MARC CHASE: Region 'angel' spreads wings at Hell's Half Acre

2014-06-21T18:19:00Z 2014-06-21T21:41:27Z MARC CHASE: Region 'angel' spreads wings at Hell's Half AcreMarc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com
June 21, 2014 6:19 pm  • 

With a bullet in his rib cage, another in his arm and men dying all around him, Valparaiso's Col. Isaac Suman was in the virtual depths of hell.

But an angel — from LaPorte County no less — helped pull Suman and dozens of other fighting Hoosiers back into the light upon grounds that would become known as Hell's Half Acre.

This account of region history at the Civil War's eighth bloodiest battle is a reminder angels really do walk among us.

When the second of two bullets pierced his body on a cold New Year's Eve morning in 1862, Suman later recalled, he gazed through his sweat and blood to find Union Army Chaplain John Whitehead, of Westville, standing over him in the heat of battle.

Suman, who commanded hundreds of local men serving in the 9th Indiana Volunteer Infantry at the Battle of Stones River, was not prone to exaggeration. Toward the end of his military service, he turned down a promotion to the rank of general, believing it falsely inflated his service over others.

But following the Dec. 31, 1862, battle in Murfreesboro, Tenn., Suman believed he had witnessed the divine in Whitehead's actions.

"When Chaplain Whitehead gave me his assistance, he was all besmeared with the blood of the wounded he had cared for," Suman is quoted as saying in archived records of the battle.

"He seemed to be an angel among the wounded ..."

Whitehead pried the Confederate bullet out of Suman's fractured rib cage and bandaged the colonel's wounds, including another gunshot to Suman's arm.

At first, Suman is said to have scolded Whitehead when the man of the cloth urged the colonel to retire from the battlefield because of the severe injuries. I imagine Suman, tough bird that he was, shouting expletives at the preacher regarding the colonel's need to stay in the fighting with his men.

Stay in the fighting Suman did, despite those horrific injuries. His valor gave him a front-row seat to the actions of an angel.

Confederate soldiers attacked the position held by Suman's men in four brutal waves throughout the day, and men fell there by the hundreds. The area of the battlefield would later be nicknamed Hell's Half Acre because of the heavy fighting and losses.

With bullets and cannon shells whizzing by, Suman watched as Whitehead ran defenseless into the fray, repeatedly pulling wounded soldiers out of the fight and dragging them to medical care.

With one mortally wounded Hoosier soldier, Whitehead knelt and jotted down the dying warrior's final words to his family.

Suman's descriptions of Whitehead's actions would later be taken into account when the military bestowed upon Whitehead its highest award — the Medal of Honor.

Suman easily could have carried a hero's banner for his personal valor at Stones River. But in his own account of the battle, the colonel credited a man who carried a Bible — rather than a pistol and officer's sword — as the true hero.

In the same federal archives, Whitehead is quoted as hailing Suman's bravery that day in Tennessee, fighting on even as the colonel's boot filled with his own blood.

But it was clear Suman believed the Medal of Honor pinned to Whitehead's chest was secondary to an unseen halo encircling the chaplain's head.

Investigative Editor Marc Chase can be reached at (219) 662-5330 or marc.chase@nwi.com. The opinions are the writer's.

Copyright 2014 nwitimes.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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