Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Carriage Ride from Home

The Georgetown Pike Bridge, near where
the 87th Pennsylvania bathed in their own
blood. / PD LOC
Elias Sheads Jr. worked in his father's shop. They made wagons and coaches, some of the bedrock laborers in Gettysburg's society. In 1860, when census taker Aaron Sheely walked the streets of the borough counting heads and recording in vivid detail what Gettysburg looked like, Elias lived with his mother and father.

Gathered around their table were his brothers and sister. David and Louisa were a few years older than the 19-year-old Elias. Robert and Jacob were his younger brothers, 16 and 14-years-old, who likely helped out around the shop when they weren't studying.

When the war began, Elias leapt to the call. Literally in war's first moments, immediately after Lincoln put out the call for volunteers, Elias signed his name on a form and marched to Harrisburg to join the troops who would end the rebellion swiftly and decisively.

In 90 days, he was discharged and America was shown this might not be a quick war.

So Elias joined the army again.

While he was gone, most of Elias father's market for carriages had likely dried up. Did the family need that money now? Was it helping make up for the cash that no longer flowed from wealthy, carriage-buying slaveholders in the Shenandoah Valley? Elias, to some extent, was helping to destroy his family's livelihood while he marched in the United States army. The slave wealth of the South paid for the fancy carriages he built in a previous lifetime.

By July of 1864, the 87th Pennsylvania had seen blood. And as rebels again charged toward the border, they were detailed from Petersburg's defenses to head toward Washington City and protect it from the oncoming tide of Early's raid on the Capital.

Gettysburg knew just moments after the fighting stopped that a battle had happened at Frederick, Maryland. But who was there? Were they dead?

Did Mary Sheads frantically search the columns of the Compiler on the 11th or the Adams Sentinel on the 12th, looking for Elias' name?

Or by now had he been gone so long, been threatened so many times in her imagination, that it was a mundane slow finger rolling down those columns? After seeing the suffering of last summer in her own streets, was her search now simply for the inevitable, not the dreaded? Was war normal by this its fourth long, hot summer?

In a field south of Frederick, Elias Sheads Jr. suffered the inevitable. The 87th was standing astride the Thomas Farm, Georgians charging headlong into their lines. A fragment of shell sailed through the air and buried itself into Elias' shins. Both his feet were shattered, blown to pieces, sheared clean off.

Elias Sheads Jr.'s final trip home
ended here. / Find-A-Grave
Elias Sheads Jr. died a short carriage ride from home.

He had worked wood with his father, driven pins and nails, laid down leaf springs and set axles. He had built the wagons which easily rolled between Gettysburg and Frederick before this cruel war. He used to make the world smaller, the distances shorter. He and his father transformed a few days' walk into a few hours' ride. If only he could make that ride, leap into a carriage and just go home.

But he couldn't. Instead, he lay, bloody stumps where his feet used to hold him up as he worked. Just a stone's throw from his father and mother, from David and Louisa and Robert. A stone's throw from safety at home.

His body made that one last trip his conscious mind never could. Elias Sheads Jr. was buried atop Cemetery Hill in Evergreen Cemetery.

As soft earth was moved in Gettysburg, somewhere in the trenches around Petersburg, Elias' little brother Jacob stood in the ranks. The 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry, lately transformed into infantry, was moving back and forth along the line, preparing for fight after fight. Jacob, who went by James, was nearly 18-years-old.

Another of Mary Sheads' boys was just waiting for the inevitable.

Friday, July 4, 2014

One Year On: A Glorious Frightening Fourth

You can almost see the picnic
in the shade trees if you
wander Culp's Hill long
enough. / PD LOC
When in the Course of human events...

In the mottled shade of Culp's Hill's trees, Dr. Charles Horner read the words of the Declaration of Independence clear and loud. A year earlier, rebel troops surged past his home on Chambersburg Street chasing soldiers flying the flag of the United States crafted by that document. Cannon fire reverberated off of the walls of his home. And this morning, a year on, cannon fire again echoed off his walls. But today it was a salute fired atop Cemetery Hill. America was preserved.

We hold these truths to be self-evident...

In the shade of Culp's Hill, John L. Schick likely looked over the broad table set with a holiday feast with pride. A year earlier, he and his family emerged from their home to find disaster at every turn. The little they had hidden from the oncoming rebels under the floorboards of their garden shed, two barrels of flour, became food for more than just him, his wife and children. Dozens of soldiers found succor at his table, their very lives perhaps preserved by that makeshift meal. Now, a year on, there was plenty to be had on Culp's Hill for a celebration. The Nation was preserved.

...that all men are created equal...

Robert G. Harper, the Adams Sentinel's editor, was undoubtedly standing in the crowd. Parts of tomorrow's newspaper were already in the racks, ready to be printed. The article describing today's event was still unwritten. But last Thursday's news, to be printed on the 5th, was no doubt front and center in his mind as he listened to the speeches. The Senate of the United States had repealed the Fugitive Slave Law. A year earlier, the idea of slavery ending was still new. But now, a year on, it was all too real. Pennsylvania's Senators, one from each party, might have voted against the proposition, but bit by bit freedom was still being preserved.

