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Major George W. Whitman, Fifty-first N. Y. V. V.1


We cannot allow the final mustering out from army service of the above-mentioned officer, which took place yesterday, to pass without a more elaborate mention in these columns than the brief, though markedly complimentary, allusions in the papers in their reports of his lately returned regiment and its ovations. Last fall, our readers may remember, Major Whitman (then Captain) was spoken of by us as at that time a prisoner of war in Libby Prison, after an extended career of soldiering.2 He is of old Long Island stock, and is Brooklyn born and raised. His folks reside in the Twentieth Ward, and he is more immediately known in that and in the Seventh and Eleventh Wards.

At the time the war commenced he was working at his trade as carpenter, being foreman for Mr. Ray, a boss builder of this city. Some of our readers will doubtless remember the animated scene of the gathering and starting off, from the Brooklyn Armory in Henry street, of the Thirteenth Regiment, one day in the latter part of April, 1861. Among those who accoutred themselves then and there, and started off for a hundred days' service, was George W. Whitman. Like many other young men, he then knew almost nothing of military discipline or practial soldiering; but the great Union call sounded, and he quietly but promptly put away his tools, locked up his chest, put the key in charge of the boss, and betook himself to the field. From that day to the present he has been in genuine active service until last Friday, when he returned with his regiment, the Fifty-first New York (First Brigade, Second Division, Ninth Corps), to be mustered out.

We cannot, of course, undertake to describe what has occurred to him during that time with any minuteness—the experiences, marches, battles, imprisonment, escapes, &c.—but will present a chronological outline, from which the reader may judge for himself of Major Whitman's military career:

  • April, 1861.—Left Brooklyn as a private in Thirteenth Regiment; served the following hundred days in Baltimore, Washington, and parts of Virginia and Maryland.
  • August.—Returned with Thirteenth; joined the Fifty-first N. Y. Volunteers, then organizing.
  • October.—Was made Sergeant-Major of Fifty-first; left New York with the regiment.
  • December.—Quartered at Annapolis, drilling and waiting for orders.
  • January, 1862.—Received orders; soon afterward went to sea, bound South, with Burnside's expedition;3 a stormy voyage.
  • February 8.—Engaged in battle of Roanoke;4 loss of regiment slight.
  • March 14.—Battle of Newbern;5 loss severe. Promoted to Second Lieutenant.
  • July.—Ordered North with regiment; returned by sea.
  • August 30.—Battle of Bull Run (second);6 loss severe.
  • September 1.—Battle of Chantilly;7 loss slight.
  • September 14.—South Mountain.8 These fights mostly at night.
  • September 17.—Battle of Antietam;9 loss severe. Promoted to First Lieutenant.
  • November 11.—White Sulphur Springs.10 This summer and fall in Pope's and McClellan's campaigns, tramping and fighting all the time up and down Virginia and Maryland; a good hard four months.
  • December 13.—Battle of Fredericksburg;11 wounded in face. Loss of regiment severe. Promoted to Captain.
  • February, 1863.—Left Falmouth with regiment.
  • April, May, etc.—With regiment on service in Kentucky.
  • June, July, etc.—In siege of Vicksburg, under Grant.12
  • July 17, 1863,—In battle of Jackson, Miss.,13 after a hot and dusty forced march.
  • August to November, 1863.—In service in Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, &c.
  • January, 1864.—Ordered North.
  • February.—With regiment in New York on reenlistment furlough.
  • March.—At Annapolis; the regiment filled up with new men.
  • April.—Marched through Washington; joined Army of the Potomac.
  • May 6.—In battle of Wilderness;14 fighting, and loss severe.
  • May 12.—Spottsylvania;15 loss severe.
  • May 18.—Spottslyvania; loss severe. Had some very narrow escapes in these battles, shells smashing canteen hung on side, and bullets through clothes, more plentiful than pleasant.
  • May 24.—North Anna;16 loss slight.
  • May 26.—Tollopotamy;17 loss slight.
  • June 2.—Bethesda Church;18 loss slight.
  • June 8.—Cold Harbor;19 loss slight.
  • June 17.—Petersburg;20 loss slight.
  • July 30.—Petersburg;21 loss severe.
  • August 19.—Weldon Railroad;22 loss slight.
  • September 30.—Poplar Grove Church;23 severe; was here taken prisoner; whole regiment captured.24
  • October, 1864 to March, 1865.—Incarcerated in Libby, Salisbury, and Danville military prisons; taken sick in latter; placed in prison hospital; two months sick; two weeks very low indeed; recovered.
  • March, 1865.—Exchanged; arrived at Annapolis; furloughed, and home to recuperate.
  • April.—Rejoined the regiment near Petersburg; commissioned as Major.
  • June.—Ordered North, the war over; went into camp near Alexandria, Va.
  • July.—On duty at Alexandria as commander of military prison, &c.
  • August, 1865.—Returned to New York with regiment; men and officers mustered out.

