Sarah Broadhead | Pennsylvania Civil War 150
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Pennsylvania Civil War 150

Pennsylvania Civil War 150


Sarah Broadhead

Some of the greatest acts of courage happened after the battle was over.

Sarah Broadhead was a resident of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in the summer 1863. On June 15, she began keeping a diary as rumors of the approaching Confederate army led to growing anxiety among the people of the area. Sarah's detailed chronicle provides insight into the battle and its aftermath that would have otherwise been lost to history. While fighting raged outside her Chambersburg Street home, the young mother, her husband Joseph and daughter Mary took cover in the cellar.

After the Federal victory, Sarah helped care for the wounded in a local hospital and in her home. Her account was deeply personal. She described feeling overwhelmed upon seeing so many injured, helpless and hungry in dirty hospital wards.

July 5: It is heart-sickening to think of these noble fellows sacrificing everything for us, and saving us, and it out of our power to render any assistance of consequence. I turned away and cried.

July 7: I procured a basin and water and went to a room where there were seven or eight, some shot in the arms, others in the legs, and one in his back, and another in the shoulder. I asked if any one would like to have his wounds dressed? Some one replied, "There is a man on the floor who cannot help himself, you would better see to him." Stooping over him, I asked for his wound, and he pointed to his leg. Such a horrible sight I had never seen and hope never to see again. His leg was all covered with worms. [maggots]

Repulsed by the suffering she saw around her, but compelled to try to help, Sarah continued her work in the hospital and noted a change in her own fortitude. Upon discovering that, "I had only seen the lighter cases, and worse horrors met my eyes on descending to the basement of the building.... Some weeks since I would have fainted had I seen as much blood as I have to-day, but I am proof now, only caring to relieve suffering."

The general condition of the town of Gettysburg remained dismal. Sarah described roads being strewn with dead horses and soldiers. The stench of death hung in the air, and she wrote on July 11, "The atmosphere is loaded with the horrid smell of decaying horses and the remains of slaughtered animals, and, it is said, from the bodies of men imperfectly buried. I fear we shall be visited with pestilence, for every breath we draw is made ugly by the stench."

The Broadheads took in three wounded soldiers from one of the overcrowded hospitals, and the family immediately began to regard them as "our men."

July 12: One of my patients grows worse and worse, and is gradually sinking to his long home. There has been some difficulty in securing proper medical attendance, the surgeons not liking to quit their hospitals and run from house to house, and our own physicians are overwhelmed with business.

July 13: The nurse has just informed me that our sickest man will die soon. It is sad; and even we, who have known him so short a time, will miss him.

The day after that entry, the three men were taken back to the hospital in spite of the family's protests. Sarah would conclude that, "A weight of care, which we took upon us for duty's sake, and which we had learned to like and would have gladly borne, until relieved by the complete recovery of our men, has been lifted off of our shoulders, and again we have our house to ourselves."

Sarah Broadhead had 200 copies of her diary printed for distribution to her family and friends who often inquired about her experiences during and after the battle. Having seen firsthand the accomplishments of the US Sanitary Commission in providing aid and supplies for the hospitals, she donated seventy-five copies of the diary to raise funds for the commission at the Great Central Fair, held in Philadelphia in June 1864.


Information for this section was contributed by Bob Hill.

Image Courtesy of Clair Lyons

Primary Sources
  • Sarah Broadhead, The Diary of a Lady of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, from June 15 to July 15, 1863, (Not Published).

Secondary Sources
  • Gerald R. Bennett, Days of "Uncertainty and Dread:" The Ordeal Endured by the Citizens at Gettysburg, Littlestown, PA: Gerald R. Bennett, 1994.

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