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47: Civil War Archive Capt Richard Wheeler, 23rd MA DOW
Civil War Archive of Captain Richard Wheeler, 23rd MA Vols., DOW
With civil war looming, Richard P. Wheeler joined a local drill club in his native Salem, Mass., to prepare for war, and in the late summer 1861, he took the plunge and enlisted. A 27 year old merchant, Wheeler was commissioned a Lieutenant in the 23rd Massachusetts Infantry, one of the regiments that formed the heart of Burnside's Expedition to North Carolina in January and February 1862 and that formed the backbone of the Department of North Carolina (and later Dept. of Virginia and North Carolina) for two years.
During the early part of 1862 (Jan. 1-Feb. 8), Wheeler kept a diary on loose leaf paper, documenting the beginnings of Burnside's Carolina expedition from just before boarding ship to the arrival in North Carolina. Trouble stalked the 23rd early on: while in Annapolis, Wheeler recorded an all too common, but unfortunate incident: a fellow of Co. C in our Regt... went into one of the Restaurant with one of his comrades. The other one espying a gun sitting in the corner took it up when it went of[f] passing through his comrads right eye and out at the back of his head. They had an examination and aquited the fellow as it was partly an accident... Nor did things improve when they got under way. While aboard ship at sea, Wheeler describes a moving account of a valiant attempt to rescue soldiers of the 9th NJ Infantry whose ship had been swamped (the collection also include a long (7p.) letter containing a second account of this famous incident). More prosaically, he records an incident that may have been repeated dozens of times during the first years of the war: This morning some one spied a sail coming down the sound from Roanoke Island imeaditely all eyes were directed upon her. A Gun Boat put out towards her and they soon met. She proved to be a small Schooner with some runaway negroes and two deserters. They stole the Sch and ran away. The[y] brott important information...
The collection includes ten letters written by Wheeler while the 23rd was stationed in North Carolina, mostly near Newbern. Although North Carolina was a side light to the main contest in Virginia and the Mississippi Valley, it was a constant struggle for control between the occupying Union forces and a combination of regular Confederate forces and guerrillas. Wheeler's letters give a taste both of the hardships he endured and the occasional moments of ironic humor that make up a military life, such as his tale of escorting five hundred prisoners through heavy rain to a steamer and being asked to guard them on board while hot meals awaited back at camp.
As one might expect of a man who joined a drill company before being called to service, Wheeler was an avid soldier and ardent unionist, with little sympathy for his fellow northerners who held back. On June 4, 1862, he wrote: We got the news heare yesterday of the excitement that was caused by the governments ordering out the military for three months... they will have a chance to try a soldiers life. But they wont be able to judge much, doing duty in a loyal state and doing it in a disloyal one is two things, in one everything is quiet and one can lie down to sleep and feel sure of a good nights sleep, while in the other one, you never know when you are safe or how long you can sleep... Following this rant is a fascinating account of doing guard duty at night, when only officers were allowed out and then only when wearing shoulder straps, giving a chance for the enlisted men to arrest their none-too-careful superiors. Our Boys enjoy it very much, he wrote, and it is quite amusing to heare them tell their experiences. One of our Boys took no less than Six Officers in the Guard House in one night. They had no straps on their shoulders and so they had to go. When they got theare they complained to the Provost Marshall and tried to get the sentinel reprimanded but instead of that he got complimented for doing his duty, as he ought to... A flavor of the local citizenry comes through, too, in Wheeler's letters, as when he describes the sight of country girls coming to do their shopping: Immagine a tall lank female about five foot and half high about as big around as a good stout bean pole, and just as fat, he wrote. Some with one skirt and some with only a dress on bare legged, the dress made out of some old faded calico. An old Cape Bonnet that looks more like an old fashioned Chise top than anything... they have to go under the escort of a Guard, and the guard has to heare all that is said so as to be sure that they do not bring in or carry out any information that might injure our caus...
