Recorded in Anna’s diary: A Delawarean reflects on Gettysburg

Some of the most valuable sources of information about the Civil War are contemporaneous letters, memoirs and diaries. The state of Delaware is fortunate to have had a citizen living during the 1860s by the name of Anna Ferris, who was a dedicated diarist. We previously touched on her writings in “Anna M. Ferris: A diarist who chronicled Delaware’s Civil War experience,” in the Dec., 9, 2011, issue of the Coastal Point.

In the April 1961 issue of “Delaware History,” historian Harold B. Hancock published extracts from Ferris’ diary. Included were entries from July 1863 that reflect her feelings and reaction about the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1 to July 3, and its impact on the community as seen through the eyes of this perceptive woman:

July 4 — Today is a most memorable and eventful of all our National Anniversaries. … For almost three weeks we have lived in a state of excitement, suspense and fear from the rebel invasion of Pennsylvania. … [T]he dangerous experiment was made of a change of commanders [from Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker to Maj. Gen. George G. Meade] while [the Union army] was actually in motion. So far, however, it seems to be justified. … Gen. Meade may be a success … [because] this afternoon and evening bring a congratulatory letter from the President [Lincoln], and telegraphs reporting decided successes [against Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army at Gettysburg].

July 5 — This day has been filled with rumors and telegraphs of the most exciting character. … They seem actually written in blood, and report carnage of the most unprecedented character. They all tell the same tale of defeat and disaster to the Rebel Army, who fight as if they meant to be destroyed rather than surrender. … Two trains of the wounded have passed thro’ [Wilmington] today. [My] Brother William, with a number of our citizens, leave tonight to take what aid they can to the [wounded] sufferers on the [Gettysburg] battlefield.

July 9 — About two o’clock today … [there was] the clangor of the bells all over town … and the sound of cannon soon began to fill the air, and joyful tidings. “[The rebel army at] Vicksburg [Mississippi] has surrendered” was heard on all sides. … It is 18 months since the bell rang for any victories before … [just] defeats and humiliation, but now we feel that [because of the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg] our National Anniversary is consecrated anew…

July 10 — For the last few days long trains of wounded have been passing through town on their way to the Northern hospitals and our whole city resolves itself into a Volunteer Refreshment Saloon and sends food and refreshments to them while they stop. It is wonderful how cheerful and uncomplaining [the wounded soldiers] are, and how unselfish in their preference one to another.

July 12 — Brother William returned last evening from the field of battle [in Gettysburg] where the inevitable horrors are mitigated as far as possible by the efforts of many, who represent the overflowing sympathy and feeling of the whole country. … Already 6,000 of the wounded have passed through our town and as many more are expected.

July 15 — Today we have the disappointment of finding that the Rebel Army has succeeded in getting safely across the Potomac. … We will never have so good a chance again of inflicting on them a complete disaster and their escape … go[es] very far to neutralize our grand successes…

With these entries, Ferris provided for posterity a summary of events during the previous six weeks, as Lee’s invasion of the North played out to its conclusion. Her comments about the escape of Lee’s army were particularly insightful, and Ferris was not the only one distressed by this turn of events.

President Lincoln was devastated that Gen. Meade and his army did not prevent Lee’s escape from occurring. In his anguish, at the White House, Lincoln wrote a letter to Meade that said, in part, “…my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. … Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.”

Upon further consideration, however, the president never signed nor sent this letter. After venting his true feelings, he placed the letter in his desk drawer, along with other unsent missives. Evidently, he decided that Meade’s victory at Gettysburg over Lee and his army would have to suffice for then. Nonetheless, he knew that, with Lee’s army still in the field, the war would be prolonged indefinitely and the outcome would remain in doubt.

Anna Ferris continued to record her observations of events that affected her life and those of fellow Delawareans. By doing so, she left a window into the past for future generations. Her diary is preserved in the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College.

Thomas J. Ryan is a Civil War historian, speaker, and author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War: A Political, Military and Social Perspective.” Contact him at