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John Whitehead: Bearing the Weight of Others

By Steve Martin

During the American Civil War, this nation’s most devastating self-inflicted blow, a conflict that took more American lives than all wars in our history combined, a Wayne County, Indiana, Baptist minister who would neither carry a weapon nor raise a hand against another human being literally bore the weight of others — wounded soldiers — on his broad shoulders, carrying them to safety.

Were the casualties of the Civil War, at least 2% of the nation’s population, translated to today’s census, they would represent more than 6,000,000 deaths. The horrifically destructive conflict began largely over the issue of slavery. In 1790 the American south was producing 1,000 tons of cotton annually; by 1860, more than 1,000,000 tons. During that same period, the number of slaves in the nation grew from a half-million to four million; one out of seven Americans belonged to another human being.

At the birth of the United States, Thomas Jefferson had desired that human enslavement be abolished, quite rightly believing it incompatible with American revolutionary principles and “the spirit of God,” but in 1776 it was not possible to obtain the signatures of a unified block of southerners on a Declaration of Independence that would allow black emancipation. Slavery remained due to southern economic dependence on that institution. Jefferson ominously predicted that if war should come over the issue, “God… be on the side of the blacks.”

War did come, and soon the Reverend John Milton Whitehead found himself struggling weaponless on a battlefield amidst hails of bullets, carrying to safety not only the wounded, but also those who were dying and whom he bore to the succor of spiritual comfort and prayer.

The son of John and Catherine Brown Whitehead, John was born near Boston, Indiana (then it was called New Boston), on March 6, 1823 and as an adult he became an army chaplain in the 15th Indiana Volunteer Infantry. He married Jane Patterson on July 4, 1847, and fifteen years later, at the age of 39, found himself in the midst of a deadly contest at Stones River, Tennessee. Though inconclusive, this deadly clash had the highest percentage of casualties on both sides of all major battles of the war: 12,906 northern dead, 11,739 southern.

In Deeds of Valor: How America’s Civil War Heroes Won the Congressional Medal of Honor [1912], Reverend Whitehead’s own words tell what happened:

On the night of Dec. 30, 1862, my regiment, the 15th Indiana, was ordered to cross Stones River, at the ford. The command was obeyed, but as we advanced up the hill on the opposite side, we met the enemy in force and, countermarching quickly, recrossed the river. Here we bivouacked. Early the next morning our colonel cried, “Get your men up! Our pickets are falling back! The enemy is advancing!”

In a second we were all astir, and at the dawn of that day the bloody battle of Stones River commenced . . . Our position was between the river on our left and the railroad and turnpike on our right, and directly in front of the enemy’s corps. The firing from the Confederate batteries was terrible and destructive . . . Our regiment was ordered to hold our position on the left, nearest to the river, at all hazards. Three times we charged Jackson’s Brigade and three times put the enemy to flight, capturing a greater number of prisoners than there were men in our command when we went into battle. But this was accomplished only with a fearful loss of life. Of my own regiment every other man was either killed or wounded, that is, half were gone.

Though a non-combatant, I was with my regiment during the entire affair, comforting the dying, carrying off the wounded, caring for them and praying . . . During the struggle, Captain Robert J. Templeton fell fatally wounded. I carried him to the rear and remained at his side until he breathed his last. I copied his last message and sent it to his friends at home. My own nextdoor neighbor from Westville, Indiana, Captain James N. Foster, dropped mortally wounded into my arms, the same ball killing two other brave soldiers . . . Colonel I.C.B. Surnan, of the Ninth Indiana, was shot twice, one ball severing the artery in the arm, the other penetrating the body and lodging between two ribs, whence I pulled it out with my fingers. One boot was filled with blood and he lay bleeding his life away. I dressed his wounds and helped him on his horse and he rode back into the raging battle . . . John Long, a private, had one leg shot to pieces.

He cut the dangling limb off with his own pocketknife and hobbled off using his gun for a crutch, until I took him up and carried him to the rear. Calvin Zenner of Company G received a fatal wound. I carried him back. A number of soldiers gathered around their dying comrade as I offered a prayer for him, and sang, “O Sing to Me of Heaven” . . . He soon closed his eyes and ceased to breathe. After nightfall, when both armies were quiet along the front lines, I helped to bring the wounded to the general hospital, carrying those who could not walk on my shoulders to the ambulance.

Colonel I.C.B. Surnan testified:

“I was severely wounded at the Battle of Stones River. When Chaplain Whitehead gave me his assistance, he was all besplattereded with the blood of the injured he had cared for. He seemed to be an angel among the wounded . . . singlehandedly with grapeshot whizzing about him, carrying incapacitated and dying men from the field of battle, after which he knelt and prayed for them. Yankees and Johnny Rebs fell alike, as we are all under one Supreme Maker . . . and in many cases into His hands delivered . . . Reverend Whitehead prayed for all. He thought nothing of the danger he was in, caring for those hurt, looking after the dead, directing and assisting in burial. In camp, on the march and on the field of battle, especially that of Stones River, John Milton Whitehead’s services were performed admirably at the risk of his own life, without the hope for reward or promotion . . . Later that night while both armies were quiet along the front lines, the Chaplain fetched more wounded to a general hospital futher back, carrying those who could not walk on his shoulders to awaiting ambulance wagons. He was help to many hundreds of injured soldiers and brought comfort and solace to a great number of dying . . . preaching at many a hero’s gaves.”

Reverend John Milton Whitehead was later presented the highest military honor for bravery the nation could bestow for his actions. His April 4, 1898 Medal of Honor citation reads:

“Went to the front during a desperate contest and unaided carried to the rear several wounded and helpless soldiers.” Only three Civil War chaplains received the nation’s highest honor for military bravery. One of them was Wayne County’s Reverend John Milton Whitehead, the first chaplain ever to be awarded this honor in the nation’s history. At the risk of his own life, he bore the burden of others.

Steve MartinSteve Martin is a Reference/Government Documents librarian at Morrisson-Reeves Library in Richmond, Indiana. He writes the weekly history column “Out of Our Past” for the Palladium-Item newspaper. He is the author of Wayne County Bicentennial by the Numbers, Richmond’s Pennsylvania Depot Site: Gateway to American History and Wayne County Women & Whiskey: Wild & Wooly Times in Early Hoosier Taverns on the Old National Road.

  • chbriansmith

    Thank you for the article about Chaplain Whitehead. The rest of his life was just as fascinating. His father, one of the earliest settlers, started the first Baptist Church in the county. Chaplain Whitehead continued his ministry as a Baptist minister after the war and assisted many veterans to heal. He survived the Chicago Fire and ministered to his church and the community there. He lead a long life well into his 90’s and started many churches in Kansas and the Indian Territories. Only one of his children bore children. As of the 1980’s, he had over 300 descendants. His last act as a minister was to baptize his last born grandchild. He died a few weeks later. He is the model of resiliency.