Such is an outline or skeleton of George W. Whitman's military life from the day he first left Brooklyn till he returned a few days ago. Who could fill up the details of this outline? What pen could anything like fully describe the varied scenes and experiences of that eventful stretch of time; the long marches, hard diet, sea-voyaging, frequent deprivation of food, scenes in new locations, scouting, picketing, travelling strange roads, advances on the enemy, the sight of the works, thoughts while waiting for the battle, the advance, the furious charge, the struggle, the wounded, the dead, the maddening excitement of active contest, the smoke, the comrades struck and falling, the blood, the scorched and singed jacket or pants, the quickly livid face, the strewn field, the heat, the sweat, the storm, the snow, the mud, the forced march through these, sometimes pursuing, sometimes retreating; of a war-experience, continued through springs, summers, autumns, and winters, well into the fifth year—a long and dark and bloody road of battle and death—who indeed can ever make a picture of it? Perhaps some of our readers will think such questions too romantic, but the veteran soldier will know they but faintly suggest the actual truths of war.

During the period mentioned Major Whitman, as partly said in our allusion to him last fall, has voyaged in his military capacity several times by sea, has taken a hand in nearly all the historic campaigns of the war, marched across fifteen States, journeyed over twenty thousand miles, and held command under Burnside, Pope, McClellan, McDowell, Hooker, Meade, Sherman, and Grant. Joining the service in April, 1861, he has remained in it through good luck and bad luck till Richmond was occupied by our troops, Lee capitulated, and secession utterly vanquished. Like many other good men, he has borne the heat and burden of the day, and deserves the commendation, "Well done, good and faithful servant of the flag!" But more fortunate than many, he now returns with life spared and body sound and whole.

Of Major Whitman, personally, it seems but justice to add that he is a type of the best average of the American young man of middle life. Those who know him best describe him as of very few words, a thorough soldier composed in manner, quick and stern in battle, never flustered under any contingency; in civil life an affectionate son and honorable citizen, cheerful, tolerant, and of that sterling common sense in affairs which is both intuitive and practical, and reaches its aim while the theorist dreams about it. In his regiment no one is more beloved by officers and men than he.

Nor should we conclude our account without mentioning some of the noblest young men of Brooklyn—fellow officers of the Major—who sanctified their heroic lives by deaths upon the field. We allude to Captain Daniel E. Jenkins, of the Eastern District of our city, a brave officer, who fell mortally wounded in May, 1864, in the Wilderness; Captain Samuel H. Sims, a model officer and gentleman, killed instantly on the charge at the Mine Explosion, July 30; Lieutenant Charles Bunker, also from the Eastern District, a brave young man, who fell in the trenches in August; and Lieutenant Frank Butler, who was killed at Poplar Grove.

We would like, indeed, to specify every Brooklyn man who has fallen in this regiment, especially those in the ranks. The number so fallen is large. Some have dropped in the fight, and all soon over; others have filled the graves of hospitals; others have come home to die of shorter or longer-lingering wounds; others fell under the hot sun, carrying the gun and knapsack, exhausted; and many—too many, alas!—sleep their last sleep in the foul trenches of the Andersonville and Salisbury stockades.

Of 2,000 enlisted men, and a long roster of officers, comprehended in the career of the Fifty-first Regiment, a sprinkling only of the original veterans remains, and of the number just stated, 400—mostly those by whom the regiment was filled up during the last few weeks of the war—have now been ordered here, and within the last two days mustered out, paid off, and discharged.


1. George Washington Whitman, Walt Whitman's younger brother by ten years, served with the Fifty–first New York Veteran Volunteers during the Civil War and was wounded at the First Battle of Fredericksburg. For some of Whitman's other writings about his brother's participation in the war, see "Our Brooklyn Boys in the War" (January 5, 1863); A Brooklyn Soldier, and a Noble One" (January 19, 1865); and "Return of a Brooklyn Veteran" (March 12, 1865). [back]

2. George Whitman was held at Libby Prison in Petersburg, Virginia, from the time of his capture on September 30, 1864 until he was transferred to Danville before October 23 of that year. [back]

3. In his North Carolina Expedition (February–June 1862), Union General Ambrose Burnside led campaigns against a series of Confederate strongholds along the coast of North Carolina. [back]

