Union officer Charles H. Shepley had loaded revolvers on countless occasions. But on March 21, 1862, something went horribly wrong. Shepley was loading it when it suddenly discharged. In one awful moment, a lead slug tore through him.
Shepley was no stranger to firearms. Back in 1856, soon after he and his family had relocated from Vermont to Chicago, 15-year-old Shepley joined the National Guard Cadets, a militia group formed by Col. Joseph R. Scott. The organization was taken over by the young and charismatic Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth soon after and turned into a crack drill team that toured the East. They were met by throngs of cheering citizens impressed with the discipline and precision of Ellsworth, Shepley and the rest of the boys.
When the war started, Shepley became an officer in the 19th Illinois Infantry, a regiment originally commanded by his old senior officer, Col. Scott. This was in the spring of 1861. Shepley started out as a second lieutenant in Company K and soon advanced to captain.
Sent to the South, the 19th was stationed at Murfreesboro, Tenn., when the accident happened. “While quietly engaged in loading his pistol, the weapon suddenly discharged itself, the ball passing into and nearly through his body, producing a fatal wound. He lingered till early on the morning of the 23d, when, despite all the surgical skill and kindly attention out forth on his behalf, Capt. Shepley was compelled to yield up his young life while bright hopes and well-merited honors were clustering around him.”
There’s more. “He had often expressed to his fellow soldiers a desire that if he must lose his life in the war, it might be his privilege to die on the battlefield, rather than in camp or on picket duty. But that wish was not to be gratified; and yet those best acquainted with him know that he died none the less a hero than if his life had been taken by the hand of the enemy amid the carnage of battle.”
His story can be found in Martyrs and Heroes of Illinois.