In 1914, the oldest daughter of Elias Sheads passed away–the only member of the family to outlive the old man who had died in 1893. Elizabeth, or Lizzie as she was called, died while in service in the Dead Letters Office, a government position she had received from Thaddeus Stevens in acknowledgement of the sacrifice of her family. So devastating was the family’s history that The Gettysburg Times could not help but comment on the outcomes of all the members, then note of the patriarch Elias:
The oldest residents will remember Mr. Elias Sheads, the father, as a lonely broken hearted old man.
In 1859, Elias Sheads was prospering and full of optimism. With his daughter, Carrie, he had just invested in a piece of property on what is now Buford Avenue, and they commenced building a twelve-room house to shelter the large family and allow Carrie to grow her private school. Elias was a carriage maker, and most of his clients lived in the South. Further, a large number of Carrie’s pupils came from the South as well.
The pre-War and early War periods probably marked the peak of Elias’s life. As the War progressed, his business suffered, as trade with the South shut down and money poured into war-making. Worse, in September 1861, three of Elias’s four sons enlisted in the Union army. As diarist and cousin Sallie Myers noted, young men went off with the expectation of being home in a few months, perhaps with some adventures under their belts.
Instead, on June 30, 1862, eighteen-year-old Robert Sheads fought in the Battle of White Oak Swamp in the Peninsula Campaign and was shot in the throat. The devastating injury did not prove fatal immediately, but led to debilitating problems for Robert. He was never able to speak again above a coarse whisper, and he often had to communicate his point through hand gestures. He married Sallie Knouse in 1864, and the union produced two children, but Robert did not live long enough to see much of them. Complications from his injuries led to Robert’s death in 1868 at the age of just twenty-four.
The injury surely awakened the family to the horrors of War, but did not prepare them for all that was to come. Elias’s oldest son, David, contracted tuberculosis in the Army and was sent home in the spring of 1863. David battled the stifling illness for eleven years before succumbing at the age of thirty-four.
With David at home struggling with his illness, business floundering, and the house full of Carrie’s students, the War arrived in Elias’s yard and home. As the first day of The Battle of Gettysburg progressed, Union wounded and fleeing soldiers streamed into the house and through their yards. Confederates in pursuit captured hundreds of Union prisoners within feet of Elias’s home. They stormed into the Sheads’ home, and in the basement, they had the showdown with Lieutenant Colonel Wheelock and Carrie Sheads that became world-famous.
The devastation was not over for the Sheads family after day 1. The family assisted Union surgeons in the care of seventy-two Union and Confederate men for about three weeks. Death abounded at their home and in the homes around him. The work was exhausting, and exposure to illness and harsh chemicals were daily realities. Elias’s oldest daughter, Louisa, would die in 1865 at the age of just thirty, and many town residents ascribed her death to exposure to embalming chemicals that were sprayed on and injected into bodies. The practice and science of embalming exploded in the Civil War, and Gettysburg became famous (or infamous) for the volume of deceased soldiers who were embalmed (and for the volume of money that was charged for the service).
The fall and winter brought daily reminders of the horrors within the town and throughout the country. The National Cemetery was created next to Evergreen Cemetery, and the Sheads were likely in attendance when Abraham Lincoln gave his famous address. While Confederate bones moldered in the cold soil and Union men were transferred to the cemetery, trouble was brewing at home. Elias’s youngest, Jacob, had been too young to join with his brothers, but in late 1863 and early 1864, at least to the boy, this was no longer the case. With one son suffering from tuberculosis and another son nursing his throat wounds, Elias strictly forbade the seventeen-year-old from enlisting, so Jacob ran away and enlisted in February 1864.
The distraught and struggling parents were trying to come to terms with this reality when worse news hit. On July 9, scarcely more than a year after the battle at home, the younger namesake Elias fought in the Battle of Monocacy where a shell blew off his lower legs and caused him to bleed to death. Twenty-two-year-old Elias J. Sheads was buried on the field.
The family longed to bring the younger Elias home, and as they worked on the particulars through the fall, tragedy struck again. Young Jacob contracted either measles or mumps (depending on what source you consult) and died October 25, 1864, at City Point, Virginia, just five weeks after his eighteenth birthday.
The physical strain, constant illness, and overwhelming sorrow were too much for Elias’s wife, Mary McBride. In 1870 and at the age of just fifty-nine, Mary took ill and passed as well.
With all four sons and a daughter dead as a direct result of the War, Thaddeus Stevens heard of Carrie’s showdown with the Confederate officer and awarded both her and Lizzie government positions. Carrie struggled physically, mentally, and emotionally the rest of her life with at least one source labeling her “an invalid.” She died young in 1884 at age 47 or 48.
Viewers of Saving Private Ryan may recall the Bixby letter, allegedly written by Lincoln to a mother whose five sons had allegedly perished in the service of the Union. The Sheads sacrifice was far more real than that of the Bixbys, and it occasioned no letter that became a source of fame. But in 1886, a grateful government awarded the devastated Elias a small pension, and later, he collected $180 for damages to his home.