...that they are endowed by their Creator...

Henry Louis Baugher had just finished his benediction as Dr. Horner began narrating the 88-year-old sacred text. Baugher was used to investigating sacred texts much older, much brittler than that promise of freedom. A year earlier, eighteen men suffered in the halls and rooms of his home. Those Federal soldiers wore the same blue uniform as his son Nesbitt had, who was sacrificed on the altar of freedom in 1862. Prayer and careful attention saved those men. And now, a year on, Baugher's own students were spreading throughout the South doing that same good work with the United States Christian Commission. Souls and lives, in spite of the horror of war, were still being preserved.

...with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty
and the pursuit of Happiness.

Dr. John R. Warner stood in front of the crowd, delivering a well-worn oration on the battle at Gettysburg. The borough had produced a cottage industry of battlefield orators, and Warner's experience as Gettysburg's Presbyterian Minister likely helped with the creation of a riveting eulogy to the battle's dead. A year earlier, the battle visited doom on the Reverend's doorstep. Warner's wife Jennie fell ill in the months after the battle, as did many other local citizens of the war torn landscape, with Typhoid Fever. Her fever rose, she lay in bed delirious. And then, in late September, Jennie died. Now, a year on, that grief was still raw for Dr. Warner, as it was for the families of thousands of dead men who lay buried over the hill. But life and the pursuit of whatever happiness life might give a grieving widower still needed to persevere.

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Along the road in Petersburg (recently renamed York Springs), just over the northern border of Adams County, Governor Andrew Curtin rushed off a note to Send to David Wills. "You notice by the enclosed despatch," Wills read to the crowd on Culp's Hill, "that I must return to Harrisburg."

There might not be any reason to worry. The Governor was just being cautious. Rebel forces had been sighted on the Commonwealth's southern border. But it also could mean another invasion, another assault, another town becoming the blighted sorrow-filled land that Gettysburg found itself a year earlier.

"I regret that I must return without reaching Gettysburg," Wills continued reading, "as I looked forward to the celebration of the Anniversary of our Independence on the Field of Battle as an event of life."

The crowd was getting nervous. "After the dinner," Robert Harper recounted in the next day's paper, "the crowd formed into groups throughout the woods, and spent the rest of the day socially." But the topic of conversation was anything but congenial. Would Pennsylvanians need to defend their lives again? Hide away their fortunes once again? Have their honor and nerve tested yet again?

"Nothing occurred to mar the pleasures of the celebration," Harper closed, "but much anxiety was manifested on account of the rumors of the approach of the Rebels." One year on, war's destruction still loomed like a spectre in Gettysburg's imagination, ready to pounce yet again. Fear still reigned in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

One Year On: New Gettysburgians

How many new citizens were there in
Gettysburg who looked just like these
men and women, drinking in freedom
for their first July 4th. / PD LOC
It's been one year since freedom was preserved on a black man's farm.

It's been one year since the rebel charge of men from North Carolina and Virginia crashed against Abraham Brien's stone wall and were repelled, since men from South Carolina and Maryland found their best laid plans for independence dashed upon the rocks of Emancipation and American Liberty. And in the intervening year, many of Gettysburg's black citizens, who had fled from rebel capture, have slowly returned.

Now it is the time in 1864 to celebrate that moment of victory, to celebrate American freedom. But Gettysburg's black population has changed as that celebrating began 150 years ago.

New faces milled in the street. Were Greenburg Madison or Jesse Nelson or William Hill preparing for their first July 4th in freedom? Each was a black refugee from the south. Madison and Hill hailed from Virginia, Nelson from Maryland. They are names in an 1864 draft register, exempt from compulsory service because the war would decide who they were. But if you asked any of them, would they deny being men? Would they deny being citizens?

James Royer was somewhere in Gettysburg too. He was 25 years old, working at a local restaurant or tavern as a waiter. In a previous lifetime, Royer had been a slave in Virginia. Now he was contraband in Gettysburg, his freedom hanging in the balance of the war. The gears were grinding slowly against slavery; the Senate was working to once and for all free Royer from fear. This year would be a true Independence Day for the young man.

William Wilson was a bit older. The 38-year-old man was born into slavery in South Carolina. He was married. And now he was a free man in the town where freedom had been defended, defined and ensured. Michael Fender was just like Wilson. He was a year younger, a lowly laborer, a runaway from slavery and a newly free citizen of Gettysburg. Contraband or not, July 4th would feel sweet this side of the Mason-Dixon line.

America is a promise. It's a promise penned by a secretive cabal of men in a hot, sticky room in Philadelphia in 1776. It's a promise proclaimed on the steps of that building a couple days later.

And after that promise was penned, John Adams, a member of that cabal declared that that promise would, "be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America." Adams believed, "that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty."

