By Erica Uszak ’22
War on the Doorstep: Civilians of Gettysburg
By late June of 1863, alarms warning of approaching Confederate forces were nothing new for the 2,400 residents of Gettysburg. Living just ten miles from the Mason-Dixon line, small-scale raids, kidnappings of freed-people, and rumors of an imminent clash between the two great armies had long plagued the borough and its surrounding community. Nevertheless, none of these events could prepare Gettysburgians for the ferocious 3-day fight between 165,000 soldiers in early July of that year that would transform the lives and lands of Gettysburg’s civilians forever. However, these civilians’ experiences were not monolithic; while some were defined by tragedy and blight, others included remarkable episodes of perseverance, successful pragmatism, and creative profiteering. This blog series profiles the lives of diverse Gettysburgians who were forced to confront the war at their very doorsteps, each on their own terms, whose stories speak to the kaleidoscope of experiences of civilians struggling to survive, and thrive, along the Pennsylvania-Maryland border during the Civil War.
While Caroline “Carrie” S. Sheads remarked that she felt like “a coward before” the Battle of Gettysburg, her actions showed that she was a brave soul, willingly placing herself in danger to help others. As the head of a girls’ school, Oakridge Seminary, Carrie Sheads kept her students calm under fire and duress. With four brothers in the Union army, she knew the call of patriotism and sacrifice, and likely wished that she could fulfill a greater role for the Union cause. On July 1, 1863, she demonstrated her strength as a leader and her moral and physical courage in the midst of chaos.
Carrie Sheads was born in Pennsylvania around 1836 to Elias and Mary McBride Sheads. As the third-born of seven children, Carrie likely learned, early-on, how to care for her younger siblings and assumed a leadership role that would serve her well in later years as the seminary principal. She and her siblings attended school in the Gettysburg area, and their parents knew the importance of education for their young daughters and sons. Carrie would later emphasize the importance of education for her young female pupils, perhaps hoping for better opportunities for these girls to leave their mark on the world. It appears that by 1860, Carrie and her older sister, Elizabeth were working as instructors of French and English, respectively, for the Hey family in York, Pennsylvania. John Hey was a well-to-do member of the Methodist Episcopal clergy and had apparently hired the two sisters to instruct his young daughter, Mary. Although the data for the 1860 census in York places Carrie’s birth around 1840, it seems certain that this was the same person.
At some point between June 1860 and 1862, Carrie began making plans to establish her own school for girls out of her home. By March 1862, her father had finished a new home for the family, a 12-room house at present-day 331 Buford Avenue (historically known as the Chambersburg Pike). The home would be spacious enough for all of the children, but would also leave room for other boarders. Carrie likely convinced her father to use the additional space to instruct and house young women, which brought in additional money for the family. Her father, Elias, was a wheel-maker in 1850. Although the 1850 census did not record the value of his wealth, apparently he accumulated enough savings over the years to build this large house. Carrie’s father obviously believed in the value of education for his daughters if he had sent them to school to become well-versed in French and other subjects. He must have been proud of Carrie’s achievements and wanted other girls to have the same opportunities. John Hey was wealthy (his real estate had an estimated value of $22,000) and likely paid Carrie and her sister a decent salary, allowing them to save some money and build up a reputation to start their own school. Perhaps it was Carrie’s prior instruction of Hey’s daughter that ultimately inspired her to become a leader and teacher for a larger group of young girls. Her school drew young women from the local area as well as from dozens of miles away in Maryland.
As rumors of the approaching armies spread in late June 1863, students and teacher alike must have felt the uncertainty that lay ahead. On June 30, Carrie decided to give her students the day off. Did she believe that they would be safer at home? Or did she think they simply needed a break that day? At least one girl stayed home on July 1 as well, her family frightened for her safety. Why would Carrie decide to hold instruction on July 1? John Buford’s Union cavalry held the ground close by. Did she feel more at ease with their presence, or did she wish to try to maintain normalcy and calm amidst the anxieties and upsets of the war at her doorstep? Whatever her intentions may have been, the girls would soon find themselves in the midst of the conflict.
Shots rang out at 7:30 A.M. How might Carrie’s students have reacted to the sound of those first shots? What thoughts ran through Carrie’s head, who must have felt as scared as the students but could not let her face betray her fears? The safety of her pupils undoubtedly weighed heavily on her mind. Surely, the students must have tried to seek some kind of shelter within the house as artillery fire raged around them. At least two shells passed through the house, likely prompting the students to shudder and fear for their lives. The students must have wondered: Were their families safe? Were their homes still standing? How much longer would the shelling and rifle fire continue? As these thoughts and others swirled through their heads, the U.S. First Corps battled to hold their position just up the road, along Seminary Ridge that morning. By late afternoon, U.S. forces started to fall back from Seminary Ridge, and the wounded arrived on Carrie’s very doorstep.
