A forgivable offense, considering the man was mighty distracted: he’d arrived on the field to find that among the casualties to report was his eldest child.
Bayard Wilkeson, a Union lieutenant all of 19, had been commanding a battery of the 4th U.S. Artillery during fierce action north of town on the first day of battle, when an enemy shell left his right leg dangling by a tendon at the knee.
Wilkeson calmly finished the crude surgery by cutting the tendon with a penknife and applying a tourniquet. Taken to a nearby almshouse, he is said to have refused water so that another wounded man could have it. He died behind enemy lines.
Samuel Wilkeson got to the battlefield on the second day, July 2, and learned his son’s fate. He wasn’t able to retrieve Bayard’s body until the Army of Northern Virginia retreated on July 4.
Meanwhile, his broken heart hanging by a tendon, Samuel continued his job of reporting the battle.
“My pen is heavy,” he wrote.
“Oh, you dead, who at Gettysburgh (sic) 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.”
It wouldn’t the first or last time that members of the Wilkeson family were tendons of history.
Samuel’s father, Samuel Sr., had served as a judge and then as mayor of Buffalo, N.Y., during the time when the Erie Canal was being planned. He had convinced the powers-that-be to make Buffalo the canal’s western terminus, thus bringing much recognition and prosperity to the city.
Samuel the reporter was born in Buffalo in 1817. He would marry Catherine Cady, the sister of feminist pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Among the couple’s neighbors was former president Milliard Fillmore.
Samuel and Catherine had four children. A year after the death of Bayard, Frank, the youngest child, then 14, ran away to join the Union Army, lying about his age and causing his parents no end of worry.
Like his late brother, he became a lieutenant of artillery with the 4th U.S. Unlike Bayard, Frank survived the war.
Post-bellum, Samuel and Frank traveled to the Great Northwest to explore and write about some of more uncharted regions of Washington State. Samuel would publish “Wilkeson’s Notes on Puget Sound: Excerpts from Notes of Samuel Wilkeson of a Reconnaissance of the Proposed Route of the Northern Pacific Railroad.”
Wilkeson, Wa., a town founded on the railroad route, is named for him.
Samuel died in 1889, two years after Frank published “Turned Inside Out: Recollections of a Private Soldier.”
Frank lived until 1913.
Bayard Wilkeson has been immortalized in a sketch done by famed Civil War-era magazine artist and illustrator Alfred Waud. The work depicts the young lieutenant on horseback commanding his artillery unit in the midst of battle at Gettysburg.