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GETTYSBURG will be ranked in history as one of
the few great, decisive battles of the world; and, in consequence, every hero who fell, and a great many of those who figured
there, will enjoy a prominence not accorded to those who fought and bled on the other fields. So of those who were casually
connected with those three momentous days, so big with the destiny of the republic.
The name of Carrie Sheads, besides its association with that great battle-field, will be
remembered as of one who, being summoned, by the terrible boom of hostile cannon, from a life of quiet and scholastic
seclusion, met the terrible depends of the hour with the calmness of a heroine, and, amid the roar and crash of battle, and the
fierce hate of the fiery belligerents, acted with a discretion and genuine courage which entitle her name and her act to be
held in perpetual remembrance by the daughters of America.
When Lee's army advanced to the invasion of Pennsylvania, Miss Sheads was principal of
Oakridge Seminary, a short distance west of the village. As many idle and groundless rumors of the rebel advance had reached
the village, she had at length dismissed anxiety, became indifferent to the reports, and kept on in the tenor of her way,
little dreaming how soon or how fiercely the storm would burst around her. The evening of the 30th of June came, and with it
Buford's cavalry, the van of the Army of the Potomac. The first brigade of this division camped on the Chambersburg Pike, not
more than two hundred yards from the seminary.
Closing the usual routine of the day, she
promised her scholars a holiday on the morrow, to enable them to visit the camp, and contribute to the comfort of the weary and
hungry soldier boys.
The next morning was ushered in by the heavy boom of artillery, soon followed by sharp
volleys of carbine and musket shots. So suddenly and unexpectedly had war unfurled its gorgeous but bloody panorama around her
and the cluster of girls in her care, that no time was left to withdraw to a place of safety, and the battle was now actually
raging a few hundred yards from her door.
So near the line of battle, and situated on the turnpike, the buildings of Oakridge Seminary
were soon used as a hospital; and, with that amazing suddenness which can happen only in a time of active and inactive warfare,
Miss Sheads found herself converted from the principal of a young ladies' seminary into the lady superintendent of an army
hospital. The world is familiar with the story of this great battle, of which this cavalry engagement on the morning of the 1st
of July was the opening; how Buford, with his handful of cavalry, checked the advance of the rebel masses, till Reynolds, with
the First Corps, came to their relief, and, by the assistance of the Eleventh and part of the Third Corps, seized upon the key
point of the position, -- the Cemetery Ridge, -- which was strengthened by the entire Union force as it came up, and which, at
the end of three days of awful carnage, remained secure in the iron grasp of the Federal army. The issue of the first day's
fight was the falling back of Howard - who commanded after Reynolds fell -- from Seminary Ridge, where the action began, to
Cemetery Ridge, on the other side of the town. Slowly and sadly the veterans of the First Corps turned to obey the order. And,
although the rebels pressed them hard, and sought by desperate charges and wild huzzas to rout them in confusion, still they
maintained their discipline, and obstinately contested every inch of ground.
Reynolds had fallen, but the dead hero had left his own gallant and self-devoting spirit in
the breasts of his men. They were fighting on their own soil, by their own hearthstones, on hills that had been familiar to
many of them from boyhood; and this had made heroes of them all.
Among the last to leave the field were the 97th New York Infantry, commanded by Colonel
Charles Wheelock, who, after fighting hand-to-hand as long as there was a shadow of hope, undertook to lead his broken column
through the only opening in the enemy's lines, which were fast closing around him.
Arriving on the grounds of Oakridge Seminary, the gallant colonel found his only avenue of
escape effectually closed, and, standing in a vortex of fire, from front, rear, and both flanks, encouraged his men to fight
with the naked bayonet, hoping to force a passage through the walls of steel which surrounded him. Finding all his efforts
vain, he ascended the steps of the seminary, and waved a white pocket handkerchief in token of surrender. The rebels, not
seeing it, or taking no notice of it, continued to pour their murderous volleys into the helpless ranks. The colonel then
opened the door, and called for a large white cloth. Carrie Sheads stood there and readily supplied him with one. When the
rebels saw his token of surrender they ceased firing, and the colonel went into the basement to rest himself, for he was
Soon a rebel officer came in, with a detail of men, and, on entering, declared, with an
oath, that he would show them "southern grit". He than began taking the officers' side arms. Seeing Colonel Wheelock vainly
endeavoring to break his sword, which was of trusty metal, and resisted all his efforts, the rebel demanded the weapon; but the
colonel was of the same temper as his sword, and turning to the rebel soldier, declared he would never surrender his sword to a
traitor while he lived. The rebel then drew a revolver, and told him if he did not surrender his sword he would shoot him. But
the colonel was a veteran, and had been in close places before. Drawing himself up proudly, he tore open his uniform, and still
grasping his well-tried blade, bared his bosom, and bade the rebel "shoot", but he would guard his sword with his life. At this
moment, Elias Sheads, Carrie's father, stepped between the two, and begged them not to be rash; but he was soon pushed aside,
and the rebel repeated his threat. Seeing the danger to which the colonel was exposed, Miss Sheads, true to the instincts of
her sex, rushed between them, and besought the rebel not to kill a man so completely in his power; there was already blood shed, and why add another defenseless victim to the list? Then turning to the colonel, she pleaded with him not to be so rash, but to surrender his sword, and save his life; that by refusing he would lose both, and the government would lose a valuable officer.
