Region faces of the Civil War

2011-04-10T00:00:00Z 2014-07-09T09:14:33Z Region faces of the Civil WarBy Marc Chase, (219) 662-5330
April 10, 2011 12:00 am  • 

A Crown Point colonel leads his regiment -- many of them hometown boys -- in a desperate battle for the future of his country, ultimately paying with his life.

A Merrillville farmer copes with the loss of a child just a few months before heading to war, survives a host of bloody battles and then ends his story in tragedy 20 years after the war's conclusion.

And a 14-year-old Valparaiso boy joins the ranks of his father's Union Army regiment as a drummer -- a skill he will hone to become a noted local musician after the war.

The lives of region men, boys and at least one woman who served in the Civil War are memorialized throughout Lake and Porter counties. Their sacrifices are marked by some of the region's most recognizable buildings, loneliest headstones -- and by monuments in other states hundreds of miles away.

Scores of Calumet Region men fought in places most had never before heard of, some giving their lives or limbs, and others returning to the region for many years of regimental reunions and, in some cases, post-war heartache.

In honor of their service in a war that began 150 years ago Tuesday, The Times has scoured cemeteries, century-old newspaper clippings and military service records to tell some of their stories.

Ultimate sacrifice

A mural at Crown Point's Col. John Wheeler Middle School depicts the poignant scene: On the eve of his participation in the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, Col. John Wheeler wrote his wife and children in Crown Point, noting fears that he would not survive the battle.

"It may be my last letter to you," Wheeler wrote. "If so, believe that my last prayer for you is that God may help you all -- I believe we will whip them firmly before the sun goes down."

Leading his troops on the second day of the three-day engagement, those fears were realized when a bullet struck his head in an area known as Rose Woods near the Pennsylvania town for which the battle is named.

Today, a monument to the 20th Indiana Infantry that Wheeler commanded stands along the tree line not far from where the colonel died. He was among 51,000 men from the Union and Confederate armies who were killed or wounded in the three days of fighting.

His military jacket -- the one he wore when he died -- hangs in a display case near the entryway of his namesake school.

And his grave at Crown Point's Maplewood Cemetery is surrounded by those of many of the men who loyally fought under his banner. The graves of Lt. John Luther, Cpl. William Clark and Wheeler's brother, Sgt. Oliver Wheeler, who fought for a different regiment, rest within feet of the colonel.

In his July 16, 1863, obituary in the Crown Point Register, Wheeler was remembered as "an indulgent father" and "affectionate husband" by his wife, Ann, and children John, Alice and Edgar.

A prominent man in his day, Wheeler published a local newspaper and was considered a Lake County pioneer. But today, he is most remembered for his sacrifice on the fields of Gettysburg, Pa.

Hell's Half Acre

If anyone was the Porter County counterpart to Crown Point's Col. John Wheeler, it was Valparaiso's Col. Isaac Suman, an eminent citizen who served as postmaster and mayor of the city following the war.

Unlike Wheeler, Suman survived the Civil War, though not unscathed. A 1911 news account of Suman's death in the Porter County Vidette indicates he died of heart disease and that his death likely was hastened by 50-year-old wounds he suffered at the Battle of Stones River in Tennessee.

Suman, who also served in the Mexican-American war as a teenager in the late 1840s, was the son of a Maryland Revolutionary War veteran who at one time owned slaves, something the younger Suman reportedly detested.

He moved to Valparaiso in the 1850s and enlisted in the 9th Indiana as a captain in 1861, making colonel in 1863.

Suman led his regimental company during the 1862 Battle of Stones River in an area that later would be dubbed Hell's Half Acre because of the many casualties. During the fighting near Murfreesboro, Tenn., a bullet known as a minnie ball passed through Suman's body, according to his obituary and military records.

In 1863, Suman and others present during the fighting would help build Hazen's Monument at the scene of the battle -- a memorial to the brigade that held the ground in a Union victory.

Near the war's end, President Abraham Lincoln offered to promote Suman to the rank of brigadier general. Suman declined, saying he did not serve for glory.

Cadence of war

Most of the region men who fought in the Civil War were lowly privates, not high-ranking majors, colonels and generals.

And in some cases, they weren't men at all.

Fourteen-year-old Winfield "Winnie" Brewer followed his father, Capt. Jacob Brewer, into battle with the 99th Indiana Infantry in 1861.

The Valparaiso youth became a drummer boy in the regiment for the duration of the four-year war, a duty requiring him to set the cadence for marching and assembly at camp and in battle.

