throwing yourself smack into the whole sticky, gorgeous spectacular panorama of life. As Ms. Frizzle (Lily Tomlin) on the kid’s show, The Magic School Bus used to tell her class, “Take chances! Make mistakes! Get messy!”

Think a little today to some heroes of modern exploration — the astronauts. Celebrate Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins who, 40 years ago today, blasted off in a tin can, inventing the computer age. And they gave us Tang™. While you’re at it — give a shout out for all the women in the American space program from the beginning, culminating in Sally Ride’s 1983 Challenger flight (although Valentina Tereshkova of the USSR orbited the earth 20 years earlier, in 1963 — just after Gagarin and Glenn). Check out two really excellent reads that both came out during the summer of 2004: Promised the Moon: The Untold Story of the First Women in the Space Race (Stephanie Nolen) and The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight (Martha Ackmann).

*note* I actually heard a speaker call it that — and I do understand his point. In many ways Gettysburg redefined the United States and its subsequent history. However, I would argue that a few battles in Mexico in the 1500s and one fought on the plains of Abraham in Canada created an “Americas” ethos without which the rest of the story is speculation…

heroic music: H Bobby T (the Willys — a local Hanover, PA band; awesome sound); More than Ordinary (Kasey Chambers); St. Augustine in Hell (Sting — amazing bridge); Jim Bridger (good hero story song from Johnny Horton); Prove Your Self (Joan Armatrading — her voice is like velvet stretched over rocks); Pass the Buddha (Blame Sally); Hercules (Aaron Neville); Oscar Wilde (Company of Thieves); I’ve Seen all Good People (Yes); John Henry (pick your version — has anyone seen his statue in Charleston, WV?) I Idolize You (Lizz Wright); False from True (Guy Davis); I thought that’s What you Liked About Me (Georgie Fame — such a great “rocket boy” song); The Next Messiah (Jenny Lewis); Wonderful (from Wicked); Are you Ready for the Big Show (Radney Foster); Kings and Queens (Luna Halo); Pot Kettle Black (Tilly & the Wall — this one just has that percussion hook); I Wanna Talk About Me (Toby Keith — definitely not my favorite performer, but this song just captures a certain dynamic); Johnny Hart (heroic bad boy — and John Mellencamp just rocks it); Time Loves a Hero (check out the version where Jimmy Buffet joins Little Feat — too cool!); The Lees of Old Virginia (from 1776); Big Wheel (Tori Amos — rollicking); Working Class Hero (John Lennon); When the World is Running Down (the Police); Listen to What the Man Said (Paul McCartney & Wings — or don’t ) and Sisters are Doing it For Themselves (Eurythmics & Aretha Franklin — speaking of kick-butt women 🙂 )

A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer –> Ralph Waldo Emerson

Take care,

3 thoughts on “History & Heroes

  1. Interesting post but you neglected to mention the truly heroic women of Gettysburg of whom Mary A. Brady was a prime example.

    Mary A. Brady, a forty-year-old mother of five, was typical of the women at Gettysburg. When having worn herself out tending and feeding the wounded, she died a few months later she was given a military funeral with full honors and escorted to her grave by the widows of men who had fallen in the battle.

    [excerpt from Afterword in “Fixin’ Things, a novel of women at Gettysburg”]

  2. Good note Peggy and you’re making my point — while I really have nothing against “Jennie mania” — she is a passive vessel for all this public adoration.

    Women like your Mary, the nuns of Emmitsburg, and the countless women not struck down by musket balls who labored and cared for the thousands of wounded that swamped the little town in the wake of the battle — they were actively engaged, living breathing heroes.

    Thanks for commenting.

    Take care,

  3. One person’s “hero” is another person’s “historical figure”. I halfheartedly disagree with you on Mary Virginia Wade’s eligibility to be listed as a “hero”– she was assisting Union soldiers by actively providing food and water. While other families in the area charged for bread, the Wades did not. Granted, while Ms. Wade is not my ideal “hero”, she may be heroine to others for her (passive) compassion both for the Union soldiers and also her older sister. Heroes are of different variety and infinite number and I’m sure the definition of Hero varies person-to-person.

    I do agree on the point that Ms. Wade’s status as sole civilian casualty in the 3-day battle helped contribute to her status as heroine….

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