The opening of Saving Private Ryan has a reading of the famous Bixby Letter. The letter was allegedly written by Abraham Lincoln to a Boston mother of five boys who had allegedly died in the service of the Union. It appears that Mrs. Bixby did not lose five boys for the cause, and it also appears that Lincoln did not write the letter. Less famous and not honored with a letter not written by Lincoln was the Elias and Mary Sheads family of Gettysburg who lost all four sons and two of three daughters as a direct result of the War and of the Battle of Gettysburg. The true story is here. This bit of fiction reflects on the “broken lonely old man” Gettysburg residents observed for three decades after the battle.
I know a man who was walking along Seminary Ridge where the South had lined up all their men and charged Cemetery Ridge. It was the twilight of a cool fall day years after the battle, but the land still bore some of the scars, and bones still turned up now and again in farmers’ fields or between rocks next to creeks. Just ahead of him beneath the orange canopy of an oak stood another old man with a long beard.
My friend did not recognize the man but thought little of him until he drew near and heard the man say, “Hello, friend. I have something to tell you.”
My friend stopped and said, “Go ahead.”
“The trial is almost over. The day of your reward is at hand. You will receive double or more of all you lost.”
My friend looked at this old man and said, “And my sons and daughters? My wife?”
“You will have more,” said the old man.
My friend said, “How may I know that what you say is true?”
The old man said, “I am Job who walked this path before you thousands of years ago.”
My friend said, “And if I prefer to have my original wife and children back?”
Job smiled sadly at him, then walked away, and disappeared into the fall evening.
Most of you know my daughter, Carrie. Or you know about my daughter, Carrie. You know that Lieutenant Colonel Charles Wheelock fled the field with Confederates close behind him. You know how he took shelter in our house and refused to surrender his sword. A Confederate with a pistol ordered him to give up the sword or face death. I pleaded with both of them–our yard and home were full of wounded and dying men; blood had drenched our floors, carpets, and walls. I tried to help them know that blood should not be shed over a sword.
The two ignored me. Wheelock would not give up his sword, and the officer cocked his weapon. So Carrie stepped in front of the pistol and stared it down. She insisted that the Rebel shoot her first, and when a commotion started elsewhere in the house, she took the sword from Wheelock and hid it in her skirt. Five days later, Wheelock escaped, returned to our home, and reclaimed his sword.
Carrie’s heroism was hailed throughout the country. She received a job in Washington, DC. Her name is known to historians and appears in newspapers and textbooks.
I would like to tell you of the heroic deeds that Lieutenant Colonel Wheelock went on to perform with this second chance at life. He returned to his hometown to train conscripts where he was falsely accused of approving false vouchers for conscripts. He was dismissed from the service only to be reinstated when his name was cleared. Despite a series of health problems, he returned with the 97th New York for the Overland Campaign. The day before the Battle of the Wilderness, someone mistakenly discharged a pistol into Wheelock’s foot. Lieutenant Thomas Burke carted him from the field and received the Medal of Honor for doing so.
Wheelock convalesced for the remainder of 1864, never recovered his health, and died in January 1865.
And my Carrie? The air, water, and land around our home and town were poisoned by illness and death. For months, someone died every day in town, usually more than one. Every stretch of grass became a cemetery. Carrie’s health failed soon after the battle. She lived as an invalid for years before dying at age forty-seven.
Two years before Colonel Wheelock was shot in the foot, my boy Robert was in a similar wilderness at a place called White Oak Swamp. Stonewall Jackson’s men descended on his unit, and he took a bullet to the throat. After some time recuperating in the hospital, he came home. He never spoke again above a coarse whisper, and he communicated mostly through hand motions.
I thought of the Lord speaking to Ezekiel, and I had hope for my boy, though not for the country:
And I will make thy tongue cleave to the roof of thy mouth, that thou shalt be dumb, and shalt not be to them a reprover: for they are a rebellious house. But when I speak with thee, I will open thy mouth, and thou shalt say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; He that heareth, let him hear; and he that forbeareth, let him forbear: for they are a rebellious house.
Alas, the Lord did not speak with Robert, and Robert did not speak to almost anyone. He died of his wounds in 1868.
In 1870, when my wife was on her deathbed, she called me to her. I sat on a stool next to her and I held her hand, and she said, “Elias, you have always been very good to me.”
“I have tried my hardest, my dear,” I said.
“When young Elias was killed at Monocacy, you held me for days as I cried.”
“I cried, too, my dear, and you also held me,” I said.
“When Jacob died of the mumps in camp, you would not leave my side.”
“I was bereft, and you were my support.”
“Our dear Louisa passed from all those filthy chemicals they used on the soldiers’ bodies.”
“I shudder to remember it, how she struggled for breath at the end,” I said, and tears welled up in my eyes.
She stared at the ceiling with a far-off look. “You were my rock and my strength.”
“It was you who carried me,” I said.
She gently squeezed my hand. “We do not know how long our David has left. The consumption will take him. Perhaps I can bear it no longer, for I will surely go before him.”
“Oh that I could be with you then when his hour is near!” I said. “What will I do without my strength and my support?”
Then she looked at me, a gentle light in her eyes. “Well, that is the thing,” she said. “I have begun to think that you are really bad luck.”
Every day, I take a walk. It is hard to remain in the old house. It has twelve rooms, and Elizabeth is the only one left. Beside me, anyway. I like to walk out along Seminary Ridge. Sometimes, I run into old Ed McPherson–he has retired from his politicking and newspaper work. He sold to Carrie and me the land where we built our home.
When I first saw him again, he hailed me and said, “My old friend Sheads. I am relieved to see you are still around.”
“Only Elizabeth and me left,” I said.
“I was afraid to know if it had gotten worse there,” he said.
“Well, you know what they say about the death rate at the Sheads house,” I said.
“One per person,” I said.
Old McPherson smiled at me, then shook his head. “We are old men, my friend.”
“Me far older than you,” I said. Then I went on my way.
Now, when he sees me, he hails me with a wave and says, “What is the death rate at the Sheads house these days?”
I shake my head and say, “One per person, sir.”
“Let it not be more,” he says.
Each time, I finish my walk at the front of the house. I look up at the white facade. Sticking out of the wall near the top is a parrot shell. Been that way for thirty years. I used to worry that it might explode. I’ve come to regret that it never did. I suppose it will be that way for a hundred more.