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When JFK Came To Gettysburg
by Diana Loski

JFK
JFK (center) with Mrs. Kennedy (right center) and guide Colonel Sheads (left center)
during their Gettysburg visit in 1963. (National Park Service)

The year 1963 is often associated with the nation’s 35th President, John F. Kennedy, because it was the year of his assassination in Dallas. What is less known is a more fortunate event concerning Kennedy that year. The anticipated day occurred on March 30, 1963 – nearly eight months before his untimely death and fifty years ago this month – when President Kennedy, the First Lady, and their daughter, Caroline, came to Gettysburg for a visit and a tour of the battlefield.

John Kennedy was already well educated and well traveled by the time he ascended to the Oval Office. A published author of the acclaimed book Profiles in Courage, Kennedy was deeply interested in history, and in his own family genealogy. His ancestor fought in the Irish Brigade, in the 28th Massachusetts Regiment from Boston. In spite of his busy schedule, because of his intense inerest in history, Kennedy made time for a day trip to Gettysburg.

Colonel Jacob “Mett” Sheads, born in 1910, was a Gettysburg native whose grandparents had hidden in their cellar during the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. A high school history teacher and military veteran, Sheads was a licensed battlefield guide at Gettysburg National Military Park. An avowed Democrat who was a fan of JFK, it seemed that when Kennedy decided to visit Gettysburg, Sheads was selected as the man to take the President around the field.

Sheads and his wife, Marie, were at home when the Secret Service knocked on their door at 115 North Stratton Street the day before Kennedy’s visit. When Sheads invited the two men inside, they asked to speak with him in private. The three men went into the parlor and Sheads closed the door. When it opened again, and the two agents left, Marie asked her husband, “What was that about?” He couldn't tell her.

The next day, Sheads, who was 52 at the time, reported for duty at the back lot of a local bowling alley. It was there he met President Kennedy, his wife, Jacqueline, and 6-year-old Caroline. They were accompanied by several Secret Service agents, who followed them in a separate car. JFK insisted on driving the black convertible. Colonel Sheads, who was color blind, never could procure a driver’s license, and was happy to oblige. He sat with the President and First Lady in the front seat of the car, and gave the President directions through town, to where the first day’s battle had occurred.

They stopped at the Eternal Light Peace Memorial, located at the high ground of the first day’s battlefield. Colonel Sheads remembered that “Mrs. Kennedy really liked the memorial.” As Sheads explained the reason for the memorial – dedicated by Franklin D. Roosevelt at the 75th anniversary of the battle -- and a symbol of peace in a once-more united nation; Jackie murmured to her husband, “Wouldn’t that make a wonderful memorial for someone?” JFK replied, equally impressed, “Yes! It certainly would!

Since Caroline was not as interested as her parents; and, in the days before seat belts and car seats were required, she grew restless during the drive. She was soon relegated to ride in the other car. The President and First Lady drove on, with their guide, down Seminary Ridge, and disembarked at the North Carolina Memorial near the site where many Confederates stepped off for Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863. The monument was one of Sheads’ favorites, and JFK took a moment to read the inscription on the block behind Gutzon Borglum’s magnificent sculpture. He commented to his guide that he hadn’t known that one in four of all who fell at Gettysburg was a North Carolinian.

The First Couple took a few moments to gaze across the mile-wide field of Pickett’s Charge, then returned to the convertible to continue on their tour. They also got out to take a closer look at the Virginia Memorial, also on Seminary Ridge, and took a long look at the statue of Robert E. Lee atop Traveller – on the spot where the general watched the famous charge at Gettysburg.

The Kennedys drove to Little Round Top, through Devil’s Den, and stopped at the Wheatfield – where the Irish Brigade had fought. Sheads showed the President where his ancestor’s regiment, the 28th Massachusetts, had placed their monument at the Stony Hill area. On the monument are the words “Faugh a Ballaugh!” the motto of the famed Irish Brigade. Sheads had recently learned the meaning of the Gaelic phrase and, ever the teacher, he asked the President if he knew the meaning of the words. “Sure I do,” Kennedy replied. “It means ‘Clear the Way’.” It is not known if Colonel Sheads told the President, but fighting against the Irish Brigade in the area was a Confederate colonel from South Carolina with the same surname. He was John Doby Kennedy from South Carolina, a colonel in General Kershaw's brigade at Gettysburg. He survived the war, and, like the President, made a name for himself in politics.

Often during the tour, both Kennedys peppered Colonel Sheads with questions. At times, they asked disparate questions at the same time. It posed a perplexing quandary for the guide. “I was always taught that a man always answered the lady first. But what do you do when one is a lady and the other is the President of the United States?

Sheads remained true to his Victorian upbringing. “I answered the lady first,” he said. “The President didn’t seem to mind.”

In the year 1963, it was possible to drive through the Soldiers National Cemetery. Since the Secret Service agents did not like the President leaving the car, the Kennedys remained in their convertible, but talked glowingly of Abraham Lincoln. Colonel Sheads, already well aware that the year 1963 was the centennial year of the anniversary of the battle and of the Gettysburg Address, he invited the President to speak at the centennial commemoration of Lincoln’s famous speech. Kennedy’s answer is haunting.

I’d like to,” the President said, “but I can’t. I have to go to Dallas and mend fences.”

When Colonel Sheads returned home after his day with the Kennedys, he was finally able to tell his wife, Marie, where he had been. Mrs. Sheads, an ardent supporter of the Kennedys, was particularly eager to hear all about Jackie. “What was she wearing?” Marie asked her husband.

Sheads replied that he didn’t know. “I wasn’t looking at her clothes!” he said to his wife. He later confided to others, “I was looking at her eyes!”

When the President was killed in Dallas on November 22, 1963, the entire nation felt the loss. Jacqueline Kennedy, even in her grief, remembered her trip to Gettysburg with her husband. “I want a Peace Light for his memorial,” she said to Jack Valenti, who was in charge of President Johnson’s publicity – and the new President had offered Valenti's aid to Jackie for funeral arrangements.

Valenti was puzzled by Jackie’s request. She told him to go to Gettysburg, and he'd see one there.

Years later, Valenti returned to Gettysburg, relating his own story to battlefield guide Bob Mullen. Valenti visited the Eternal Light Peace Memorial, had some sketches made, and hurried back to Washington to somehow make it work in time for the interment of the 35th President at Arlington National Cemetery.

Since that time, there have been many eternal flames created: there is one for Martin Luther King’s memorial, another in France for the D-Day memorial, and most recently in New York City for the slain of the twin towers. But the original is in Gettysburg. On a mild spring day in March, a half-century ago, a beautiful First Lady whispered to her husband that it would make a fine memorial for someone.

Gettysburg itself is a memorial that remembers many – those 170,000 or so men, both old and young, wearing blue, or gray, or butternut – who struggled on the verdant fields, and helped to save a nation, still struggling but still here.

Sources: Colonel Sheads, who died in 2004, gave several interviews for The Gettysburg Experience over the years. Quotes are taken from two articles: 1) A Battlefield Tour with Colonel Sheads, The Gettysburg Experience, April 1998; and 2) A Gettysburg Legend Celebrates His 90th Birthday, The Gettysburg Experience, April 2000. Jack Valenti’s documented explanation of Mrs. Kennedy’s request for an eternal flame memorial patterned after Gettysburg’s Eternal Light Peace Memorial was quoted to Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guide Bob Mullen and is documented in the Eternal Light Peace Memorial File, Gettysburg National Military Park Library.

Abe Lincoln
The Eternal Light Peace Memorial, Gettysburg

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