Stephen Decatur Whitaker, Sr., Obituary

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Stephen Decatur Whitaker, Sr., Obituary

N.C. Tuesday, June 5, 1900
Andrews, May 31, 1900 - Capt. Stephen Whitaker of this place died at his home at 11 o'clock p.m. on the 20th inst.  He was the fifth son of James Whitaker and wife Mary Whitaker of Rowan County, NC.  He was born on February 9, 1814, in the Swannanoa Valley, in the then wilds of Buncombe county, and moved with his father to Franklin, Macon county, in the year 1824, and in 1835 he moved with his father to Valley River, this county.  He married Elizabeth, daughter of David and Mary Taylor, April 2, 1837, she preceding him nine years.  There were 15 children born unto them of whom 10 are now living.  Two infants are buried here, two are lying in the west, but they left heirs in that country; one lying in Georgia, buried among strangers, she left one heir.
Now it may be truthfully said that Stephen Whitaker was one of the pioneers of this grand country.  He helped to lay out and construct the public roads and aided in furnishing material to build churches and school houses.  At the land sale of 1838 he purchased from the State the farm upon which he raised his children, and was in the last permitted to die at the age of 86, in the presence of seven children, some grandchildren, other relatives and neighbors.  By his indomitable courage and the judicial management of the net earnings from his farm, together with moneys held in trust for his children, he accumulated land clear of incumbrance for each child a good home.
The deceased as a Confederate veteran, first acted under authority of Col. W.H. Thomas as commissary at Camp Cooper, Chilhowie, Tenn., in the year 1862.  In September of that year he was authorized to raise a company.  The first to volunteer was Joshua A. Young.  His company (E) was mustered into service September 8, 1862.  He did valiant service under the Southern cross in East Tennessee and Maryland under Gen. Early in 1864.  In August of that year he was discharged from the general hospital at Charlottesville, Va., with orders to proceed to Valleytown, NC to await orders from his commanding officer, where he was soon put in command.  On January 4, 1864, he was promoted to Major, and on hearing of the surrender of Lee and Johnson in April, and Col. Thomas and Col. James R. Love at Asheville and Waynesville on May 8th and 9th, he went to Franklin with a truce and surrendered his men to Col. Kirk on May 12, 1865. Hence, he was the last field officer to lay down his arms in Western North Carolina, and on the 21st day of September, 1865, he took the oath of allegiance.
But the mind of a man is such that we cannot follow in the footsteps of one who was permitted to live 86 years.  We are unable to note the many changes wrought in such a life.  But we may safely judge from the papers on file of the honest intention to deal justly with mankind. Therefore, we feel sure, judging from such evidence, that he proved his faith by his works, believing as he did to help the pure and honest dealing was good religion.  Life is a great mystery, but death is greater.  The deceased was conscious to the last.  He bore his afflictions without a murmur.  He said people must die and for us not to be alarmed; that he must go.  He asked us to turn him over on his back, so he could die.  But said his life was prolonged one hour, which he lived to a few seconds.  He was laid by the side of his wife at 3 o'clock on the 22nd just, in Valleytown cemetery.
How can one in preparation of death be so calm if he had no hope?  How could he bear his affliction with such fortitude?  How could he tell us that he must go and not to be alarmed, if he had no hope?  Greater the mystery, how he knew his life was prolonged?  How did he know he would live one more wretched night?  Still greater the mystery, how he knew he would only live just one hour.  Was his life prolonged by some prayer or was it by his own request.
J. Mc W. (written by his son, James Mack Whitaker)
Provided Courtesy of Ms. Rita Jones; she retains original copy of the Mr. Stephen Decatur Whitaker, Sr., Obituary. Special acknowledgement to Ms. Carolyn Ellertson for her assistance.

According to Stephen Whitaker’s obituary and other sources, his rank is stated as Captain and sometimes as Major. This is how I reconcile the captain v. major:  

Stephen signed his parole document as “Captain” Stephen Whitaker on May 12, 1865, (see "The Last Shot") and Union Colonel George Kirk, Federal 3rd NC Mounted Infantry, received it on that date. May 12, 1865, is also one month after Lee's surrender to Grant. Stephen commanded Walker's Battalion (aka 1st Battalion, Thomas' Legion) for a portion of the war. Battalion commanders were typically a major or, one rank higher, lieutenant colonel. It appears that his promotion was recognized throughout the legion, and even in his obituary.

