Remembering a Civil War Hero

 CHARLES WHEELOCK, 1812-1865

PART I

In the Boonville Cemetery stands a remarkable monument to a remarkable man.

       Born December 14, 1812, in New Hampshire, Charles Wheelock was a young boy when he and his family moved from New England and settled near the Black River in the town of Boonville, northeast of the village. On May 20, 1835, Charles married Miss Lucy Jones, and they had six children: three sons and three daughters. In 1861, the amiable and patriotic Charles left farm and family to help suppress the rebellion. In so doing, he became the beloved leader of Boonville’s 97th regiment of Civil War volunteers.

According to information in History of the Ninety-Seventh Regiment New York Volunteers – Conkling Rifles, by Isaac Hall, published in 1890, Charles was “a stirring, energetic produce dealer, and a square and honorable man.” He took a deep interest in politics and was a man of great influence. For ten years he had been a member of the New York State Militia, holding a captain’s commission for the last four.

Wheelock was “of florid complexion, blue eyes, and possessed a heavy frame and strong muscular power.” Some references record that he was “about five feet ten inches tall,” while others give his height as over six feet. His usual weight was “something over two hundred pounds.” According to Hall, Wheelock “possessed a highly social nature but was a man of great determination; and was keenly sensitive in his views of right and always ready to defend them.”

When the Civil War broke out in April 1861 and President Lincoln called for volunteers, many Boonville boys signed up with Company F of the 14th New York Volunteers (known as the First Oneida regiment) or the 26th regiment (the Second Oneida), both of which Wheelock helped organize. He presented each recruit with a New Testament and recommended daily reading when 89 boys in blue were given a rousing sendoff from the Boonville depot. While the 14th was training in Albany, the generous Wheelock delivered whole hams, whole cheeses, tubs of butter, and other luxuries from Boonville. When the boys in Company F were broke, he presented each man with a dollar.

An early photo of Col. Charles Wheelock

After a call for still more recruits in July, Wheelock was assigned the task of organizing a local regiment, which he headquartered in Boonville. He became the unit’s colonel, and the men were soon in the field of battle. Wheelock’s health, however, was poor. Doctors ordered him to quit the field and regain his health and strength, to which he retorted, “I have no time to be sick. I will not leave the field, unless carried off, while there is a man to stand by me.”

Wheelock’s entire regiment stood by him. According to Boys in Blue From the Adirondack Foothills, by Howard Thomas, a letter from Wheelock’s men to friends in Boonville reads in part, “…he is to us Colonel and father. He looks after our every want with the same care that he would were we his own children. There is no department that he does not visit, and correct all and every fault, if any exists; he settles any little disputes or differences that may exist, with his characteristic impartiality; in short, he possess all those qualities which make him the really good and great man he is.” Wheelock, however, seemed to be in Boonville more than with his regiment, either on official business or in search of health.

PART II

Funeral Takes Place During Snow Storm 145 Years Ago

The 97th New York State Volunteer Infantry under Wheelock’s command had already suffered heavy casualties by the time they arrived at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. They fought gallantly there on July 1, 1863, but of the 236 men at the battle’s start, 132 were lost, including 78 captured or missing. Wheelock himself was captured and ended up at the home of Carrie Sheads. The story of the colonel and Miss Sheads has often been repeated.

Carrie recalls in her memoirs that

“a colonel rushed into the breakfast room and a rebel after him, demanding of him to surrender. The colonel, being a very large man, could scarcely breathe and begged for time to regain his breath. He told them to shoot him, that he would not surrender, and if, said he, ‘I had my men here you would not take me.’

The Confederates demanded Wheelock’s sword, which he tried in vain to break in two. Carrie and her father pleaded for Wheelock’s life, saying, “Enough blood has already been shed.” The stubborn Boonville commander refused to surrender the sword. He told the enemy it had been given to him by his friends.

“And I promised to guard it sacredly, and never surrender or disgrace it; and I never will while I live,” declared Wheelock.

During a distraction he  handed the sword to Carrie, who concealed it in the folds of her dress. When the officer returned, the colonel convinced him that another Confederate had taken the weapon.

