The fire-fight at Pitzer’s Woods lasted only twenty minutes. Outnumbered, the four companies from the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters fell back, firing in retreat. In the process, they lost First Lieutenant George W. Sheldon. Unlike Smith Haight of Company D, who I featured in the previous post, no one carried off Sheldon’s body. He died almost instantly, and with Wilcox’s Alabamians pursuing vigorously, no one in his company had time to build him a litter.
News of Sheldon’s death distressed a friend of his—Lieutenant Edwin Wilson of Company C. Six Companies from the 1st U.S.S.S. did not participate in the reconnaissance, remaining in reserve along the Emmitsburg Road. When the winded survivors retreated past these six reserve companies, they told Wilson that Sheldon had died. On July 5, after the Army of Northern Virginia had retreated, Wilson asked to lead the burial party sent to scour Pitzer’s Woods for the dead and wounded. Four companies went on this grim task, but for Wilson, it proved to be a personal mission. He wanted to recover his friend’s corpse. It did not take long for Wilson and the burial party to find Sheldon’s badly rotting remains. They remained exactly where he had fallen. The Confederates had raided the corpse, but took no time to bury it. With haste, the Sharpshooters buried Sheldon under an oak tree and erected a head board to mark the spot. That evening, Wilson scratched out a letter to Sheldon’s father.
Head Quarters 1st U.S.S.S.
Battle Field of Gettysburg, Penn
July 5th 1863
It becomes my painful duty to inform you of the loss of your son Lt. Geo. W. Sheldon. He was killed on Thursday July 2nd in the early part of the first day’s battle. Words fail me to give consolation for the loss of such a noble son. He was a gallant and brave soldier and he died like a brave champion of the cause of liberty. You can have the satisfaction of knowing that you will never have cause to blush for his name as a soldier. We all are called upon to mourn the loss of near and dear friend[s] in this our great struggle for human liberty. I had him buried decently as our circumstances would permit and placed a board at the head of his grave to mark the place where he now lies. Any information you may wish in regard to him you can have by addressing me as many letters as you wish. I haven’t time to write more but will do so if you wish. He was formerly a member of my company untill he was promoted to commissary sergeant. Therefore I have had every opertunity of knowing him well both as a soldier and a companion.
I am sir very
Most Obt Servt.
Lieut. E. A. Wilson
Co. C, 1st U.S.S.S.
This was not the only time that Wilson wrote about his friend, George W. Sheldon. In June 1886, thirty-three years later, Wilson submitted a letter to the National Tribune. It appeared on June 10. He wrote:
One of the officers . . . killed was an intimate friend of mine, Lieut. Geo. W. Sheldon; a more manly young fellow never wore shoulder-straps, and a promising young officer. For some trifling affair he had been placed under arrest, but was not deprived of his sword. All day of the 1st of July we marched together, and during that day’s march he declared his intention of joining his company (I) and taking part in the fight, which we knew would take place on the morrow. I tried to persuade him to stay behind with the Quartermaster; as he was under arrest he had no business in front. But the more I talked to him the more determined he became. I remember this well. We had halted for a few minutes’ rest, and when the bugle sounded to fall in he rose to his feet and stretched himself to his full height and said to me; “Ed, as you value my friendship, don’t say anything to persuade me to stay out of the battle that is sure to take place tomorrow. I will not shield myself under the flimsy pretext that I am under arrest, and will go into the fight.” He did. And was killed in the beginning of the engagement, and as the spot where he was killed was nearly a mile in advance of the main line of battle, of course our dead fell into the hands of the rebels. He had an entire new suit of clothes on, inside and out. They stripped him of his coat, pants and hat, and also his boots, and left nothing on him but his underclothes, and only by those was he recognized when we went to bury the dead on that part of the field after the battle. As I was with him when he purchased the under clothing, it was the only means by which I recognized him from the other dead on the field. We buried him at the foot of a live oak, just in the edge of the timber. As I had charge of the burial party, I know just where he was buried.
Sheldon’s body did not remain under that live oak. In the autumn of 1863, grave diggers moved his corpse to the National Cemetery. It remains there to this day.
In the previous post, I noted the incredible sacrifice that Smith Haight’s friends made to get his body off the field. No doubt, they would have done the same for Sheldon if they could have managed it. For three days, Sheldon’s friends worried that they had lost their friend’s earthly form forever. I cannot imagine how that anxiety must have eaten at them, nor can I fathom the sense of relief they felt when they finally found him.
(This is Lieutenant Edwin A. Wilson from Company C. On July 5, he helped recover Sheldon's remains.)
(George Sheldon's remains now lie in the Soldier's National Cemetery, US Regulars Section, D-23)