The obituary refers to Stephen Whitaker as both Captain and Major. It initially reflects: "May 31, 1900 - Capt. Stephen Whitaker of this place died at his home at 11 o'clock p.m. on the 20th inst." It also has Whitaker being promoted to Major on January 4, 1864. I believe the promotion date should reflect January 4, 1865, which is 3 months before the war ended. The reason I believe it should reflect Jan. 1865 is because the obituary reflects: “On January 4, 1864, he was promoted to Major, and on hearing of the surrender of Lee and Johnson in April…” Lee and Johnson surrendered on April 9, 1865. Also, just before the promotion comment the obituary states: “…under Gen. Early in 1864.” Gen. Jubal “Ole Jube” Early and the Thomas Legion were not in the Shenandoah Valley until June 1, 1864, which is also five months after the Jan. 1864 promotion in the obituary. Continuity leads me to believe that he was nominated to "Major" and that the nomination also occurred in Jan. 1865. 

In January 1865 the Confederate command structure, and practically all communication with western North Carolina, was in shambles. It appears that Stephen was nominated for Major but the endorsement in Richmond never occurred. That is probably why the obituary begins with: "Andrews, May 31, 1900 - Capt. Stephen Whitaker of this place died at his home at 11 o'clock p.m. on the 20th inst."

We must remember that Richmond was in the process of being evacuated because of Grant's relentless bombardments during the 1865 Richmond-Petersburg Campaign. Confederate records were also being destroyed by both Confederate and Union officials. Some Confederates viewed their documents as evidence for the Yankees. They further understood that all Confederate documents were incriminating and paramount to "Treason against the Union." At the time, the Rebels didn't know if they would be hanged, shot or imprisoned for their rebellion.

Union or United States Army records were pretty well preserved, but unfortunately Confederate records weren’t. So when we find bits-n-pieces of Confederate documents, it is really great.

It is also this writer's view that Stephen Whitaker should have been officially promoted to at least major due to "rank versus responsibility." There is no doubt that Stephen Whitaker's promotion would have been "approved" if: 1) communication with Richmond was open and 2) Richmond wasn't under siege.

NEW! North Carolina Troops, 1861-1865: A Roster (Volume XVI: Thomas's Legion) (Hardcover, 537 pages), North Carolina Office of Archives and History (June 26, 2008). Description: The volume begins with an authoritative 246-page history of Thomas's Legion. The history, including Civil War battles and campaigns, is followed by a complete roster and service records of the field officers, staff, and troops that served in the legion. A thorough index completes the volume. Continued below...

Volume XVI of North Carolina Troops: A Roster contains the history and roster of the most unusual North Carolina Confederate Civil War unit, significant because of the large number of Cherokee Indians who served in its ranks. Thomas's Legion was the creation of William Holland Thomas, an influential businessman, state legislator, and Cherokee chief. He initially raised a small battalion of Cherokees in April 1862, and gradually expanded his command with companies of white soldiers raised in western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, and Virginia. By the end of 1862, Thomas's Legion comprised an infantry regiment and a battalion of infantry and cavalry. An artillery battery was added in April 1863. Furthermore, in General Early's Army of the Valley, the Thomas Legion was well-known for its fighting prowess. It is also known for its pivotal role in the last Civil War battle east of the Mississippi River. The Thomas Legion mustered more than 2,500 soldiers and it closely resembled a brigade. With troop roster, muster records, and Compiled Military Service Records (CMSR) this volume is also a must have for anyone interested in genealogy and researching Civil War ancestors. Simply stated, it is an outstanding source for genealogists.

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Highly Recommended Reading: Storm in the Mountains: Thomas' Confederate Legion of Cherokee Indians and Mountaineers (Thomas' Legion: The Sixty-ninth North Carolina Regiment). Vernon H. Crow, Storm in the Mountains, spent 10 years conducting extensive Thomas Legion's research. Crow was granted access to rare manuscripts, special collections, and privately held diaries which add great depth to this rarely discussed Civil War legion. He explores and discusses the unit's formation, fighting history, and life of the legion's commander--Cherokee chief and Confederate colonel--William Holland Thomas. Continued below...

Numerous maps and photographs allow the reader to better understand and relate to the subjects discussed. It also contains rosters which is an added bonus for researchers and genealogists. Crow, furthermore, left no stone unturned while examining the many facets of the Thomas Legion and his research is conveyed on a level that scores with Civil War students and scholars alike.