In December 1862, the 23rd Massachusetts was called out for the expedition that resulted in the Battle of Kinston, Whitehall, and Goldsboro in short order. In a spectacular, long (10p.) and detailed letter to his brother, Wheeler describes the expedition from the moment of its leaving Newbern through its bloody conclusion: Nothing of much interest happened until last Sunday the 14th, he began. We were advancing on Kingston and at about ten or rather earlier our artillery began to shell the woods in advance and found the rebels as thick as flies in the woods. Our regiment being in advance except one already engaged and the 23th we were ordered forward and filed into a swamp where the mud was more than knee deep. The rebels opened fire though there was not one to be seen. We replied to it, in good style: soon they poured an awful volley upon us and we were ordered to lie down and load and fire as we could. You may think it a hard place to stretch out, but a man wont mind that a great deal when bullet are singing around his head. No doubt you think you can imagine what a battle is, but until a person is engaged in one, he can tell nothing about it.... The firing was mostly on the left of the swamp, but it soon ceased there, and we oblique to the right, and got on the side of knoll, then they fired from in front..." Much more, including describing his own (slight) wound in the face and the death of the man next to him: "the rebels commenced shelling is, this was awful. One shell burst within a few feet of me, and I saw several fellows thrown on their backs by it. We were in the swamp some time unsupported, but the 10th Conn. Came in, and fought like tigers.... Also an account of his experiences supporting the artillery, the sight of the town, etc. The regiment was not engaged at Goldsborough, but held in reserve.
A second, quite different account of Kinston (and Whitehall) appears in a letter to his mother on Dec. 27, 1862, with another description of the death of Sgt. Fowler: he was struck in the head and killed instantly. I was in command of our Co. all the time that we weare gone, and of course I felt very anxious. It was my first time that I had eaver had command of a Co in action, and the first time that I had eaver been in action with Co. A., but every man did his duty and all stood up to it like me. In this letter, Wheeler singled out the Pennsylvanians in the column for their cowardly behavior: At Kinston we weare ordered to support the 85th Pennsylvania and had to form our line in a swamp with the water knee deep.... The 85th behaved very badly, running back into our lines, hiding behind trees and doing everything that is unsoldierly. We had hard work to keep them from running through our lines, and if our Boys had not been old hands at it, I think that the 85th would have broken themselves, but our Boys kept calling them cowards and hooting at them and everything else until they got so ashamed of it that they went back where they belonged. I am glad that it was not a Mass Regt that behaved so, for it it had been I should be ashamed to own that I belonged to the State...
In May, 1863, Wheeler describes a sharp skirmish seven miles from Kinston, though thankfully nothing like the major engagement of December: Our Co carried the colors and remained on the track and the rest filed into the field on the left and engaged the rebels. The firing was quite sharp, but the Col soon called on our Co to charge. We fired a volley, and then went in with a yell, our other companies following. We found nary a reb inside, for they had made tracks for the woods and commenced firing again. We returned it until they were out of our reach. I said there were none inside when we got there, but there were a few, either dead or wounded...
Early in 1864, the 23rd was among the regiments pulled from the vicinity of Newbern to support the spring offensive in Virginia. Called north, the regiment was engaged at Drewry's Bluff on May 16, 1864, where Wheeler sustained a severe wound. In an extraordinary letter (3p.) from Chesapeake Hospital, he provides a spectacularly rare account of a soldier describing what would be his own mortal wound: My wound is one but very few ever recover from. I was struck in the abdomen by a piece of shell which tore open my clothing and broke the skin of the abdomen, but the iron did not enter the flesh. My intestines lay out several inches and many bade me goodbye on the field of battle, thinking that I could live even to be got off the field. I was carried nearly a mile and a half in a blanket and it hurt me so I begged the boys to lay me own and let me die, but Capt. Raynard of Beverley took charge of me and would not let them leave me till they got me to the field hospital... Equally rare, Wheeler describes receiving triage in the field and being sent to the rear in bone jarring ambulances. He died in hospital at Hampton, Va., a couple of weeks later.
The collection is rounded out with a series of nine heartfelt letters of condolence from Wheeler's comrades in the 23rd and other regiments. Deeply felt, emotional, and highly personal, with offers of last memories of Wheeler, offers to assist with sending the body home and securing the pay due him. Among these is a lovely formal resolution of the commissioned officers of the 23rd, testifying to the life and character of Wheeler, as well as a testimony from the City Council of Salem. Also included are three documents relating to Wheeler's service, a manuscript special orders detailing him as Chief of Ambulance Corps, Jan. 7, 1862, and relieving him that duty, Mar. 6, 1863; and a muster-in roll to the 23rd Massachusetts, Dec. 9, 1862. Worthy of particular note is Wheeler's scarce partially printed certificate of appointment as Sergeant in the Union Drill Club of Salem, dated Sept. 5, 1861.
Of the hundreds of thousands of deaths during the Civil War and millions of letters, personal descriptions of one's own mortal wounding are among the rarest of all items. Wheeler's frighteningly honest, vivid account is one of the best in existence, enhanced by the testimonials and accounts of his comrades. An exceptional collection, well preserved with expected wear and tear, documenting the life of a Bay Stater killed in action.
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