Congratulations to Jess Smith for winning first place for creative nonfiction in the 2020 WNBA Writing Contest!
You can read the winning entry, “In Gettysburg,” below.
Mary Virginia Wade, known as Ginnie or Jennie, was the only civilian casualty of the Battle of Gettysburg. Ginnie was also, by all official records, the only woman to die during the battle, though an unknown number of women disguised themselves as men in order to fight. Many enslaved people, brought along by Confederate soldiers, were also killed, so “civilian” is already a useless distinction.
Ginnie’s sister, Georgia, gave birth just hours (by some accounts, exactly one hour) before fighting began. Ginnie, her mother, and brothers had come from their homes to tend to Georgia and her newborn. Union soldiers were posted upstairs in the house, as was common during battle, while the family took shelter in the cellar. I picture Ginnie in the low-ceilinged darkness, caring for an hours-old-newborn, trying to curtail her sister’s bleeding, young brothers looking away as Georgia breastfed.
During the morning of July 3, the final day of fighting, Gettysburg historian Allen C. Guelzo writes that Ginnie “incautiously left the cellar of her sister’s house . . . to bake bread in the kitchen.” I hover over Guelzo’s choice of the adverb incautiously. Ginnie may have had any number of reasons to ascend the stairs. What if her sister was famished, depleted from having just given birth? What if Ginnie’s mother begged for her daughter’s help? What if 20-year-old Ginnie had become infatuated with one of the Union soldiers occupying the upstairs? How could she know the fighting would end that day?
Whatever her reasons, as she prepared the dough, a stray bullet tore into the house, piercing her shoulder blade and tearing through her heart, ultimately lodging in her corset. Before the bullet reached Ginnie, it had already blasted through two doors. From the cellar, her family would have heard her body fall.
All told, there is evidence that 150 bullets hit Georgia’s home. The house is now a museum dedicated to Ginnie’s memory. The house, with “minor changes and repairs,” is much as it was a century-and-a-half ago. Visitors can see, among other Civil War-era artifacts, a floorboard still stained with Ginnie’s blood.
We had thought living in Gettysburg would be our fresh start, but really it was our death rattle. We agreed it would be special for you — a veteran yourself, living and teaching in one of the most significant military towns in the United States. When I told people we were moving to Gettysburg, many said haunted, so haunted. I didn’t believe in ghosts, and I didn’t have much respect for people who did. I was not, for much of my life, very compassionate about any unprovable belief. I found most expressions of faith obscene.
From the back of the house we rented, we could see part of the battlefield. I hadn’t realized we’d be living so close. In Gettysburg, the battlefield is close to everything.
What surprised me most, at first, was its magnitude. I had naively pictured a football field, maybe two, but the land rolls toward and away from you, more like a body of water than land. Shoreline is made up of split-rail fences or short stone walls, bronze monuments in the distance like buoys. In June, when we arrived, the grass seemed to be the original green, jewel-deep and totally uniform, shaded only by my imaginings of what it looked like laden with corpses.
The landlord, Charlene, was waiting for us on the porch. She was in her 50s with stiff but not unflattering shoulder-length hair, dressed tidily in khaki shorts and a lime green top, smiling. She and her husband had lived in Gettysburg for decades.
Just a few months before, you found out Gettysburg College hired you to teach. We chose the house, sight-unseen, from California. It was a pleasantly weathered white clapboard. You said we’d be better in Gettysburg, that it would be our home in a way California never had been.
Charlene prattled on about the square footage as she led us through a narrow hallway into the vast kitchen at the back of the house. The second bedroom was situated off the kitchen. It was darker than the front bedroom and, even in the summer heat, much colder than the rest of the house.
“What’s that?” I asked of an asymmetrical, hip-height door in the corner. It had a large padlock on it and was thick with white paint, an attempt to blend the door with the walls.
“Nothing,” Charlene said. “It’s nothing. Well, it’s to the cellar. We don’t use it.”
Then, quickly, “Don’t try to open it.” I thought I saw her shiver.
“We could sleep in the front bedroom,” I said.
“That’s my office,” you said.
Charlene nodded, satisfied with this outcome.
During our first days in Gettysburg, we walked the long paths through the fields and woods together, and we would fight, and you’d jog away from me. Your legs were so long, fastest guy in your platoon. I missed you, even when I hated you.