“It was a sad sight to see them take that grey headed veteran,” Carrie wrote, “but it was a joyful sight to see him return and reclaim his sword.”

The 51-year-old, 200-pound-plus commander eluded his captors and later returned for the saber. In a letter home, he tells of his experiences:

After passing picket lines and being fired on, I narrowly missed being recaptured, but succeeded in getting into the mountains. I traveled two days…rebels were on each side of me, and I had no chance but to travel one way, while they were getting away as fast as possible the other.

I can assure you my reflections were not very pleasant, two days and two nights without food or water, except berries, and water from the heavens, which was plenty, as it rained constantly. While making my escape from the guard I fell down a ledge of rocks, about eight feet, and perhaps that saved me…as I was contented to remain there through the night for the reason that I could not well help myself. I am yet sore from the effects of that fall. I killed a rattle snake which I dislike almost as bad as I do a rebel.”

Wheelock continues:

“On the third day I ventured down the mountain to a small house, but found a good Union man and boy. Giving him money he went out and got provisions enough to last his family and myself while I remained with him, which was not a very small amount I can assure you, for I had been fasting for some nine days from the time I was first taken prisoner. I shall always remember that family with kindness.”

     Following his capture at Gettysburg and his escape six days later, Wheelock was ordered to Elmira, to take charge of and forward conscripts (draftees). The soldiers and home folks could not believe it when they heard that their beloved leader had been dismissed for allegedly approving fraudulent vouchers there.       

When the War Department realized they had made a mistake, they dropped the charges against Wheelock. He received a letter stating, “…your dismissal was a mistake – inadvertence – and wrongful.” His rank restored, Wheelock returned to the 97th in December 1863.

The day before the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864, Wheelock was accidentally shot in the foot by a pistol. In addition, exhaustion and sunstroke left him unable to move. First Lieutenant Thomas Burke carried the commander off the battlefield, for which Burke received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the only man from the 97th to receive this coveted award.

Boonville folks became even more concerned about the colonel’s health. On his last visit to the village, a friend had argued with Wheelock about going back. Although his health was feeble, the commander insisted on “seeing this thing out.”

Although the colonel had often put himself on sick leave, he always dutifully returned after several weeks of rest and recuperation. So his men were not particularly concerned when he was again transported to a Washington hospital in January 1865. But when Colonel Charles Wheelock died on January 21 the news shocked everyone.

Isaac Hall of the 97th wrote:

The official announcement of his death created a profound sensation of grief among the officers and men of his regiment; no commandant of a regiment was more beloved by his men or possessed more respect among subordinate officers; besides he was well known and much respected throughout the brigade and division.”

Soon after his death, the men learned that Wheelock had been brevetted a brigadier general back in August and offered the command of a brigade, but had turned down the position to stay with the boys of the 97th. As a return show of affection for their departed leader, the officers and men of the 97th resolved that their regimental colors be suitably draped and that the officers would wear a badge of mourning in honor of Wheelock for the remainder of the regiment’s service.

The commander’s body was returned to Boonville. Despite a fierce snow storm the funeral took place at the Presbyterian Church on January 26, 1865. All the stores and shops in the village were closed. People from throughout the area crowded the church. Rev. Mr. Manley, Boonville, delivered a sermon, and Rev. Dr. Fowler, Utica, paid an eloquent and appropriate tribute to Wheelock’s public services. Pallbearers were line officers from the old 14th and 26th regiments.

A special train with about 150 of the 45th regiment came up from Utica, but because of heavy drifts, arrived too late for the church service. They joined the long procession to the cemetery, which included the National Guard, the Masons, and Boonville’s Cataract Fire Company. A Boonville member of the 97th who had been discharged for disability led a riderless horse.

At the cemetery, the ceremonies of the Masonic order were performed, and the military paid the last honors to a departed hero.

Less than three months later, the war that claimed Wheelock’s life and so many of his men was officially over, when General Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House.

Gettysburg Monument to Col. Wheelock’s 97th N.Y.S. Volunteer Infantry.

To learn more about Col. Wheelock’s regiment, the 97th NYSVI, click on the link at the right, or click here: http://www.dmna.state.ny.us/historic/reghist/civil/infantry/97thInf/97thInfMain.htm#photos

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