Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Drink of Water

Here’s a curious tale from the Army of the Potomac. For me, it began three years ago, back when I discovered an unusual little document nestled away in the Delaware Public Archives. It told the tale of a Civil War romance, yet it had no proper nouns at all. At first, it seemed as if I might never know who it involved, but after some sleuthing, I put the story together. I found the names of the characters, I uncovered some context, and most importantly, I found some meaning in this document.

This tale is all about the consequences that resulted when a Union soldier drank some water.

On July 2, 1863, the Union 6th Corps trudged through Westminster, Maryland, on its way to join the Army of the Potomac near Gettysburg. It was a hot day, but some of the soldiers managed to enjoy themselves because pretty girls lined the streets of the city. The ladies were busy handing out water, not unlike spectators at a marathon. For many of the sweaty soldiers, it was the first time they had seen a friendly female face since 1861.

One of those handing out water that day was twenty-six-year-old Mary Elizabeth “Lizzie” Shriver, the eldest daughter of Francis Shriver, the former mayor of Westminster. (For those interested, Francis Shriver later earned fame for having grabbed a gun and fought at the Battle of Westminster alongside the 1st Delaware Cavalry on June 29, 1863. He became known as the “John Burns” of Westminster. I’m sure my GNMP friends will like that one.) Lizzie Shriver handed a cup of water to a soldier in the 6th Maine, Sergeant William Sheahen. It’s not clear what happened, exactly, but it seems that Sheahen paused to talk to her. The two youngsters hit it off and before Sheahen fell back in line, the young bluecoat had her address. As he marched off, he promised to write to her.

For the next four months, William and Lizzie wrote letters as if they were sweethearts. Sadly, the war ended their budding romance. On November 7, 1863, the 6th Maine led an attack against the Confederate-held position at Rappahannock Station. At the end of the battle, the 6th Maine counted thirty-eight dead, among them, Sergeant Sheahen.

What happened next is not clear either. It seems that Lizzie’s letters—the ones that William carried in his knapsack—got sent to his younger brother, John Parris Sheahen, who was then serving in Company K, 1st Maine Cavalry. When the letters arrived, John Sheahen discovered that his brother had been writing to a girl, apparently keeping her existence a secret. John decided to write to her to let her know that William had been killed. Then, in February 1864, while his regiment was encamped at Warrenton, John Sheahen took leave to visit Lizzie Shriver at Westminster, presumably to console her. While there, he and Lizzie fell in love, and when he returned to his regimental encampment, he wrote to his parents to inform them he was now engaged to “that girl I told you about.” However, John vowed not to marry her until he had finished school, which meant waiting at least four years. Of course, this required the war to end that year, and as events transpired, the war refused to cooperate.

In March 1864, John P. Sheahen received a commission to the rank of first lieutenant, Company E, 31st Maine. He joined his new regiment and fought with it—and with the rest of the Army of the Potomac—throughout the Overland Campaign. On July 30, 1864, Confederate forces captured him at the Battle of the Crater. Sheahen spent the next few months incarcerated at Richland Jail in Columbia, South Carolina. In 1865, with the help of slaves, he and another officer (one from the 145th Pennsylvania) escaped Richland and after a harrowing flight through swamps, they made it to Union lines at Newbern, North Carolina.

Sheahan mustered out of service in July 1865. Immediately, he went to Westminster to marry Lizzie, which he accomplished on August 16, 1865. The newlyweds traveled north, where Sheahan enrolled at Maine Medical College. He graduated in 1867 and then he and Lizzie returned to her home state, where he practiced medicine. Eventually, John Sheahan switched professions, taking up a position that I now hold dear. (That is, he became professor of military history.) John and Lizzie had two sons. They named one of them William in honor of William Sheahen, who had been killed at Rappahannock Station.

Lizzie died in 1892 and her husband laid her to rest in Boston. John Sheahen traveled to Cuba, trying to forget his wife and move on, but apparently, it was no use. He returned to the U.S. in 1894, and he had barely put his feet upon American soil when he himself died.

As I said, years ago, I found an account that described this unusual courtship. It had no author, but I have since presumed that a member of the Shriver family wrote it (probably one of Lizzie’s brothers). It read:

As the years rolled by and he [John P. Sheahen] was engaged in building air castles, suddenly and unexpectedly the hand of death swept away from his hearth stone the handsome devoted companion of his early manhood and mature years. The shock was more than he could bear. Buried there away from his sight he sought in another clime a change of scene. It was all in vain, upon reaching Cuba he found that his heart was breaking and that he found that the end was near. He hurried to return [to the United States] but scarcely an hour had elapsed after reaching Boston when he was no more. Her body was disinterred and with his were brought to Westminster and side by side buried in the same grave in Old Union Cemetery [now Westminster Cemetery]. Recently near them were laid all that was mortal of the old father—the John Burns of Westminster.

I don’t quite know what to say about this tale. It’s complex, to be sure. But, I find it interesting that some twenty-seven years of marriage, life, love, and loss all came about because a friendly girl gave a tired Union soldier a drink of water. It’s amazing to think that something so intricate can come from something so simple.

(Here is Lt. John Parris Sheahen, 31st Maine. Probably, this photograph was taken in the spring of 1864.)

1 comment:

  1. Amazing story. I shared it with friend who is a literature prof at McDaniel College in Westminster and uses local themes for many of his writing classes.

    Also, the account adds one more data point that makes me think the relationship between escaped Union POWs and slaves in the South would make an interesting research project -- if it hasn't already been done. That relationship seems to play a prominent role in almost all escape stories.