Author puts young readers on the field at Gettysburg

When she sat down to write “Tillie Pierce: Teen Eyewitness to the Battle of Gettysburg,” Springfielder Tanya Anderson knew her ultimate audience: readers 11 and older, who might be drawn into the past by Tillie’s account.

But during the writing itself, Anderson’s mind was focused on the subject of her book — a person whose pensive eyes stared out at her from the dramatic photo destined for the book’s cover.

Glancing at the photo, “I just kept feeling I was checking in with her,” said Anderson, who taught history at Shawnee and Catholic Central high schools before starting her writing career.

And as she looked at Pierce, she wondered: “Is there anything else you want to add here?”

Whatever Pierce’s answer, it’s unlikely that readers and history teachers will find much missing from this handsome book priced at $34 hardcover from Twenty-First Century Books.

Says the respected Kirkus Reviews: “Tillie’s words bring the sights, sounds and smells of a civilian and teenager experiencing the war straight to today’s readers in a way a retrospective account cannot.”

Coupled with the naming of the book as a Spring 2013 Junior Literary Guild selection, the review had to please Anderson, whose “particular passion,” according to an author’s note “is to create engaging nonfiction books for reluctant readers.”

The Wittenberg University history graduate has done more than that.

With a series of sidebars, she not only gives readers (reluctant or not) an occasional breather from Tillie’s tale, she solidly anchors the battle and Pierce’s story in their historical context.

Anderson effectively explores the geographical setting of the battle and succinctly explains the Emancipation Proclamation and the Fugitive Slave Act. She then discusses the Gettysburg Address and the gruesome reality of battlefield surgery. There’s also an glimpse into the infamous Confederate prisoner of war camp at Andersonville, Ga.

Anderson pulls it off in a way that likely will add to many of her adult readers’ understanding of the war.

Distinctive Civil War photos set a mood that inserts readers into the Gettysburg of the time, then at the book’s end Anderson invites her audience on a Google Earth tour of modern Gettysburg with stops at its historic sites.

She discovered Pierce’s story when she and her husband were walking down Gettysburg’s Baltimore Avenue and Nancie Gudmestad came out of the Shriver House in period costume and invited them in for a tour.

Anderson soon found out about Shriver’s Saloon and Ten-Pin (Bowling) Alley and how its owners called on neighbor girl Tillie Pierce to help them look after the Shriver children when the family fled the village during the battle.

On her tour of Shriver House, Anderson spotted Tillie’s picture and picked up a copy of Pierce’s 1889 book “At Gettysburg: Or What a Girl Saw and Heard of the Battle.”

In part because 19th century language is so different, Anderson quotes Pierce sparingly.

“Whenever there was a sentence or two of description I felt she said better than I could, that’s when I put it in,” Anderson said.

But Anderson relied on Pierce heavily for inspiration, searching her out during a second trip to Gettysburg and retracing Pierce’s trip to the Weikert farm a stone’s throw from Little and Big Roundtop, where the battle raged.

Before all this begins, readers meet the little known crossroads town that fashioned wagons for travelers heading west and where German immigrants had established a Lutheran Seminary and college.

Through Pierce’s eyes, we then watch older villagers drill with “rusty guns and swords, pitch forks, shovels and pick axes” after the war rages at nearby Antietam, Chambersburg and Fredericksburg, and the village empties of men headed for the Union Army.

We see edgy businessmen ship their goods out of town and people take their animals into the nearby mountains to keep them from the marauding rebel army, and sense the fear of the village’s 400 free blacks, who fear the approaching rebel army will mean annihilation.

Anderson puts the word “death” in parentheses after annihilation, one of a dozen or so attempts at expanding her young readers’ vocabulary. She manages to do so without talking down to them. The only possible fly in the ointment may be the insertion of kilometers after distances are reported in miles, no doubt a nod to the book’s future as a classroom staple.

When a tattered rebel army appears, many needing shoes and hats, the Shrivers leave for the safety of the Weikert house only to bring their children and their babysitter to the edge of harm’s way.

A caisson full of ammunition blows up, and a man thrown high into the air lands in a wheat field, and soldiers carry him to Weikert house.

“As they pass by I see his eyes are blown out and his whole person seems to be one black mess,” Tillie says. “The first words I hear him say: ‘Oh dear! I forgot to read my Bible today! What will my wife and children say?’ ”

By nightfall, the Weikert barn is filled with the wounded, Tillie has given a cup of water to Gen. George Meade, peered through field glasses at the chaos of battle and talked with a man she later discovers is Gen. Stephen Insdale Weed.

Hit by a sharpshooter that day, he is dead by morning when she goes to check on him.

Because sources disagreed on if Weed had indeed been at the Weikert house, Anderson had to use the research training she got at Wittenberg, particularly from Cynthia Behrman.

“If you went into her class not knowing how to do research, you couldn’t get out of that class without learning,” Anderson said.

By battle’s end, Pierce has seen the countryside plundered, every bit of fabric in the home torn up for use as bandages, and a pile of severed limbs rise to the height of the Weikert’s fence.

Then the long term consequences of the battle sunk in.

“Oh, the horror and desolation that remained,” Pierce says. “The suffering, the dead, the homes that never more would be cheered, the heart-broken widows, the innocent and helpless orphans. Only those who have seen these things can ever realize what they mean.”

In “Tillie Pierce,” Anderson has done what can be done to pass that realization on to her young readers. That won’t put a smile on Tillie Pierce’s face, but it’s likely to keep young readers peering into her pensive face for years to come.

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