On the 4th of July, I’m looking back at the bloodiest battle in our nation’s history, the Battle of Gettysburg, with some thankfulness and awe. Many of us know about the Battle of Gettysburg from high school history lessons, but how many of us have heard of Emmitsburg, Maryland or understand the connection between Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton and the Battle of Gettysburg?
My boys and I spend time each year camping, and with each trip, we try to incorporate some sort of faith-based experience. Not too long ago, we traveled to Gettysburg and stopped at the Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. I’m not sure what I’d expected, but it wasn’t the sweet woman who gave us a little history of the place and its connection to the Civil War.
The Battle of Gettysburg
The Battle of Gettysburg was held in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and is often noted as the deciding battle of the Civil War. Over three blistering hot days, July 1st through the 3rd, an estimated 164,000 men met and fought through horrific scenes. Casualties from those three days still top America’s list for most lost (See Chart Below). Had the South’s “Army of Northern Virginia” under the leadership of Confederate General Robert E. Lee defeated the North’s “Army of the Potomac” under the leadership of Union General George Gordon Meade, the United States today might look very different.
What the history lessons cannot describe is the pain involved in Gettysburg. Combat during that era was up close and personal. Men looked their opponents in the eyes, trying not to picture their families, wives, children, parents. Some were quite young, no more than boys really, certainly not old enough to hold a chilled beer at one of our Fourth of July barbecues 151 years later.
What we can’t understand is the anxiety that came from running through narrow streets searching for the enemy in the alley just ahead nor can we understand the terror of civilians cowering in homes hushing infants and young children, peeking out of shuttered windows as footsteps pound past. We can’t understand are the sights and smells of thousands of dying men of bodies littering the streets, their blood fertilizing our farmlands.
We cannot know what it was like to lay in those fields, hurting, scared, thirsty, hoping someone would come by. We cannot know what it was like to be a Gettysburg citizen, a mother, a child afraid to leave home, knowing that to walk outside her door meant walking into fields stained with blood where the dying reached hands out to you, begging for comfort no human could give. We cannot imagine the strength and despair those citizens experienced as they opened their doors and turned their private homes and businesses and public buildings into makeshift hospitals for the next year and a half.
We cannot imagine on July 4th, 1863, the downpour that soaked the fields, the half dead men, and those fighting back nausea, fear, and overwhelming sadness as they searched to aid the wounded while the Heavens opened up. Could the rain have been God crying down?
And yet, it could have been worse.
The Battle of Emmitsburg, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, & The Sisters of Charity
Two weeks before the Battle of Gettysburg, Emmitsburg, Maryland saw its first taste of battle begun with a nighttime fire that raged for over 8 hours destroying the town’s center and at least 50 homes. Church bells called neighbors, but, fearing rebel forces, those neighbors refused to come. Emmitsburg, already devastated by “The Great Fire,” would be further abused by both northern and southern troops demanding food and supplies.
But there was a bright spot in Emmitsburg.
Catholic convert and single mother of five children, Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton had lived in Emmitsburg and founded of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph in what she called Saint Joseph’s Valley. Although Mother Seton died in 1821 at only 46, she had a lasting impact on America and especially on the Gettysburg region.
A few years prior to the Civil War, the Catholic population in America more than doubled. The Sisters of Charity, adopting the values of the Saint Vincent DePaul society, was founded in part to promote Catholic education and assistance to the impoverished, especially widows and orphans, and it wasn’t long before Bishops from around the country were pleading with the Sisters to set up shop in their regions. Fortunately, the founding branch and the care facilities set up just 11 miles from Gettysburg, remained.
Rumors of the upcoming battle showed both sides intended to meet at Emmitsburg, and it seemed as though the small city and its surrounding population, including the Sisters of Charity, would be devastated; however, the Sisters refused to give up hope. They prayed unceasingly for a miracle, and as they prayed, it came to be!
The Battle of Gettysburg was a tragedy of epic proportions, and it is impossible to underestimate the resulting terror and loss, but many historians agree that those losses would have been significantly, unimaginably greater had the battle been held in Emmitsburg. Not only would the initial loss have been greater, but the number of those saved thanks to the Sisters of Charity, more than 200 of whom assisted in gathering of and caring for the wounded on both sides, would have been far greater.
Those knowing the Battle of Gettysburg and the work of Elizabeth Ann Seton’s Sisters of Charity attribute the moving of the Battle to Divine Providence. Although we often see tragedy caused by man and his God-given free will to cause harm, we often overlook the miracles that God still provides in the midst of tragedy. It is easy to look at Gettysburg and be angry with the God who could have prevented it without realizing the prayers He did answer.
The Battle of Gettysburg, as great a tragic and devastating loss as it was, does appear to be a true American Miracle.
To Learn More of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, Emmitsburg or The Battle of Gettysburg…
Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, please click here.
Shrine of Elizabeth Ann Seton please click here.
Elizabeth Ann Seton’s Sisters of Charity, please click here.
Daughters of Charity, please click here.
The Battle of Emmitsburg, please click here.
Emmitsburg and the Civil War, please click here.
Battle of Gettysburg, please click here.
History and Culture of Battle of Gettysburg, please click here.