Poor, Poor Jennie Wade
Jennie Wade is arguably the most famous civilian to appear in the Battle of Gettysburg narrative. She owes this distinction not for any great display of courage or heroics in the face of the enemy, but rather...for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as it were, and getting shot.
Now as sad as that is, that is really the long and short of it: Jennie Wade was the only civilian killed in the Battle of Gettysburg - accidentally shot in the back while preparing bread in the small kitchen of a her family's duplex, by a stray bullet. I don't want to dismiss Ms. Wade - that would not be particularly kind. After all, she was a human being - with plans, hopes, desires - all of those things that make one distinctly human. And to their credit the staff at the Jennie Wade House (and museum) reminds visitors of her humanity...and the tragic loss of life.
But time has a way of turning a tragedy into a really popular tourist destination. And in the 150+ years since the battle transpired, the legendary story of Ms. Wade has evolved into a quintessential example illustrating the intersection of history and consumerism. Blood on the floorboards and even a dead Jennie Wade in the basement caters to the macabre and frequently produce the ooohs and ahhhs from cringing visitors. Stories of lost love, layers of historical connections to soldiers who fought in and around the area, and a few documents posted here and there throughout the house add to the historical context and authenticity of the Wade house and Jennie's story.
But wait, there's more. And in order for the place to effectively function as a proper touristy spot, there really needs to be. The historic landmark comes complete with a all-in-good-fun (and problematic in terms of gender assumptions...but that's a story for another day) ring finger myth. Apparently, if a young woman desires a husband (as all young women should, I suppose...), then all she need do is insert her ring finger through the fateful Wade-killing bullet hole in the door and voilà, a suitor will soon appear and pop "the" question.
There's even a grassy knoll-esque magic projectile story to add to the house's legendary status. As the story goes, an artillery round crashed through the house at some point during the battle and some how managed to make several mysterious sharp turns through - and leave a mark in - most every upstairs room before coming to rest without exploding. They've got the round and some wall damage to prove it. Wow. Fascinating...but inexplicable, and of course unlikely.
I've been enthralled by the Jennie Wade story since I first started going to Gettysburg in 2001. And my students today seem just as taken - not as much with the history, but more with how those who run the museum market the story...making it quite sensational, when really - it isn't. All said and done the real story here is about a girl who was accidentally killed in the kitchen when there was a huge battle going on in the front (and back) yard. The rest of the stuff just supplements the story of a young woman's unfortunate death.
As far as museums go, The Jennie Wade House has some stiff competition including numerous small privately owned sites around town and of course, the Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor Center. I would say, that as a stated "museum," the Jennie Wade House somewhat enhances history for the sake of a compelling story. Of course, I cannot fault the House for doing what it does to draw in the tourists...as tourism is the focus of the Gettysburg economy. In fact, the guides there are quite charming and they enthusiastically engage with the most inquisitive students.
Thus, I am perfectly fine with how the Jennie Wade House presents the story, but only because I take my students there with the understanding that the consumer culture is alive and well in Gettysburg, and that they should have that in mind as we tour this or any museum in town. Our study of the town is framed around the intricate connections between consumption and history.. Really...it's hard to miss in southern Pennsylvania.
Finally, a visit to the Wade house is less of an experience in historical edification and more an experience in consumer culture. Which to me is a perfectly reasonable way to take in part of what Gettysburg has to offer. And so I highly recommend a visit.
With compliments, and please exit through the gift shop.