By Sal Martoche
Mary Dee and I decided that it was finally time to retire our 18-year-old Chrysler Sebring convertible after years of extraordinary service.
We had taken that car down to Florida years ago where it served us well, but it was beginning to show signs that the time had come for us to part ways. We planned to drive my car to Florida this year so that we had a dependable vehicle at our disposal. We thought it would be a good idea to break up the trip and so decided to make a mini vacation and adventure out of the project.
The first stop was Gettysburg, Pa., which was a wonderful beginning. We had both wanted to visit the battlefield there for many years and it was definitely a “bucket list” item for us both. We arranged a private tour of the battlefield and a second tour later in the day to visit the Eisenhower farm of our late president, which is adjacent to the battlefield.
We could not have been happier with our choices. We spent three hours touring the battlefield with a superb, specially trained retired teacher, Deb Novotny. She proved to be perfect in every way: knowledgeable, personable, willing to answer questions and absolutely devoted to this special task.
One of our takeaways is the exemplary amount of cooperation and concern among the various government and private entities committed to preserving, as much as possible, the battlefields and the town as they were at the time of the battles in 1863.
Of course, the casualties that mounted up in those three days at the beginning of July were breathtaking and marked one of the saddest periods in our national history. One can’t help but wonder how this could happen and what must be done to prevent it from ever happening again.
Then, as has happened time and again, we learned of an extraordinary Buffalo connection that I probably heard about long ago but had very little memory of. Samuel Wilkeson, one of the founders of the City of Buffalo and one of its earliest mayors, had a son, Sam Wilkeson, and a grandson, Bayard Wilkeson, who are indelibly tied to the Battle of Gettysburg. Bayard, the 19-year-old grandson of Wilkeson Sr., was a captain in the Union Army on the first day of the battle. His father, Sam, was a distinguished journalist for The New York Times dispatched to cover the battle.
Bayard was seriously injured in battle on that very first day and sent to a makeshift hospital, where a surgeon was preparing to remove his badly damaged leg “which had been blown apart by a cannon ball or shrapnel” below the knee in an attempt to save his life. Before that could happen, that surgeon and the other medical staff, as well as many of the patients, were forced to withdraw because of heavy fire that endangered their lives.
Bayard, who had already lost a great deal of blood, was left behind, yet somehow found the strength and courage to tie a belt around his leg as a tourniquet and then proceeded to remove the bottom part of his limb by himself without benefit of any anesthetic. He survived for a few days but ultimately died from shock and the loss of blood he endured. His father, despite racing to the battlefield and looking for his son, did not arrive before Bayard’s death.
Students of the Civil War know that there are many, many such accounts of courage and tragedy. Importantly for history and for our remembrances, Sam Wilkeson the journalist memorialized the roles of himself and his son in stories that appeared in The New York Times, available online with a bit of searching.
As Wilkeson wrote: “Who can write the history of a battle whose eyes are immovably fastened upon a central figure of transcendingly absorbing interest – the dead body of an oldest born, crushed by a shell in a position where a battery should never have been sent, and abandoned to death in a building where surgeons dared not to stay?”
Wilkeson concluded: “My pen is heavy … Oh, you dead, who at Gettysburg have baptized with your blood the second birth of Freedom in America, how you are to be envied! I rise from a grave whose wet clay I have passionately kissed, and I look up and see Christ spanning this battlefield with his feet and reaching fraternally and lovingly up to heaven. His right hand opens the gates of Paradise – with his left he beckons to these mutilated, bloody swollen forms to ascend.”
Both men are buried in Forest Lawn, where, I am sure, these two remarkable Buffalonians would very much appreciate a visit.
Sal Martoche is a retired New York State Supreme Court justice and a lifelong Buffalonian with a particular interest in American history.