Saturday, May 9, 2015

Dying Far Far From Home: Isham Whitsell, 118th USCI

Using the records of the National Park Service at Poplar Grove National Cemetery, I was able to determine to my satisfaction that the above headstone actually belonged to Isham Whitsell (according to the spelling in service records), not Hawkins Whetzel [Whitsell] as had been previously noted by an online source. I believe this because the initial letter "J." on the engraved headstone appears to look very much like the "I" in his service records death notice. Again, like other soldiers I have previously profiled, the misspelling of the last name appears to be a phonetic mistake or misspelling/translation from the original location grave marker.

But, there is much more to this sad story of gave number 5124. Isham Whitsell enlisted in Company B, 118th United States Colored Infantry in Owensboro, Kentucky, with his brother Hawkins Whitsell. They were owned by George Whitsell of Slaughtersville (now Slaughters), Kentucky, in Webster County.

Not only do the brothers' service records tell a story of their time in uniform, they also hint at a past that involved the interstate slave trade. The birthplace for both Isham and Hawkins was noted as Granville County, North Carolina. Did George Whitsell move from North Carolina to Kentucky and bring these two slaves along, or did they come west as the property of another owner and later sold to Whitsell? We will likely never know, but regardless they would end up serving, and unfortunately dying, not far from their old home on the Virginia/North Carolina state line, but far far from their Kentucky home.

Isham was listed as twenty-two years old when he signed up on August 16, 1864 with his brother, Hawkins, who was only two years older. Little brother Isham was listed as five feet four inches tall, while Hawkins was significantly taller at five feet eleven inches.

The 118th USCI was composed of nine companies of Kentucky men and one company of Maryland men. At the end of October 1864 they were transferred from Baltimore to City Point (now Hopewell), Virginia. Not long after arriving at their new location, Isham was sent to the army hospital at Bermuda Hundred. He is listed as being there starting on November 4, 1864. Hawkins, however, may actually have been the first of the two brothers to become sick. The older brother is shown as being in the hospital in Baltimore in October, where the regiment was finally organized before being sent to Virginia. Although likely severely ill, it appears that Hawkins made the trip with the regiment to the Old Dominion, as he was placed in the army hospital at Bermuda Hundred in November. Both brothers were sick with small pox.

On November 18, Hawkins died at the hospital. Isham died one week later, on November 25. Did the brothers spend their last few days together side by side in hospital beds? Did they discuss their transformation from slaves to soldiers? Were they content to die knowing they were trying to reunite the country and help end slavery? Did they remember fond times spent together? Did they hope for a better future for their race?

Both brothers were initially buried at the Bermuda Hundred/Jones Landing location where so many of the hospital deaths were interred. While I am quite sure that Isham's remains are those grave marked at Poplar Grove National Cemetery, perhaps, and hopefully, Hawkins was placed in one of the numerous "Unknown Soldier" graves there too; the brothers united forever.

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