When Union lines collapsed on Seminary Ridge at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, some Yankees sought refuge in the Sheads House (above), a girls school on the Chambersburg Pike. With the enemy in hot pursuit, Charles Wheelock, a 50-year-old colonel in the 97th New York, was among them.
When a Confederate officer caught up with Wheelock in the house, he demanded the Yankee officer's sword, threatening to shoot him if he refused to surrender it. Rather than relinquish his weapon, Wheelock attempted to break it in two. "This sword was given me by my friends for meritorious conduct," he reportedly said, "and I promised to guard it sacredly and never surrender or disgrace it; and I never will while I live."
Days later, Wheelock escaped from Rebel confinement and eventually recovered his sword. "It was a sad sight to see them take that grey-headed veteran," Carrie Sheads recalled, "but it was a joyful sight to see him return to reclaim his sword ... "
Initial reports in a New York newspaper indicated Wheelock had "met a heroes death on the battlefield" at Gettysburg. But "we are happy to state that this is a mistake," the newspaper later reported. "Capt. [Gustavus] Palmer, of the same Regiment, in a letter to Daniel Cady, Esq., says that Col. Wheelock was wounded and taken prisoner. As the rebels cannot just now take care of themselves, we presume the gallant Colonel is sheltered in some house near the battle-field, and we hope soon to hear that is likely to recover."
Noted a 1912 history of Oneida (N.Y.) County: "Colonel Wheelock was in command of the regiment continuously and was in the front rank wherever danger called; was taken prisoner at Gettysburg, but escaped from Lee's army at night in the mountains of Pennsylvania during Lee's retreat, and, after being without food for two or three days, he gained the Union lines, where he was welcomed with great enthusiasm by the regiment."
A married father of five children, Wheelock died of typhoid fever in Washington on Jan. 21, 1865, only months before the end of the war.
"Charles Wheelock was somewhat advanced in life," a document in his widow's pension file claim noted, "and his constitution was much impaired by arduous duty in the service of his country and consequently was not in a condition to resist the materies morbi which enervated his body, particularly as he was deformed in a great measure of a diet that would have enabled him to resist the depressing effects of his disease ..."
Wheelock's remains were returned to Boonville, N.Y., where he was buried on Jan. 26 with military honors during a heavy snowstorm.