From Arrest Into Battle

Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!

Tom Elmore

2nd Lieutenant
Member of the Year
Jan 16, 2015
Stephen Brown and George Sheldon share a similar story of redemption at Gettysburg, but Brown and his deeds have been eternally memorialized with a bronze statue, while Sheldon’s story seems to have been all but forgotten. Both men found themselves in arrest on the eve of battle, taking them safely out of a contest that might decide the fate of their country. That dim prospect prompted them to risk far more on behalf of a greater cause.

While on the march to the battlefield, Lieutenant Stephen Flavius Brown of Company K, 13th Vermont Infantry was concerned for the welfare of his men. They were suffering from a lack of water and heat exhaustion would surely result. His superiors were likewise determined that no time be lost by men gathering around a well to fill their canteens, so a guard was posted at the well. Lieutenant Brown put his men first, so he ordered the guard to stand aside. For this act he was placed in arrest and had to surrender his sword and pistol, a deep humiliation intended to deter others who thought to disregard authority. Yet with a major battle in the offing, Brown was prepared to flaunt the rules again rather than sit idly by. However, he was able to secure a release from self-confinement early on July 2. Thus it was that Lieutenant Brown appeared on the line of battle, but having been deprived of his sword and sidearm, he procured a camp hatchet as a substitute symbol of his authority. The rest of the story is well known. Brown captured a sword and pistol from an enemy officer that he wore for the rest of the conflict. He reenlisted in the 17th Vermont and lost an arm at the Wilderness. Post-war, Brown became a lawyer and became very active in veteran organizations. When the monument to the 13th Vermont was designed, his comrades decided to place atop it a bronze image of Brown to represent their collective service and sacrifice, complete with a bronze replica of the defiant hatchet at his feet.

Lieutenant George W. Sheldon of Company K, 1st U.S. Sharpshooters, was another who was placed under arrest for a trifling incident, although he was not deprived of his sword. As he marched along toward Gettysburg on July 1, he declared his intention to take part in the upcoming fight. His companion, Ed Wilson, tried to convince him to remain back with the quartermaster’s wagon train, but the more they talked, the more resolved Sheldon became. “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.” George was true to his word. Deployed west of the Emmitsburg road on July 2, his company contested the afternoon advance of the Alabama brigade of Cadmus Wilcox. It was there George was killed. Having worn an entire new set of clothes, he was stripped of his coat, pants, hat and boots. When a burial party arrived on the scene after the fight was over, George was unrecognizable, but Ed had been with him when he had purchased his underclothes, and this was how George came to be buried under a marked stone in grave 23 of the U.S. Infantry section D of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, rather than as an unknown, like so many others.

-Pictorial History, Thirteenth Regiment Vermont Volunteers, War of 1861-1865, by Ralph Orson Sturtevant, Historian.
-E. A. Wilson, An Incident at Gettysburg, The National Tribune, June 10, 1886, p. 3.
Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!