It's a skill he would hone into a profession, joining the traveling P.T. Barnum Circus Band after the war, winning several drumming awards and titles and becoming a fixture in Valparaiso parades for many years.

Brewer also became a regular at reunions of the 99th Indiana Infantry. His 1909 obituary indicates he was returning home from such a reunion in September of that year when he slipped and fell 40 feet from a Hobart railroad bridge. He would die in the hospital from his wounds that December at age 62.

A drum belonging to the Valparaiso native remains on display at the Porter County Historical Society Museum, and his grave lies at Valparaiso's Maplewood Cemetery, not far from that of Suman and more than two dozen other Civil War veterans.

Tragedy at home

Sgt. Israel Pierce, who served in the 99th Indiana Infantry, the bloodshed he would have witnessed during the war was sandwiched between pre- and post-war heartache.

Pierce's Merrillville Cemetery headstone indicates he and his wife, Mary Calista, had an infant child who died in March 1862, four months before he enlisted with the 99th.

Nearly 200 of Pierce's fellow regiment volunteers died in battles that covered ground from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Atlanta, Ga., between 1862 and 1865, according to National Park Service records. Their engagements included Gen. William T. Sherman's march to the sea in late 1864.

Pierce was lucky enough to survive, returning to his wife and their farm in Merrillville.

But by 1870, rheumatism believed to have developed during his war service took its toll on his knee and his ability to farm, and he sought an invalid military pension from the federal government, according to his pension applications.

For 15 years, he sought government disability aid, sitting through depositions. Many fellow veterans who served with Pierce, including several who are buried within feet of him at the Merrillville Cemetery, also testified on his behalf, noting he was not the type of man to complain about false ailments.

In 1885, 20 years after the war's end, Pierce ended his own life -- inexplicably, according to his obituary -- by hanging himself in his barn.

His great-great granddaughter, local historian Alice Smedstad, of Crown Point, said the family believes his toils in trying to secure a disability pension factored into his suicide.

War and matrimony

Many region Civil War veterans lived in apparent happiness before and after the war.

Among them were Valparaiso physician Dr. John McCarthy and his wife, Mary. They were described in news accounts of the era as the consummate team.

John McCarthy served as a Union Army surgeon -- achieving the rank of major -- for the 29th Indiana Infantry.

According to her headstone, Mary J. McCarthy served as an Army nurse, though her service records could not be verified.

In 1861, Dr. McCarthy served as a secretary for a gathering of men who organized one of Indiana's first volunteer regiments following the war's first shots fired at South Carolina's Fort Sumter.

The McCarthys, who lived on Valparaiso's South Washington Street, held important roles in the community, with John McCarthy serving as the city's postmaster for several years following the war and his wife helping to run the office and organize its affairs, according to John McCarthy's 1905 obituary.

Today, the husband and wife remain together in side-by-side graves. Their memorial markers are among the first to be seen when entering the gates of Valparaiso's Union Street Cemetery.

North and South

Not all the Civil War veterans buried in the region fought for Indiana regiments -- and at least one wasn't even a native of the northern states.

Gethro G. Wood went by the nickname of "General," though his actual rank in Company H of the 1st Tennessee and Alabama Independent Vidette Cavalry was private.

Wood, an Alabama native, joined the unit -- composed of southern men loyal to the northern cause -- in February 1864.

He moved to Indiana and, ultimately, Hammond with his wife, Martha, sometime following the war.

In 1927, suffering from heart and circulation ailments and a widower by that time, 82-year-old Wood moved into a Danville, Ill., home for disabled veterans, according to records from the home.

He died there a month later -- with about $9 remaining to his name -- and was shipped back to Hammond's Oak Hill Cemetery for burial.

Lasting memory

Beyond the headstones of Civil War veterans strewn throughout the region are more lasting monuments.

The marble government headstone for Sgt. Henry Wise's Crown Point grave is worn and difficult to read -- the effects of nearly 100 years of weathering.

But in the city's center, the Old Crown Point Courthouse is a more prominent reminder of Wise's post-war contributions to his community.

Wise -- of military lineage tracing back to his great-grandfather, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, and his grandfather, a veteran of the War of 1812 -- served with the Indiana 99th during the Civil War.

A school teacher in Lake and Porter counties before the war, Wise began the Henry Wise Brickyard after the war, producing the bricks for the original center structure of the courthouse.

A number of his fellow brick workers served as pall bearers at his 1917 funeral.

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