On The Trail Of A Civil War Ancestor

With the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg fast approaching in July, I decided to undertake a Civil War reenactment of my own: by following the Civil War adventure of my Great Great Uncle Wheilden (for the sake of this article, lets just say Uncle!).

BattleofGettysburgThe Battle of Gettysburg.

Source: fineartamerica.com

Hooking Up…

I first hooked up with Uncle Wheilden whilst I was researching the 1850 census. There he was, living with his elder sister (my great, great, great grandmother) and her family. Since I’d never heard of him, I was intrigued to find out a little more. Imagine my delight and surprise when I discovered his Civil War records!

I’ve always been a student of the Civil War, have been to numerous battlefields, read countless books and generally found that period of American history fascinating. To have discovered an ancestor who had actually participated was a bonanza for me.

I soon discovered there was far more to good old Uncle Wheilden than first met the eye.

So The Story Begins…

In May of 1861, shortly after President Lincoln issued a call for troops, Uncle Wheilden enlisted in New York City. He wasn’t a young recruit; he was 36 years old when he enlisted in the 25th New York Infantry. As I was to later discover, this was quite a notorious band of soldiers! They were under the command of Colonel James E. Kerrigan and known as the ‘Kerrigan’s Rangers’.

Kerrigan was dismissed via court martial for inefficiency and of conduct unbecoming an officer, ‘as manifested in the disorganized and disgraceful condition of his regiment’. I’m assuming this was after the regiment marched in review in front of President Lincoln, drunk and pantless. Yes, pantless. I’ve no idea whether good old Uncle Wil participated in that, I hope not, but bearing in mind his later history, one cannot be too sure.

LincolnWonder if Lincoln blushed at the sight of drunken, pantless men!

Source: en.wikipedia.org

My family and I decided to embark on a ‘Follow Uncle Wheilden‘s Civil War Tour’. We began in Hanover Court House, Virginia, where on May 27, 1862, the 25th New York was engaged in battle. It was and still is a very small town, with a lovely courthouse and green. It was here that Uncle Wil was captured by Confederate forces. I haven‘t made up my mind as to whether he surrendered or ran and got caught. Suffice to say, by the next day, he was on Belle Island, Richmond, Virginia.

Where Uncle Wheilden was captured1Where Uncle Wil was captured.

Source: Picture courtesy of Lisa Kelley

Belle Island was an island prison camp during the Civil War, situated in the middle of the James River. Today, there is nothing there except a few historical markers. During the summer months, even in the middle of a river, it was danged hot on that island. And imagine wearing a woolen uniform! Wheilden only spent a night or two there before he was trundled off to Salisbury, North Carolina. In September 1862, he was traded in a prisoner exchange, which eventually Lincoln would halt. But Wil lucked out…this time!

In December the 25th New York was involved in the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Here Wheildens’ luck well and truly ran out. On December 13, 1862 during the assault on Maryes Heights (in which 15,000 Union troops were killed), he was wounded in the left foot. He was sent to Annapolis to a military hospital there and then later, back to New York City. But good old Uncle Wil was a patriotic fellow and on December 14, 1863, he re-enlisted; this time in his brother Reuben’s regiment, the 131st New York Infantry. By April 1864 he’d been promoted to Corporal and served, without further incident, for the remainder of the war. Uncle Wil was mustered out in July 1865 in Savannah, Georgia.

1Wounded Union soldiers near Maryes Heights, Fredericksburg VirginiaWounded soldiers, Virginia.

Source: Picture courtesy of Lisa Kelley

Now you’d think after all that adventure, he’d just want to put up his feet by a nice fire and relax. Not our wildcat Wheilden. By 1870, I found him living with a woman (not his wife) in upstate New York with a 9-month-old baby daughter named Ann. His wife, Isabella, has herself listed in the New York City directory as ‘Widow of Wheilden’! I don’t think he really knew what he wanted as records show that by 1880, Wheilden and Isabella were living together again, with Ann, the illegitimate baby, tucked away in an orphanage. Guess Issy didn’t feel up to caring for his ‘transgression’! No sad end for Uncle Wheilden though, he lived out the remainder of his days comfortably in the Old Soldiers Home in Hampton, Virginia.


The curious part of this story is this. My parents moved to Virginia some years ago, long before I ever knew of the existence of Uncle Wheilden. Imagine our astonishment when finally, after several years of searching, we found his final resting place…a mere ten miles or so from my mothers home! And so far from where he started, back in New York City. Additionally his little love nest from 1870 is only 20 miles down the road from where I now live! I wish I’d have known him, my great, great Uncle Wil.

Do you have an interesting ancestor like Lisa? If so, we want to hear about it! Email jenna@historicalhoney.com!

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