We hadn’t had a table to sit at together in California. These things don’t matter to a happy couple, but they turn into a foghorn for an unhappy couple. Why are you over there. Why are you so close to me. Why can’t we be like other couples. We never had an easy meal together — me always worrying I was eating too much, you annoyed you weren’t doing something more valuable with your time.
The week we moved to Gettysburg, though, you bought me a large, old oak table that we situated by the big windows in the kitchen. It is still the most beautiful table I’ve ever seen: the cleanest gift you ever gave me, the cleanest gratitude I ever felt in return.
Almost everything in Gettysburg is an epitaph of violence. The campus café is The Bullet Hole. There’s an interactive Civil War experience called the 1863 Escape Room (“a new way to have some family fun,” claims the website). The Blue & Gray Bar & Grill is where we always made up after long days of fighting. They have an eating contest there named the Pickett’s Charge Burger Challenge. Pickett’s Charge was a bloody, avoidable infantry assault launched by the Confederacy that resulted in the loss of over 6,000 troops on the last day of battle.
You and I would sit in this bar courting the dead, watching bikers gorge on stacked bacon and beef skewered with Confederate flags. We were always trembling drunk, starting already to fight again before we’d finished making up. Your jaw turning to stone, gaze lengthening away from me. “Let’s go home,” I’d say, but you’d call the bartender over for another round. I would leave alone.
Outside, in the town square, Christmas lights cast me in twilight though it was full dark. A bronze statue of Lincoln raised his jubilant hat to me. Ghost tours jangled down Baltimore Street, a man in cloth coveralls carrying a lantern leading the way. A few blocks away, a statue of Ginnie Wade’s likeness held vigil in front of the house where she died, clutching the loaf of bread she never finished baking.
The reenactors started multiplying during the last week of June. Women in pinafores and bonnets, men in Union blue with epaulets or tattered Confederate gray, the south already slowly losing before they’d even pretended to fight. I thought, Of course ghosts like it here, the living look just like them.
Hauntings feel both intuitive and disorienting — as though whatever you’ve always considered intuition is actually a decoy sensation, a learned game for the living to feel further from death. It is almost impossible, and at the very least stomach-turning, to engage our truest human intuition: that we are always close to death, that we will die and rot, that we will be unknowable to the world. One could be forgiven for turning away from this truth, for trying to blur the perimeters of fatal violence until it looks like something else, something gentle and survivable.
In order to stay with you, I had to play a game of dual occlusion: hiding myself from the world, hiding reality from myself. I hid from you, too — pretending I had no needs, no wants; pretending I was as tough as you. By the time I left Gettysburg, I didn’t trust my human intuition at all, not when I felt hunger, or exhaustion, or any basic sense of self-preservation. I acted on routine alone, mimicking the movements of a woman I’d once been.
I wouldn’t say I was always afraid of the ghosts in Gettysburg. I was just deeply aware of them all around me. There’s a thickness in the air there, the faint sound of a low and uninterrupted bugle’s note. My loneliness while there, perhaps, made me more vulnerable or at least more alone. Changing clothes in our bedroom, I tried not to look at the cellar door, especially as I learned how many families — like Ginnie Wade’s — had hidden in cellars for days during the battle.
Long runs into the fog without you, I’d feel the soldiers falling and rising up to fight again. The battlefield can’t help but remember. Cows scatter some of the fields now, their breath steaming in the morning cold, the steam shaping itself into a man’s face, but for such a brief instant I couldn’t really trust I saw it.
Remember the night we came home, in early winter, our arms heavy with groceries? We were walking from the carport to the backdoor when a rabbit scurried across our path, heading for the neighbor’s vegetable garden. I said, “Hi, rabbit.” Inside, as we set down the bags of sliced bread and beer and lettuce, you were crying. I said, “What is it?” And you said, “That’s you. That’s the real you, sweet like that.”
I didn’t know if you were crying because you knew the wound from which my sweetness seeped could not be staunched or because you realized it was you unfastening the stitches nightly.
You didn’t hit me in Gettysburg. You didn’t slap me or kick me or step on my throat in Gettysburg. You saved these things for travel usually. It was as if hotel rooms were devoid of the consequences of home. The lead-up was more terrifying anyway. The promise of violence is its own kind of haunting. I was always flipping on all the lights, checking dark corners. I’d jump when you opened the front door.
