The Sword and the Skirt

Gettysburg diarist Elizabeth Salome “Sallie” Myers was born in 1842 to Hannah Margaret Sheads and Peter Appel Myers. By age 18, Sallie had qualified to teach in the Gettysburg public school, which she did proudly, while at the same time she herself was a devoted music student. Her teacher was the iron-willed and opinionated Caroline “Carrie” Sheads . . . Sallie’s cousin.

Carrie and her older sister Elizabeth had privately taught Mary Hey in the home of Methodist Episcopal clergyman John Hey. In particular, they specialized in music and French. Their success in the 1850s and a likely growing list of other students appear to have inspired them to establish their own school. In 1859, Edward McPherson (owner of the famous farm where the Iron Brigade fought) sold a three-acre parcel of land to Carrie herself; on that parcel, the Sheads family built a twelve-room home that they completed in 1862. At least a portion of the home appears to have been devoted to Carrie’s teaching.

Younger by six years than her cousin, Sallie Myers regularly studied music from her cousin . . . until her cousin maligned public school teachers. Sallie noted in her diary in August 1862, “[T]hat afternoon she used what I consider very insulting language to Beckie and me, because we happened to be teachers in the Public School . . . She said, ‘Quiet, sensible girls that could behave themselves were rejected [as teachers] and flirts and upstarts were retained.” Sallie noted that this visit with Cousin Carrie “shall be the last.”

Despite this pronouncement, that was not Sallie’s last visit. However biting Carrie could be, it’s also clear she had the capacity to patch things up–by September, Sallie had resumed her music lessons with Cousin Carrie.

This minor incident in the midst of an already sprawling war illustrates the innocence and mundanity that prevailed in the lives of most Gettysburg residents to that point. While hundreds of the town’s men were away at war and some had already been injured, the War still remained far off. That all changed in July 1863 when both women would go to heroic lengths for the Union and claim their places in history.

In Carrie’s case, she did so while staring down the barrel of a Confederate gun. The house the Sheads completed still stands at 331 Buford Avenue. Some sources suggest that Carrie proceeded with lessons on July 1 despite the presence of Union cavalry and Confederate movements around the town on June 30. Fighting began at 7:30 am, and within hours, wounded Union men began staggering into the house. The basement quickly filled with wounded soldiers, and the Sheads and the school girls quickly converted to emergency nurses.

On the heels of Union wounded came a victorious Confederate army in pursuit. Soon, Confederate soldiers came streaming in to claim prisoners, and Lieutenant Colonel Charles Wheelock of the 97th New York Infantry became one of their chief targets. Wheelock took shelter in the Sheads home, and Confederate soldiers entered the house and demanded his surrender.

It may help to remember how important certain objects were to soldiers in that era. Flags and swords were symbols of the pride and valor of men and of their units. Many men in the War were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for carrying the colors under withering fire or for retrieving the colors when a color bearer had been shot down. The 16th Maine cut their flag into pieces before they were forced to surrender on July 1. Likewise, an officer’s sword meant roughly the same to him as the flag did to the regiment.

Lieutenant Colonel Charles Wheelock

When a Confederate officer aimed a pistol at Wheelock and demanded his sword, Wheelock flatly refused and attempted to break the sword. A standoff ensued, and Carrie’s father, Elias, stepped in to try to negotiate for calm. His effort failed, and when it became clear that the officer would indeed shoot, Carrie stepped between the men and pleaded that too much blood had been shed. As she did so, a commotion of additional prisoners coming in distracted the officer. Carrie turned to Wheelock and insisted he give his sword to her. She tucked it in her skirt, and when the Confederate officer turned back to demand it again, Wheelock claimed another officer had taken it.

Carrie held onto that sword for days until Wheelock escaped custody and returned for it on July 6. The fame of that act followed Carrie, and Thaddeus Stevens was so impressed with her that he offered her a job in Washington as a clerk, which she ultimately accepted.

The toll of the battle and of the War on the family and on Carrie proved to be horrific. According to an 1867 record, “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.” Carrie’s life also proved to be short. She died in February 1884 at age 47 or 48. By that time, despite the brevity of her life, she had actually outlived nearly all her siblings.

Back to The Sacrifice of the Elias and Mary Sheads Family

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