MARC CHASE: Remembering a father's greatest sacrifice

2013-06-18T00:00:00Z MARC CHASE: Remembering a father's greatest sacrificeBy Marc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com

Good fathers sacrifice for their children. But what about when a father's sacrifice is his child?

During Sunday's Father's Day festivities, I recalled the story of a Crown Point man I feel I've come to know in the past couple of years.

I can't imagine the pain of losing a child under any circumstances. But this man, Johnson, whose family lived near the city's square, stood the chance of losing two sons. Both boys marched off to war in separate Army units, enlisting because their nation was under attack. Their father had imparted in them a strong sense of duty and sacrifice.

For the first two years of service, both sons survived some of the heaviest fighting in military history. All the while, Johnson feared the day he would get a dispatch informing him of the death or injury of one or both boys.

Such a message came on a cold January morning. Youngest son Oliver had been moved to an Army hospital, not because of a combat injury but from a serious illness that had the young man on death's door.

Johnson immediately traveled to his son, spending weeks by Oliver's side in an effort to nurse him back to health.

But then Johnson caught the same disease, falling deathly ill himself. It took several weeks of both men being near death before Johnson was well enough to travel home to Crown Point and Oliver to return to his unit.

It was right around this time of year — nearly six months after falling ill — that Johnson was finally beginning to feel like himself again. He would later recall being in high spirits on July 4, going out for a family picnic and celebrating the survival of Oliver.

As the family wrapped up Independence Day festivities, the joy that seemed to be at its zenith took a most tragic turn. Word came to the family that Johnson's older son, John, had fallen in combat.

A couple of days prior, on July 2, an enemy bullet pierced John's neck and head, killing him instantly.

It wasn't July 2 of any recent year, though. Neither Oliver nor John served in Iraq or Afghanistan. This was July 2, 1863 — nearly 150 years ago in America's Civil War.

I didn't know Johnson personally. He died in 1870. But I do know he had to bury a son as so many other fathers have done in the midst of more modern wars.

I've come to know Johnson, John and Oliver Wheeler through research I've performed during my affiliation with a volunteer group that replaces old Civil War veteran gravestones in the region.

As a father of two boys myself, I can only imagine the wrenching blow to go from the bliss of one child surviving to the heartbreak of another dying.

The story is nearly forgotten, obscured in 150 years of dust. But losing a child in the service of country has to be among the greatest parental sacrifices — a century and a half ago or today.

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

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