4. The Battle of Roanoke Island (North Carolina, February 7–8, 1862) was the first battle of Burnside's North Carolina Expedition. Burnside defeated Confederate General Henry Wise in this amphibious operation. [back]

5. The Battle of New Bern (North Carolina, March 14, 1862), made possible by the Union victory at Roanoke, proved another victory for Burnside, who this time defeated Confederate General Lawrence O'Bryan Branch. [back]

6. In the Second Battle of Bull Run (Virginia, August 29–30, 1862), Confederate General Robert E. Lee defeated Union General John Pope. With casualties totaling around 20,000, this battle was one of the bloodiest of the war. [back]

7. The Battle of Chantilly (also the Battle of Ox Hill; Virginia, September 1, 1862), fought between Union General Pope and Confederate General Lee, yielded inconclusive results, though the Union claimed it a victory. [back]

8. In the Battle of South Mountain (Maryland, September 14, 1862), Union General George McClellan defeated Confederate General Robert E. Lee. [back]

9. The Battle of Antietam (Maryland, September 17, 1862) was the bloodiest single-day battle in U.S. history, with casualties totaling between 23,000 and 26,000. Though a tactical stalemate, McClellan gained the strategic advantage over Lee by depleting Lee's recently replenished troops. [back]

10. White Sulphur Springs, Virginia, was the site of continuing skirmishes during August of 1862 along the Rappahannock River between Union forces under the command of Major General John Pope and Confederate forces under the command of Major General Stonewall Jackson. Also known as the First Battle of Rappahannock Station, there were a couple of hundred casualties, and fighting was inconclusive. Skirmishes continued in the area during the fall. The resort of White Sulphur Springs was turned into a hospital in 1862 and cared for both Union and Confederate soldiers. A major battle at White Sulphur Springs took place the following summer, but George Whitman was not involved in it. [back]

11. In the First Battle of Fredericksburg (Virginia, December 13, 1862), Lee defeated Burnside. [back]

12. In the Siege of Vicksburg (Mississippi, May 18–July 4, 1863), Union Major General Ulysses S. Grant defeated Confederate Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton. [back]

13. In the Battle of Jackson (July 10–17, 1863), Grant defeated Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston. [back]

14. The Battle of the Wilderness (Virginia, May 5–7, 1864) was the first battle of Grant's Overland Campaign. It was fought between Grant and Lee; the results were inconclusive. [back]

15. In the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse (Virginia, May 8–21, 1864), part of Grant's Overland Campaign, Grant joined with Major General George Meade to fight Lee; the results were inconclusive. [back]

16. The Battle of North Anna (Virginia, May 23–26, 1864) was part of General Grant's Overland Campaign. Grant and Meade fought Lee; the results were inconclusive. [back]

17. Whitman apparently refers here to the Battle of Totopotomoy Creek (Virginia, May 28–30, 1864), part of Grant's Overland Campaign. Grant and Meade fought Lee; the results were inconclusive. [back]

18. The Battle of Bethesda Church was another name for the Battle of Totopotomoy Creek, which effectively ended on May 30, 1864 (see above note), although a minor skirmish erupted at Bethesda Creek on June 2. [back]

19. In the Battle of Cold Harbor (Virginia, May 31–June 12, 1864), Grant and Meade defeated Lee. [back]

20. The second major battle in the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia, occurred June 15–18, 1864. Lee and General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard defeated Grant and Meade. [back]

21. On July 30, 1864, in Petersburg, Union troops exploded a mine under the Confederate line, which proved a tactical mistake for the Union. The crater created by the explosion became a trap for soldiers, and the resulting Battle of the Crater saw many Union casualties. Ultimately Confederates under Lee defeated Burnside's Union troops, and Burnside was fired for his role in this event's tactical errors. [back]

22. In the Second Battle of Weldon Railroad, more commonly known as the Battle of Globe Tavern (Virginia, August 18–21, 1864), Union Major General G.K. Warren defeated Lee, Lieutenant General A. P. Hill, Major General Henry Heth, and Major General William Mahone. [back]

23. In the Battle of Poplar Grove, also known as the Battle of Poplar Spring Church or the Battle of Peebles' Farm (Virginia, September 30–October 2, 1864), Meade defeated Lieutenant General A.P. Hill. [back]

24. Most of George Whitman's regiment was killed, captured, or unaccounted for after the Battle of Poplar Grove. For some of George Whitman's prison correspondence, see his letters of October 2, 1864 and October 23, 1864 to his mother. Early in his imprisonment, George described his "tip top spirits," calling himself "tough as a mule, and about as ugly." [back]

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