But the colonel still refused, saying "This sword was given me by my friends for meritorious conduct, and I promised to guard it sacredly, and never surrender or disgrace it; and I never will while I live." Fortunately, at this moment the attention of the
rebel officer was drawn away for the time by entrance of other prisoners, and while he was thus occupied Miss Sheads, seizing
the favorable opportunity, with admirable presence of mind unclasped the colonel's sword from his belt, and hid it in the folds
of her dress. When the rebel officer returned, the colonel told him he was willing to surrender and that one of his men had
taken his sword and passed out. This artifice succeeded, and the colonel "fell in" with the other prisoners, who were drawn up
in line to march to the rear, and thence to some one of the loathsome southern prison pens, many of them to meet a terrible
death, and fill an unknown grave.
When the prisoners had all been collected, and were about starting, Miss Sheads, remembering the wounded men in the house, turned, to the rebel officer, and told him that there were seventy-two wounded men in the
building, and asked him if he would not leave some prisoners to help take care of them. The officer replied that he had already
left three. "But," said Miss Sheads, "three are not sufficient." Than keep five, and select those you want, except
commissioned officers," was the rebel's unexpected reply. On the fifth day after the battle, Colonel Wheelock unexpectedly made
his appearance, and received his sword form the hands of its noble guardian, with those profound emotions which only the soldier
can feel and understand, and, with the sacred blade again in his possession, started at once to the front, where he won for
himself new laurels, and was promoted to the rank of a brigadier-general. He had managed to effect his escape form the rebels
while crossing South Mountain, and, after considerable difficulty and suffering, succeeded in reaching Gettysburg in safety.
General Wheelock finally died of camp fever, in Washington City, near the close of the war, in January 1865.
As the battle raged, Miss Sheads and her little flock continued unterrified in the midst of
the awful cannonade, she soothing and cheering the girls, and they learning for her that noble calmness in danger which, under
all circumstances, and in either sex, stamps the character with an air of true nobility, and indicates genuine heroism.
The seminary was hit in more that sixty places, and two shells passed entirely through it.
At length Miss Sheads and her young ladies became accustomed, as it were, to the situation, and in the intervals of the uproar
would walk out in the grounds, and watch the magnificent yet fearful sight, that the slops of Cemetery Hill presented.
All devoted themselves to the great number of wounded with whom their halls and large rooms
were crowded. For many days after the fighting ceased, and Lee had withdrawn his mutilated army south of the mountain, these
poor fellow remained there, and were most kindly cared for, till all whose injuries were serious had been removed to the general
hospital that had been fitted up on the hiss at the other side of town.
The annoyance suffered by having the battle at their threshold was not the only trail, which
the war laid upon the family of Miss Sheads. There were four brothers, who, imbibing the spirit of patriotism, which animated
so many thousands in all the loyal states at the outbreak of the rebellion, thought
"The time had come when brother must fight,
And sisters must pray at home."
The two eldest joined the army at the first call
for troops, and by reenlistment remained in service until one was discharged for disability, and the other fell while bravely
fighting at the battle of Monocracy.
The other two joined the army later; one of whom entered the hospital at City Point, while
the other received, at White Oak Swamp, would which have made him an invalid for life. All four proved their loyalty on the
bloody field, and while two of them
"Sleep their last sleep,
And have fought their last battle."
Another, by her exertions in providing for the
sufferers and for the family, at the time of the great battle, has rendered herself a chronic invalid. Thus five of the
interesting and deeply loyal family have laid the most precious of earthly gifts-life and health-as free-will offerings on the
altar of their country.
(Moore, Frank, Women of the War S.S. Scranton,
Hartford, Conn. 1866) pp.238 - 244