Memorial Opera House rededication

Members of the David D. Porter Camp 116 of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and their guests greet each other Oct. 25 following the rededication ceremony at the Memorial Opera House in downtown Valparaiso.

Most 14-year-olds reside in that awkward, transitional stage between middle school and high school.

Valparaiso's Winfield Brewer didn't have time for awkward when he was that age, but his life was all things transitional.

In 1862, 14-year-old Brewer traded in the school books and tin whistles of his boyhood for a military drum and blue Army uniform, enlisting in Porter County's Company C of the 99th Indiana Volunteer Infantry.

A century and a half ago today, Brewer, then about 16, was among dozens of Northwest Indiana Civil War soldiers steeling their bodies and minds in preparation for what would become known as Sherman's March to the Sea.

The famous — or infamous, if you're a Southern native — march through Georgia began 150 years ago this month. It's hailed as one of the most pivotal military operations in U.S. history, and men from Northwest Indiana were part of it.

Between Nov. 15 and Dec. 21, 1864, Union Gen. William T. Sherman helped usher in the end to our nation's bloodiest conflict by leading a "total war" assault.

It's a simple way of saying Sherman marched his men through Georgia, then a breadbasket of the south, torching plantations and looting, seizing or destroying nearly everything of value in the Army's path.

It took a soldier's war to a civilian's population and certainly helped bring about a Confederate surrender the following spring, ending the bloodiest four years in our nation's history.

The stories of the march's Northwest Indiana men inspire awe.

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Winfield Brewer was one of the youngest region Civil War participants on record.

As a drummer boy for the 99th Indiana Infantry, he would have seen countless human hardships. He had a front-row seat in the war's western theater of death — would have witnessed the scourge of brutal fighting and wave after wave of often fatal camp diseases.

Brewer would survive the war, return home and later run away as a drummer with the P.T. Barnum traveling circus band when it came through Valparaiso.

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Winfield Township's Sgt. Henry Wise also took part in Sherman's March. Wise survived the war and established the Crown Point brickyard that supplied the bricks for what is now the Old Lake County Courthouse on the city's square.

And then there was Lt. John Merrill, who served side by side with dozens of Lake County men in Company A of the 99th Indiana. Merrill was the son of Dudley Merrill, for whom Merrillville is named.

It was inspiring last month to see a re-dedication of a renovated Memorial Opera House in downtown Valparaiso. Local men from the 99th, who served in Sherman's March, were among veterans who helped secure the funds to build this beautiful, historic structure after the Civil War.

The stories and service of our local men in the nation's most pivotal war — and in some of that war's most defining engagements — should remain a huge source of pride in a region that today seems to struggle in defining its identity.

Perhaps the cadence of young Winfield Brewer's drum can still echo in our hearts as we write our own chapters of history.

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



Marc Chase is a veteran investigative reporter, columnist and editor of more than two decades. He currently leads The Times news staff as local news editor. He can be reached at 219-933-3327.