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Life of Civil War Soldier From DeKalb Preserved in More than 100 Letters

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DEKALB - John E. Whipple was a school teacher and a lay preacher who grew up on a DeKalb farm more than 150 years ago.

He was also a sergeant for the Union Army during the Civil War and an eloquent writer who penned more than 100 letters to north country family members as battles raged between the North and South.

“He has hundreds of stories. He wrote fluently, sometimes three letters a day,” DeKalb Historian Bryan S. Thompson said. “I find the different things he observed just amazing. He had his eyes open all the time, and he didn’t just write about the war.”

Fortunately, nearly all of Mr. Whipple’s letters were meticulously preserved by his ancestors including two great nephews who donated them to the town of DeKalb Historian’s Office for archival records. Other documents including a map, his teaching certificate and his preacher’s license were also donated.

From fighting on the battlefield to guarding Rebel prisoners, Mr. Whipple described the drama, horror and humor he experienced and observed. His letters cover his training, battles, his time in the hospital and his eventual assignment to the Elmira Prison Camp, where he guarded captured Confederate soldiers.

He also writes playful letters to a young niece and nephew who are just learning how to read.

“He was serious, but he also had a good sense of humor,” Mr. Thompson said.

Mr. Whipple fought with Company I of the 92nd New York State Volunteers and was trained in Potsdam after enlisting with his brother, Daniel, in 1861. In a letter dated June 8, 1862 from Camp at White Oak Swamp, Va., he describes a battle he was involved in a week earlier at Fair Oaks, a few miles from Richmond, Va.

“I went in with 29 men and had two killed and eight wounded and two missing,” he wrote. “I made up my mind that it would be all day with me, for the bullets flew like hail and I did not think it was possible to escape. They whipped past my ears, and cut the bushes and stumps around me and while retreating, a perfect show of lead rained upon us, but he that guides each whistling bullet and the hissing shell saw fit to turn them away from me and my life was spared still longer to praise him who doeth all things well.”

While many rural families at the time only sent their children to school through eighth grade, John attended the Gouverneur Wesleyan Seminary in the 1850s and was certified to teach in 1859.

Still in their original envelopes, the hand-written letters are in the process of being transcribed by Linda E. Blatt, a volunteer with the DeKalb museum and a member of the DeKalb Historical Association. As she completes them, she updates them online at the historian’s website:dekalbnyhistorian.org. Information about Mr. Whipple and his letters can be accessed by clicking on the link, Virtual Archives:Historical Letters.

Ms. Blatt said transcribing the letters has been similar to following a soap opera, compelling her to find out what happens next in Mr. Whipple’s life.

“I know how he feels about his mother, his father, his sister and I’ve gotten to know him over the last 109 letters,” Ms. Blatt said. “ What I want to do next is make a list of the most interesting and important ones so someone logging on to the web site will find the most fascinating letters easily.”

The letters can also be viewed by making an appointment at the Old Methodist Meetinghouse Museum, 696 East Dekalb Road. The museum is open from 12:30 to 4 p.m. Wednesdays, from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Thursdays and by appointment. The phone is 347-1900.

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