The arrival of Confederates swiftly followed the appearance of wounded Union men. As Carrie struggled to maintain order in the chaos, a Union officer ran in. As Carrie herself remembered, Colonel Charles Wheelock of the 97th New York was “a very large man” who “could scarcely breathe,” with a Confederate officer following him in pursuit. The Confederate officer ordered Wheelock to give up his sword. However, giving up one’s sword if options to escape or fight on still existed was akin to losing one’s honor and dignity. For soldiers of the Civil War, Victorian notions about martial masculinity dictated that men must uphold their honor—and by extension, their swords—in the face of the enemy unless faced with threat of death. Wheelock refused, trying at first to break his sword, without success. Although he knew he would have to surrender, Wheelock bitterly mocked the officer, insisting, “If I had my men here, you could not take me.” In fact, by one account, Wheelock directly challenged the enemy officer’s moral courage and challenged the man’s sense of personal honor, opening his jacket and daring the Confederate, who had drawn his revolver, to shoot him.
As Wheelock protested, the Confederate officer’s patience was quickly dwindling. Carrie recognized that both men were unwilling to budge and that Wheelock’s life was truly in danger. Although accounts and retellings differ, it appears that initially, Carrie’s father used his middle-aged wisdom and fatherly stature to intervene in the two officers’ stand-off. Mr. Sheads was immediately shoved out of the way, and the Confederate officer took aim once again at Wheelock. In this moment, Carrie herself stepped in, putting herself in direct danger to protect the colonel. What possessed her to drop the gendered conventions of the time period that called for feminine passivity and withdrawal from instances of dangerous conflict, and instead place herself in between the two angry men? What thoughts went through her head as she suddenly became the protector of a male soldier who himself was supposed to be the protector of the homes, health, and livelihood of the Union? Was she thinking of her four brothers on the front lines? She reproached the Confederate officer, buying time as she thought of a way to spare Wheelock’s life. As she tried to persuade the men to come to an agreement and prevent further bloodshed, more Union prisoners crowded the breakfast room of the house.
With the Confederate officer now distracted, Carrie made a decision. Turning to Wheelock, she once more urged him to surrender, but pledged to save his sword, the sacred symbol of his honor. Wheelock passed his sword to her, and she smuggled it out of the Confederate’s view, hiding it in the folds of her dress. Feeling the sting of surrender, Wheelock promised Carrie that he would return for it. When the Confederate officer again demanded the sword from Wheelock, Wheelock showed his empty hands and claimed that another Union soldier had taken it. Although Carrie had helped end a dangerous stand-off, she was still incensed over the incident, and lamented the fact that he, along with scores of other brave Union men, was forced to surrender: “It was a sad sight to see them take that grey headed veteran,” she bemoaned several months later for the National Republican, a newspaper in Washington D.C.
However, once she was alone in the room with the wounded Union veterans, she revealed that the colonel’s sword was safe with her. They were overjoyed. “You should have seen the pleasure which it gave those wounded patriots (for the room was filled with them) to see their colonel’s sword safe,” she wrote. “One of them, in the midst of his sufferings, sent some one to inquire if it was safe.” To these soldiers, the loss of their commander’s sword would have been a harsh blow. The sword represented their honor, and their bravery as well. If their commander were to lose their sword, they would, collectively, feel the loss deeply. Certain symbols meant the world to these men. A man’s firearms, his sword, and the regimental colors were all sacred objects that could not be surrendered unless under threat of death. Although they were now prisoners, they still had their colonel’s sword, which was one small victory that in turn had preserved their honor; with Carrie’s intervention, the colonel also still had his life.
Like many buildings and homes in Gettysburg, Carrie’s house was converted into a makeshift hospital for about 72 Union and Confederate wounded men. According to one newspaper account, some soldiers scrawled their initials on the windowpanes, no doubt to the family’s horror upon their discovery of the graffiti. Their house remained in Confederate hands from the evening of July 1 until the Confederates’ retreat on July 4. One wonders why this close call with combat did not send the Sheads fleeing for their lives. Did they feel compelled to stay in order to protect their property? Carrie’s pupils? The Union wounded? One also wonders what other interactions the Sheads had with the Confederate soldiers during the battle. How did Carrie respond to the soldiers who may have previously fought her brothers on prior battlefields? For her family, the presence of the enemy in their own home was thus deeply personal. The Sheads undoubtedly resented that enemy troops had occupied their formerly pristine house, but little could be done to change their new reality. Thus, Carrie tried to focus her energies on tending to the wounded, directing her students in helping to nurse and care for them.
The battle damage to the house, combined with the structure’s use as a hospital, forever changed the newly built home, leaving pockmarks, bloodied sheets and floorboards, and trampled crops in the battle’s wake. Years later, Carrie’s father filed a claim with the federal government for damages. Though the house was under Confederate occupation, he tried to woo claim agents by stressing that the home had sheltered Union troops, and that much of the damage to the house was due to its use as a hospital to treat federal troops, writing, “My house was filled with wounded Union soldiers.” The house had suffered significant damage, while artillery and rifle fire had shredded “the fences, wheat, trees, and shrubbery” surrounding the house. While the date remains unclear as to when he filed the claim, it was not until 1881 that Mr. Sheads to receive any compensation in the form of a mere $180.00 in response to his family’s sacrifices and suffering.