But it shouldn't just be a staid celebration. "It ought to be solemnized," he wrote his wife jubilantly, "with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."

If ever there were men who had reason to heed John Adams' advice, who should solemnize thorough tumult and exhalation, they were Madison, Nelson, Hill, Royer and Wilson. Freedom was real for perhaps the first time, one year on.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

One Year On: Preparing a Somber Holiday

Lieutenant Colonel James Alonzo Stahle,
whose brother managed Gettysburg's fiercely
Democratic Compiler, sometime before March 1864.
Newspapers are built by bits and pieces. Type is set all throughout the week, long before the paper in Gettysburg goes to press. July's first edition in 1864 was cobbled together in the last few days of June and the first few days of July. Dropping sorts into the frames must have been agonizing work. It was labor intensive, requiring the meticulous placing of each letter and every space into the plate for every single word.

But laying out the paper in those first few hot days in July must have been agony for reasons far beyond the raw labor. The words themselves were distressing.

In the neat columns of type sat a letter. Henry Stahle, the Gettysburg Compiler's editor had received it a few days before. Though it was signed simply, "Zoo-zoo," it was likely from Stahle's own brother, James.

Lieutenant Colonel James Alonzo Stahle fought with the 87th Pennsylvania. When war broke out in 1861, James Stahle organized a local milita unit, York's own version of the "Ellsworth Zouaves." By 1864, he had risen to the upper eschelons of the 87th, commanding men mostly from York and Adams County.

Zoo-zoo, that nom-de-plume of the prolific correspondent to the Gettysburg Compiler was an obvious nod to the flamboyant Zouaves. And Editor Henry J. Stahle reprinted the neatly set letters prolifically.

But dropping these letters into the frame, laying out these sorts, must have been harrowing for a loving brother. Zoo-zoo's letter in the July 4th edition was full of such palpable grief.

"The last rays of the sun are still glimmering up the evening sky," Zoo-zoo wrote, "faintly throwing their fading light upon the tall pines that skirt the borders of these swamps, whose dirty, sluggish waters find an outlet in the ever memorable Chickahominy." The cratered moonscape of Cold Harbor stretched before his eyes. "Looking toward the west, and strong strong earth-works, trenches and bomb proofs are all that meet the eye," he wrote. But turn around and the landscape changed. It was scattered with graves, the final resting places of, "many who yesterday were among the busy thousands that were battling for their common country."

Zoo-zoo knew that mothers across America, in Ohio and Pennsylvania, New York and Vermont were mourning. And he was mourning too.

"Among the hundreds of little boards that mark the simple graves, my eye rests on one that calls back to memory the face of one who but a few days ago was among us, in the full enjoyment of vigorous health and strength." That tiny board read, "Isaac Sheads."

Sheads joined Stahle's 87th Pennsylvania in September of 1861, after it was obvious this spat might last for not months but years. But most of the 87th's war was in garrison duty in Western Virginia, dancing around Harpers Ferry and Winchester for the better part of two years. It wasn't until 1864 that they began seeing war's cruelty in spades.

Sheads survived the raging fires of the Wilderness. Sheads watched as the other regiments from his Corps charged forward under Emory Upton in an awkward and new formation, forever changing warfare at Spotsylvania. War was becoming very real and very raw as 1864 crept on.

Then, at Cold Harbor, Isaac Sheads' war ended.

"Isaac Sheads was but an acquaintance of few years' standing," Zoo-zoo wrote to his brother the newspaper editor, "yet in this time he so endeared himself to many of us that an unbidden tear will spring up from the heart at the thought that he is no more with us." As Stahle and his pressmen transcribed the letter into lead type did they need to decipher ink through tear stains on that sheet of paper? What had this private, this invisible man in the ranks, done to endear himself to an entire regiment, to its Lieutenant Colonel?

Isaac Sheads avoided the fate of many from the
Cold Harbor battlefield. He has a named grave,
and was eventually reinterred in Gettysburg's
Evergreen Cemetery
. / PD LOC
"Brave and suffering hearts have been passing on stretchers since the sun rose this morning, and even now the battle goes on," Zoo-zoo wrote to his brother and the citizens of Gettysburg, "But amid all the noise and din of battle I pause to write this article, in memory of one who was dearer to me than all the rest."

Henry Stahle needed to keep going, needed to build this week's paper. But his brother's words must have at least given him pause, made him yearn to comfort his flesh and blood. It would have made any man's brother pause.

"Birds will warble their sweet matin songs," Zoo-zoo imagined amid the din of battle, "over no braver man than Isaac Sheads." Even in a blasted hellscape like Cold Harbor, as the final shots of a battle found their mark, a soldier's eyes could imagine a new dawn through bitter tears.

And as all of Gettysburg unfolded their newspapers on the glorious Fourth of July in 1864, everyone saw those tears and knew the costs of this cruel war.

The Fourth might be a memory of victory from last year, but war still raged on just shy of two hundred miles south to disastrous and heartrending ends one year on.