PHOENIXVILLE — Typically, when one thinks of the Battle of Gettysburg, names like Joshua L. Chamberlain, John Buford and John B. Hood come to mind.
The gallantry they showed in that southern Pennsylvania town made a name for them for the ages.
But when those men left the field where the Civil War hung in the balance of the first three days of July 1863, they left behind the thousands of wounded and dying soldiers who helped cement their legacy.
That’s when individuals whose names never made the history books stepped in.
Rebecca “Beckie” (Pennypacker) Price, a young woman who lived in the heart of Phoenixville, was one of those individuals who donated months of her time in hellish conditions to ease the suffering of the men left behind.
Her story is available through the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area
. Among their collection is a copy of a letter Price sent to her son in 1894 after he urged her to commit her memories of the war to paper.
Price was a member of Phoenixville’s “Union Relief Society,” where she served first as president, then secretary. The society consisted of more than a hundred volunteers, mostly women, who formed to administer to the wounded and sick, largely through the donation of supplies.
As Price put it, when the town’s enlisted men left, “our work had only begun.”
During the first years of the war, Price not only helped raise supplies and funds for the troops but also personally escorted much of it to field hospitals near the front, such as the one at Wind Mill Point near Washington, D.C.
In her initial trip out of Phoenixville, supported by her husband, Edwin, a shop owner, Price took roughly a ton and a half of supplies from Phoenixville and Trappe south. Accompanied by a “Miss Mattie Jones” and armed with a pass from Governor Andrew Curtin
, which she obtained through the intercession of Phoenix Iron Company
owner David Reeves, Price had to fight almost every step of the way to get her supplies on the rails.
When she successfully headed south, Price personally passed out the supplies, which consisted of things ranging from oranges to bandages. She also helped attend to the soldiers, including a corporal from Reading, Mass. who credited her with saving his life.
“Duty called us to the sick, yet my thoughts would occasionally wander to that heart-broken mother and the thousands more who were mourning loved ones,” Price wrote.
The historical society’s Susan Marshall said that before and during the Civil; War, nursing wasn’t considered to be very appropriate for women.
“Nursing was not a career,” Marshall said. “They started getting a bad reputation. Families did not want them to go.”
The fact that Price went with her husband’s blessing, and also got glowing local newspaper coverage for it, was part of a country-wide social movement which normalized nursing and made it an acceptable career, according to Marshall.
In the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, duty again called to Price and several other women from Phoenixville.
Price accompanied Joseph McAfee, a Sabbath school superintendent, to Philadelphia shortly after the battle’s conclusion. McAfee was headed there to obtain a commission as a delegate for the Christian Commission to head to Gettysburg to help out.
While at the headquarters for the Christian Commission, Price mentioned that she wished she could go to Gettysburg, even though women were not being sent.
As luck would have it, someone remembered her previous work in the field hospitals for Union Army of the Potomac and made sure she could go along with another Phoenixville woman, a “Mrs. Joshua Spear,” whose first name was never mentioned.
With another ton of supplies from Phoenixville, Price arrived in Gettysburg by way of Baltimore in July not long after the battle.
“The stench was sickening,” Price wrote. “The dead were not all off the field and then so many wounded.”
A driver on the ambulance told her there were “no ladies there and you are needed.”
When Price arrived at the hospital, she met up with surgeons she’d known from her previous service, then immediately began passing out supplies and cooking food.
Among the things Price handed out while going from tent to tent were pillows and quilts, which she learned were necessary and desired during her first trip.
“Can I forget the glad smile, the look of surprise, comfort and joy which spoke more eloquently than words?” Price wrote. “I felt that I was receiving a hearty welcome. I was a substitute for mother, wife and sister and in their eyes no stranger but a friend.”
One of the first soldiers Price met was Joseph Heeney, a soldier with the 157th New York Volunteers
who laid behind Confederate lines for a few days with a wound to his right thigh
and no treatment.
When she came upon him, Price said Heeney was resting his head on a rolled-up army jacket which she replaced with a pillow she brought. Following that, Price took special attention to the young man, helping him write letters home among other things.
“How glad Mother will be to know I am so tenderly cared for,” he told her, Price wrote.