Fortunately, on July 6, Colonel Wheelock returned, much to Carrie’s and his soldiers’ delight. Although he could not walk, he somehow managed to “roll away” from the Confederate soldiers, escaping near the Maryland border. Wheelock’s return likely bolstered his wounded men’s spirits: The brave leader of the 97th New York had returned as he had promised, and Carrie dutifully returned his sword to him.
Reflecting back on her part in the battle, Carrie wrote that “every vestige of fear” that she had felt earlier, “had vanished,” replaced by a determination to do her duty to the Union army and maintain calm in the midst of danger. She had steeled herself for the chaos ahead, drawing upon her hatred for the Confederate army and her devotion to the Union. She felt “ready to meet the whole rebel army,” she wrote, likely thinking of her brothers in Union blue, fighting the same enemy. As with many women in the war, she likely had felt frustrated, earlier in the war, that she could do so little to directly fight the Confederate army while her brothers were on the front lines, risking their lives. Now she had helped save one Union officer’s life and those of countless others whose wounds she had looked after during her house’s tenure as a temporary hospital.
Carrie’s bravery was widely recognized after the battle, her story making national headlines in newspapers like the National Republican. One wonders how her brothers on the front lines reacted to the story of her courage. Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens was so impressed by her story that he recommended her for an appointment as a clerk in the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C., a position she accepted. Her sister, Elizabeth, was also recommended for and accepted a federal position in Washington, D.C. for her work during the battle. Despite their socio-economic success, tragedy wrecked Carrie’s family. Two of her brothers were killed in the war, and the other two were severely wounded, bringing great grief and hardship to Carrie and her family. According to one 1867 account, “the severe exertion necessary for the care of so large a number of wounded [at Gettysburg], for so long a period, resulted in the permanent injury of Miss Sheads’ health, and she has been since that time an invalid.” Although this account offers no further description of Carrie’s condition, one wonders whether the loss of her brothers exacerbated her struggles with her poor health, if this account is true. Carrie died at a relatively early age, passing away in February 1884, at only about forty-seven or forty-eight years old. Although the cause of her death is unknown, if she suffered from mental or physical disabilities because of the war, they likely contributed to her premature death.
Carrie’s bravery and her actions made her a national hero. While she helped save one Union officer’s life and the lives of many wounded men, in addition to caring for her marooned pupils under fire, she sacrificed her own health in doing so. In a time of danger and bloodshed when she easily could have fled the chaos along with many of her neighbors, she instead chose to remain, and stood strong as a calm, courageous leader, defying Confederates in her own home. Though a model both of “republican womanhood” in her support of her brothers fighting on the front lines and of Victorian female domesticity in her care for her younger siblings and her pupils, Carrie was also able to instantaneously think and act outside the traditional gender roles of her time when circumstances necessitated it, and she successfully transformed herself into a protective emblem of patriotic duty and unlikely defiance in the heat of combat. Her story shows that the line between the home front and battlefield was often blurred, and that, both at Gettysburg and beyond, many civilian women like Carrie willingly put themselves in harm’s way to mediate conflict and suffering, and to do their part to save the Union.
Bennett, Joan Cleary. “Women and the Battle of Gettysburg.” Hood College, May 1988. Document courtesy of Adams County Historical Society.
Brockett, L. P., and Mary C. Vaughan. Woman’s Work in the Civil War: A Record of Heroism, Patriotism, and Patience. Boston: R. H. Curran, 1867. Google Books. Page 776-777. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=t_ALAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA776&dq=%22Carrie+Sheads%22&num=100&client=firefox-a&hl=en#v=onepage&q=%22Carrie%20Sheads%22&f=false
“Caroline Sheads.” Ancestry.com. 1850 United States Federal Census, Gettysburg, Adams, Pennsylvania [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009.
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Duttera, Sharon. “Seminary Principal Saved Life of Union Officer with Quick Thinking.” The Gettysburg Times. August 20, 1983. Document courtesy of Adams County Historical Society.
“Gettysburg’s Carrie Sheads House Artillery Shell.” Gettysburg Daily. Accessed April 7, 2022. https://www.gettysburgdaily.com/gettysburgs-carrie-sheads-house-artillery-shell/.
“July 1, 1863: A Brief History.” American Battlefield Trust. Accessed April 7, 2022. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/july-1-1863 .
“Scenes of the Battle of Gettysburg: A Model School for Young Ladies.” National Republican, Washington, D.C. November 28, 1863. Document courtesy of Adams County Historical Society.
Sheffer, Elizabeth A. “The Sheads House.” The Gettysburg Times, January 23-24, 1988. Newspaper Archive. https://access.newspaperarchive.com/us/pennsylvania/gettysburg/gettysburg-times/1988/01-23/page-14/