Recommended Reading: Bushwhackers, The Civil War in North Carolina: The Mountains (338 pages). Description: Trotter's book (which could have been titled "Murder, Mayhem, and Mountain Madness") is an epic backdrop for the most horrific murdering, plundering and pillaging of the mountain communities of western North Carolina during the state’s darkest hour—the American Civil War. Commonly referred to as Southern Appalachia, the North Carolina and East Tennessee mountains witnessed divided loyalties in its bushwhackers and guerrilla units. These so-called “bushwhackers” even used the conflict to settle old feuds and scores, which, in some cases, continued well after the war ended. Continued below...

Some bushwhackers were highly organized ‘fighting guerrilla units’ while others were a motley group of deserters and outliers, and, since most of them were residents of the region, they were familiar with the terrain and made for a “very formidable foe.” In this work, Trotter does a great job on covering the many facets of the bushwhackers, including their: battles, skirmishes, raids, activities, motives, the outcome, and even the aftermath. This book is also a great source for tracing ancestors during the Civil War; a must have for the family researcher of Southern Appalachia.


Recommended Reading: Hardtack & Coffee or The Unwritten Story of Army Life. Description: Most histories of the Civil War focus on battles and top brass. Hardtack and Coffee is one of the few to give a vivid, detailed picture of what ordinary soldiers endured every day—in camp, on the march, at the edge of a booming, smoking hell. John D. Billings of Massachusetts enlisted in the Army of the Potomac and survived the hellish conditions as a “common foot soldier” of the American Civil War. "Billings describes an insightful account of the conflict – the experiences of every day life as a common foot-soldier – and a view of the war that is sure to score with every buff." Continued below...

The authenticity of his book is heightened by the many drawings that a comrade, Charles W. Reed, made while in the field. This is the story of how the Civil War soldier was recruited, provisioned, and disciplined. Described here are the types of men found in any outfit; their not very uniform uniforms; crowded tents and makeshift shelters; difficulties in keeping clean, warm, and dry; their pleasure in a cup of coffee; food rations, dominated by salt pork and the versatile cracker or hardtack; their brave pastimes in the face of death; punishments for various offenses; treatment in sick bay; firearms and signals and modes of transportation. Comprehensive and anecdotal, Hardtack and Coffee is striking for the pulse of life that runs through it.


Recommended Reading: The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina (Hardcover). Description: The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina constitutes the most comprehensive and inclusive single-volume chronicle of the state’s storied past to date, culminating with an attentive look at recent events that have transformed North Carolina into a southern megastate. Integrating tales of famous pioneers, statesmen, soldiers, farmers, captains of industry, activists, and community leaders with more marginalized voices, including those of Native Americans, African Americans, and women, Milton Ready gives readers a view of North Carolina that encompasses perspectives and personalities from the coast, "tobacco road," the Piedmont, and the mountains in this sweeping history of the Tar Heel State. The first such volume in more than two decades, Ready’s work offers a distinctive view of the state’s history built from myriad stories and episodes. The Tar Heel State is enhanced by one hundred and ninety illustrations and five maps. Continued below...

Ready begins with a study of the state’s geography and then invites readers to revisit dramatic struggles of the American Revolution and Civil War, the early history of Cherokees, the impact of slavery as an institution, the rise of industrial mills, and the changes wrought by modern information-based technologies since 1970. Mixing spirited anecdotes and illustrative statistics, Ready describes the rich Native American culture found by John White in 1585, the chartered chaos of North Carolina’s proprietary settlement, and the chronic distrust of government that grew out of settlement patterns and the colony’s early political economy. He challenges the perception of relaxed intellectualism attributed to the "Rip van Winkle" state, the notion that slavery was a relatively benign institution in North Carolina, and the commonly accepted interpretation of Reconstruction in the state. Ready also discusses how the woman suffrage movement pushed North Carolina into a hesitant twentieth-century progressivism. In perhaps his most significant contribution to North Carolina’s historical record, Ready continues his narrative past the benchmark of World War II and into the twenty-first century. From the civil rights struggle to the building of research triangles, triads, and parks, Ready recounts the events that have fueled North Carolina’s accelerated development in recent years and the many challenges that have accompanied such rapid growth, especially those of population change and environmental degradation.

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