On July 22, Heeney’s leg was amputated. Price walked with him to the table where the surgeon waited, holding an umbrella to shield him from the sun.
Heeney died two days later. His last words were, according to Price, “Mother, home, Heaven!”
Struck by the bravery shown by her charges, Price wrote there were “no complaints, no murmuring, all bearing sufferings heroically.”
In addition to the Federal soldiers she attended to, Price said captured Confederate wounded were also mixed in.
“Those who wore the gray were cared for with our own boys in blue as they lay side by side in the same tents,” she wrote.
Everyone received the same care, Price said, “except it might be to give (the Confederates) the smallest oranges or apples.”
All the same, when the Confederates were well enough to leave for P.O.W. camps they all asked for her to come over to say goodbye.
Eventually, a surgeon asked Price to take the worst cases, laying in a barn, under her “special care.”
“It was an unpleasant duty, one from which, for a moment, I instinctively shrank,” she wrote. “Just outside the barn was the amputating table and I thought, ‘How can I pass it?’”
Nonetheless, Price was able to muster the strength to attend to those within the barn.
She recounted one soldier who asked for the attendants to send for his father. The dying man wished to tell his father something, something he refused to tell anyone else. Eventually, the young soldier gave up, saying, “Father is not coming.”
“As I witnessed his death and closed his eyes, I felt that I could have made any sacrifice to have relieved his mind so that he could pass away peacefully,” Price wrote.
Because those in the barn were such bad cases, Price was able to really get to know the men there, which their families appreciated.
“We were not only comforting the suffering in camp but the aching hearts at home,” she said.
Price said she was often one of the last to see many of the wounded alive.
“Frequently at night I would hear someone scratching on the tent (where I slept)... ‘Sister, Mr. (blank) is dying and wants you,’” Price wrote. “So I would go to talk, read and sing to them and perhaps ere I left close their eyes in death. How thankful I was that I could point them to a loving Savior.”
When a Lt. Wheeler took a turn for the worse, even with his family present, he reportedly sent for Price.
“Oh! Sister, I could not go without thanking you and saying farewell,” he told her. She then sang “Rock of Ages,” his favorite hymn, as he “passed away with a smile on his face.”
Although Price clearly was glad she could attend to the dying soldiers, it took a toll on her.
“Many times at night I lay on my stretcher weeping instead of sleeping,” she said.
Eventually, the last of the wounded were shipped from the field hospital to more permanent establishments. According to Coco’s book, the last patient left the Spangler Farm in “early August” of 1863.
Price, Mrs. Spear and Miss Jones, who later joined the two there, received high praise for their work, as did her mother, Elizabeth B. Pennypacker, and her aunt, Hettie Buckwalter, who served in the hospital at Chambersburg for weeks following the battle.
“Each deputation witnessed enough to make angels weep,” a Methodist pastor wrote of Price and the other women in the paper at the time, going on to say that they were “the first on the ground, so far as the 11th Corps Hospital is concerned.”
In addition to the nursing efforts of those women, a Mrs. Ashenfelter and Mrs. Levi B. (White) Haler also brought extra supplies from Phoenixville during Price’s service in the field hospital.
At the war’s end in spring 1865
, Price met up with a company of troops from Phoenixville in Philadelphia and rode home on the rails with them to Columbia Station, which now houses Robert Ryan’s catering business.
“When we arrived in Phoenixville, the excitement was beyond description,” Price said. “There was a vast sea of humanity to gaze upon, a band playing, flags waving, arches of bunting across the streets, wreaths of flowers everywhere, women and children crying for joy, others for sorrow for all who went were not there.”
The soldiers marched up the street “amidst deafening cheers, then dispersed to their homes, glad that for them the cruel war was over,” Price wrote before wondering, “Was it? Certainly the effects will be felt so long as a crippled or disabled soldier lives. My heart did not enter into the rejoicing so much as it went out in sympathy for those whose dear ones had not returned.”
Just like many soldiers returning from the fighting, Price clearly was haunted by the war.
Even in her 1894 letter, she told her son the thought of the blood-soaked, stinking field hospital still upset her.
“Even now, after more than a quarter of a century has passed, it makes me heartsick to think of it,” she said.