EVANS MILLS — There is an impressive monument and cenotaph within the Evans Mills Cemetery (“newer” section), dedicated to Capt. Chauncey Wilkie and Company ‘I’ of the 14th New York Heavy Artillery, which he commanded. Jefferson County sent 5,000 men to the war in which he died. It was called “The Civil War” in the North, the “War of Northern Aggression” in the South, but I will take the middle ground and just call it “The War Between the States.”

My name is Rick Hess — full name Richard Wilkie Hess. I grew up in Henderson during the 1950s and 1960s, graduating from Henderson Central School in 1971. My mother, Jean Wilkie Hess, was the kindergarten teacher at Henderson Central School for many years. But this story is about the man who was my great-great-grand uncle, and it is about his unique contribution to American history.

My great-great grandfather was too old to serve in the War Between the States, staying at home in Evans Mills to tend the farm to help feed the troops. But his youngest brother, Chauncey Wilkie, eagerly volunteered to serve. He was mustered into the 14th New York Heavy Artillery on Jan. 1, 1864 and appointed captain, commanding Company ‘I’. His company was composed of volunteers from Jefferson County, many of them from the Evans Mills area. Under the overall command of General Ulysses S. Grant, 28-year-old Chauncey served bravely in The Wilderness Campaign, The Battle of Spotsylvania, the horror of the Battle of Cold Harbor, and finally the siege of Petersburg.

Due to crowded bivouac and poor sanitary conditions, more soldiers on both sides of that war died of disease than died from battle action. Chauncey became deathly ill with typhoid fever in late July 1864. He died on Aug. 1, 1864, en route to Washington, D.C., from City Point, Va., aboard a hospital ship. Chauncey was one of 301 men in his regiment who died of disease, 75 more than died in battle. His survivors included his wife, Betsy, and his 8-year-old son, Howard C. Wilkie.

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln asked Gen. Montgomery Meigs, the quartermaster general of the U.S. Army, to find a suitable spot to bury the tens of thousands of Union dead who were accumulating in temporary graves during recent battles. Gen. Meigs had recently lost his own 22-year-old son in battle. Perhaps out of retribution, he decided that the mansion and property of Gen. and Mrs. Robert E. Lee, seized earlier in the war and just across the Potomac River from Washington in Arlington, Va., would be the perfect spot to bury all the Union dead. And to be sure that Gen. and Mrs. Lee would never feel comfortable returning to live at their Arlington Mansion, Gen. Meigs ordered that 26 recently dead Union officers be buried around the perimeter of Mrs. Lee’s rose garden, adjacent to her mansion ... an honor guard of the dead.

The remains of Capt. Chauncey Willkie were one of those 26 chosen. He is buried in the southeastern corner of Mrs. Lee’s Rose Garden.

So it was that a soldier from Evans Mills, Jefferson County, New York, otherwise likely forgotten to history, and the other 25 chose few would become the first of over 400,000 brave American fighting men and women who would be buried in honored glory in what was to become Arlington National Cemetery during the next 158 years.

Incidentally, General and Mrs. Lee successfully brought their case all the way to the Supreme Court to regain legal possession of their Arlington Mansion, but they never did return there after the war’s conclusion. The 26-man honor guard in Mrs. Lee’s Rose Garden must have haunted them that much.

Rick Hess is a resident of South Carolina. He’s a retired lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserves, where he served 20 years, and a retired marketing and sales vice president in the paper industry. You may write to him at rh29485@gmail.com.

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