In Gettysburg, you paced the house and mumbled to yourself. You looked at me, sometimes, as if I were a bull’s-eye. You came home after nights at the Blue & Gray and woke me from sleep to show me a spot of dried food I’d missed on the dishes, black socks I’d mismatched in your drawer when folding laundry. You knocked over stacks of books with the sweep of your fist. You punched the wall and slammed the bedroom door so hard our mirror shattered. You drank abysmal beer and called me bitch and drama queen and loser. You held me down with the full weight of your body, encircling my wrists, to wrench my phone from my hand. You hid my phone, my laptop, when I’d threaten to leave Gettysburg and you forever. You lunged at me in the kitchen, pinning me against the table you gave me, and said, “Are you scared? Are you scared little baby?”
Mary Virginia Wade’s diminutive name only ever appears written in documents during her life as Ginnie. Nonetheless, she is frequently named Jennie Wade instead. Even the house dedicated to her memory is called the Jennie Wade House. Even her grave.
What else in Gettysburg was wrongly named? What deaths miscounted? We know the deaths of enslaved Black people were not recorded; their names lost to a false history. We know the deaths of disguised women were recorded as the deaths of men. But now, there’s no way to go back. There’s no way to recalculate. There’s no way to ask the dead what else we got wrong.
I drank more and more, trying to rush beyond you into the darkness of our nights spent in that bedroom, to beat you to the terrible. Every night in Gettysburg became a countdown.
Did I want to walk away from this? Of course. I didn’t want to stay hidden in the cellar. I didn’t want to be the woman frozen in bronze outside of the house where she died, a house that wasn’t even hers.
Ginnie Wade was reportedly engaged at the time of her death. She did not know, then, that her fiancée, Jack Skelly, had been wounded in a June battle near Winchester, Virgina. He died of his wounds on July 12, 1863, word having not yet reached him that Ginnie had been killed. Though Ginnie was initially interred in the backyard of her sister’s home, her remains were exhumed two years later and reburied near Jack in the Evergreen Cemetery. A different kind of forever than they expected.
There is a ritual in Gettysburg when you visit the house where Ginnie Wade died. If you are an unmarried woman, it is said that you should put your left ring finger through the bullet hole in the front door. If you do this, you will soon be proposed to. The legend says that Wade is helping young women fulfill a destiny she could not.
I ran by the Wade house almost every day I spent in Gettysburg. I never stopped to gaze upon the house, never took the tour, never put my ring finger through the bullet hole.
I always thought I’ll leave when things are better. I’ll leave when he loves me like he used to. The week before you were arrested, I packed my bags on Saturday morning. They were unpacked by dinnertime. I was compelled back and back to the house, to our cold bedroom, as if I could undo the wrongs that had been done.
While you were in jail for assault, strangulation, and suffocation, the landlord Charlene helped me move out, in her way. She had to let me in because only your name was on the lease.
Mostly, Charlene seemed afraid of me with my swollen, necrotic face and empty responses. She kept asking what I’d done to make us have a fight, kept mentioning that I’d spent too much time away from Gettysburg, more than you would have liked. When I went to remove a photograph of five-year-old me (you know the one) from the refrigerator, she said, “Oh, don’t do that. It will make him so sad.” I left it.
Charlene is not the only one to misunderstand violence, to try and repackage it. The entire town of Gettysburg is giftwrapped slaughter. The reenactors come back and back again to recreate the same terrible carnage. They put on the same costume; they wield the same useless weapons; they know the outcome, but they march to battle anyway. After, the survivors and the dead celebrate at the same bar.
I am not sure how best to commemorate mass violence and those who perpetuated or tried to prevent it. I don’t know at what point memorial veers into amusement park, nor how the ghosts who haunt Gettysburg feel about these neon legacies.
In ghost stories, the ghost often has some unresolved business — they want their murderer brought to justice, their body exhumed from its hidden burial spot. In Gettysburg, I felt as if no one could find me. I sought justice, daily, but I wasn’t certain what justice I sought. If I saw anything, I saw it out of the corner of my eye. If I heard anything, I couldn’t pinpoint its source. Was it you, calling out to me from the other room? You, demanding I keep quiet? We haunt each other still.
Originally from Georgia, Jess Smith currently teaches English & Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. Her poetry, essays, and criticism can be found in Prairie Schooner, Waxwing, 32 Poems, The Rumpus, and other journals. She received her MFA in poetry from The New School and is the recipient of support from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Vermont Studio Center.
View the list of all of the 2020 WNBA Writing Contest winners.