Rev. John M. Whitehead

Excerpted from Deeds of Valor

Like An Angel Among the Wounded

“On the night of December 30, 1862, my regiment, the Fifteenth Indiana, was ordered to cross Stone 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, recrossed the river. Here we bivouacked. Early the next morning our colonel passed along the officers’ lines and said: ‘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 day the bloody battle of Stone River commenced.

“Our position was between Stone River on our left and the railroad and turnpike on our right, and directly in front of Breckenridge’s Corps. The firing from the Confederate batteries was terrible and very destructive.

“Colonel G. A. Wood, who commanded our regiment, was ordered to hold our position on the left, nearest to the river, at all hazards. Three times he charged Jackson’s Brigade and three times put the enemy to flight, capturing a greater number of prisoners than there were men in our own command when we went into battle. But this was accomplished only with a fearful loss of life. Of my own regiment every alternate man was either killed or wounded. Though a non-combatant, I was with my regiment during the entire battle, comforting the dying, carrying off the wounded and caring for them.

“During the struggle Captain 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 next-door neighbor in Westville, Ind., Captain J. N. Forster, 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.

“One boot was filled with blood and he was 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 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 the dying comrade and I offered a prayer for him. He talked to all of us and then said: ‘Now boys, let us all once more sing a song together.’ And he struck up the hymn, ‘O Sing to Me of Heaven.’ Then he said: ‘Good-bye boys, I am going home. I am mustered out.’ And he 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 shoulder to the ambulance.”

Chaplain John M. Whitehead who furnishes the foregoing vivid pen picture from the battlefield with all its horrors, modestly omits to mention that he helped many hundreds of wounded soldiers, brought comfort and solace to a great number of dying and preached at many a hero’s grave. Colonel I. C. B. Suman says of him: “I was severely wounded at the battle of Stone River. When Chaplain Whitehead gave me his assistance, he was all besmeared with the blood of the wounded he had cared for. He seemed to be an angel among the wounded, Yankees and Johnnies alike. He thought nothing of the danger he was in, caring for the wounded, looking after the dead, directing and assisting their burial. I came in contact with many chaplains during my long service in the army and can truthfully state, that Rev. John M. Whitehead was the most worthy one that ever came under my notice. In camp, on the march, and on the field of battle, especially that of Stone River, his services were performed admirably, and without the hope of reward or promotion.

From the Topeka Capital Journal, October 2, 1986:

Records show that Whitehead was born March 6, 1823, in Wayne County, Ind., and was ordained a Baptist minister at age 21. He went into the battlefields in the early 1862 and served until the end of the war.

In 1890, he moved with his family to Topeka. He had a church in the Silver Lake community, but he helped to build the First Baptist Church in Topeka and conducted services there until he suffered a stroke in 1908. He died March 7, 1909, at the age of 86.

Whitehead had served as the chaplain for the Kansas Legislature and was well known for his public service.

About  Historic Topeka Cemetery

Historic Topeka Cemetery is operated by its lot owners, each of whom is a member of the Topeka Cemetery Association. Day-to-day operations are overseen by the association’s nine member board of directors and conducted by the superintendent.

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Historic Topeka Cemetery

1601 SE 10th Avenue . Topeka, Kansas 66607

(785) 233-4132

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