Private Thomas Sheldon Answered the Call and Paid the Ultimate Price
On the surface, this may seem like just another story where a soldier enlisted in the Army. In this instance, the soldier enlisted in the Union Army during the American Civil War. The soldier was from Middletown, Pennsylvania, a town made famous 116 years later for being situated in the shadows of the nuclear power plant’s towers of Three Mile Island.
The 23-year-old soldier was a laborer in Middletown, and most likely, had a strong back. And he had a desire to serve and fight for the Union. It was an honor he could not do, having been denied the ability to serve in the US military because of his race.
He finally joined the military on April 8, 1863, volunteering to serve in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the first regiment in the United States formed of all-volunteer Black troops. Private Thomas Sheldon was assigned to Company F.
It was just 15 days after the Battle of Gettysburg, a place about 30 or so miles from Private Sheldon’s hometown when his regiment was ordered to attack Fort Wagner on the Atlantic seacoast in South Carolina. It was there, while wearing his blue woolen soldier’s uniform, that Private Sheldon died in a vicious and bloody battle. It turned out to be a failed attack. In fact, the Confederate earthwork fortification on Morris Island now known as Fort Wagner was never taken during the entire Civil War.
Most notably, the assault was one of the first major actions in which African American soldiers fought for the Union in the American Civil War. Up to this point, US commanders did not think Black soldiers possessed the fearlessness to fight in battle. But the raw courage of the soldiers in the 54th convinced both politicians and Army officers of their value as soldiers. It started the further enlistment of black soldiers.
Hollywood tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry
Glory is a 1989 American historical war drama film directed by Edward Zwick about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. It stars Matthew Broderick as Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the regiment’s commanding officer, and Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes, and Morgan Freeman as fictional members of the 54th. (Denzel Washington won his first Oscar for his performance in the movie. Matthew Broderick and Morgan Freeman should have also earned Oscars.)
In this writer’s opinion, this is not a good movie – it is a great movie. Every public junior high school student should be required to watch this movie as a school assignment, and be required to write an essay about the story of the 54th Massachusetts.
There is one historical inaccuracy in the movie, but it is an excellent representation of the times. Be prepared for an emotional ride if you never have seen this movie. One of the most powerful scenes is Denzel Washington being punished for trying to find shoes so he could fight as a man. Don’t miss this scene!
And now you know that one of those Black soldiers portrayed in the movie was a Sheldon: Private Thomas Sheldon of Pennsylvania, who traveled to Massachusetts to volunteer for service, and lost his life in South Carolina while proving his bravery and willingness to sacrifice everything for his country.
We are building a worldwide Sheldon database from scratch. Everything in the database will be documented and sourced. If your ancestors aren’t here, and you would like them to be included, please let us know!
Rev. Henry O. Sheldon
The Rev. Henry O. Sheldon is often considered the grandfather of Sheldon genealogy. While traveling as a preacher he met other Sheldons and wondered how they were all related. Eventually, he began collecting genealogies & piecing the various Sheldon branches together, first published in 1855 as the Sheldon Magazine. First Entry Monday, 4th of May, 1818, age 19, the start of his travels:
“Snowed some last night – roads wet and splashy – At half-past eleven A.M. started on a western tour – took an affectionate leave of my parents and brother and sister after receiving their advice & prayer for my preservation, — rode 25 miles – The day was wet & cold & stormy – Winds N.W.”