The bloodiest battle of America's bloodiest war

2013-07-02T14:22:00Z 2013-07-03T22:42:06Z The bloodiest battle of America's bloodiest warMarc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com
July 02, 2013 2:22 pm  • 

CROWN POINT | A century and a half ago, Crown Point's Joseph Sprague stood among the mourners as Col. John Wheeler was buried in a city ceremony that attracted more than 1,000 people.

On Tuesday, Joseph Sprague's great-great-grandson, Phil Caines, of California, stood among more than 60 other people at Wheeler's Historic Maplewood Cemetery gravesite.

Tuesday's ceremony was part of a special commemoration and grave-marker placement honoring Wheeler's Civil War sacrifices on the 150th anniversary of July 2, 1863 — the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Joseph Sprague's son — and Caine's great-uncle — Sgt. Edwin Sprague died of typhoid fever in August 1862, the second year of America's Civil War. Edwin Sprague's good friend and commanding officer, Wheeler, paid from his own pocket to have Edwin Sprague's body embalmed and sent back to Crown Point for burial.

Less than a year later, Wheeler was killed while commanding the 20th Indiana Infantry at the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania.

Caines said his great-great-grandfather attended the Wheeler funeral in 1863 "to do honor to the man who made sure his son was sent home from the battlefield."

Caines said he was honored to continue paying those respects across the generations Tuesday.

The ceremony was sponsored by the South Shore Civil War Memorial Trail, which placed a special granite marker at Wheeler's grave at the base of the colonel's headstone. The special maker is one of a dozen the trail has purchased through historical preservation grants and donations to honor Northwest Indiana men who were killed in battle, died in service or were wounded during the Civil War.

Edwin Sprague's grave, also at Crown Point's Historic Maplewood, received a similar marker last summer.

The purpose of the markers is to bestow additional honors on Civil War veterans' graves and provide more information to tourists, researchers and students who use the trail's website to visit the graves of region Civil War veterans and learn their stories.

Before the special granite marker was lowered into place by Civil War re-enactors, Caines, who also was dressed in a period soldier's uniform, joined the colonel's great-great-grandson, Charlie Wheeler, of Crown Point, at the grave.

The two men sprinkled dirt collected at Gettysburg into the foundation of the new marker. Following the ceremony, Caines departed for the Gettysburg National Military Park with local re-enactors to participate in ceremonies at the site of the bloodiest battle of America's bloodiest war.

The Lake County-based 20th Indiana Infantry re-enactors, who portray Col. Wheeler's unit, concluded Tuesday's Crown Point ceremony by firing a corporal salute using period-replica muskets.

Earlier in the ceremony, Merrillville-Ross Township Historical Society President Alice Smedstad read from a letter Wheeler wrote home to Sgt. Sprague's family following Sprague's death.

"It is in this letter that I shall write the most melancholy news that has ever been your lot to receive," Wheeler wrote on Aug. 10, 1862. "Edwin is no more."

In the letter, Wheeler apologizes to the family for keeping it brief, noting he was writing as midnight approached and had to rise early the next morning to load his friend's coffin into a boat in Virginia for passage home.

U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, also spoke at the ceremony, lauding Wheeler for making the ultimate sacrifice to preserve his country.

"There is meaning in that sacrifice," Visclosky said. "In my perspective, it’s really a continuum of the history of sacrifice and sharing in this country to make sure everybody can recognize the dream that I’m sure Col. Wheeler and others had."

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