previous next


Charles Henry Wheelwright.

Assistant Surgeon, U. S. Navy, October 17, 1839; Surgeon, April 5, 1854; died July 30, 1862, at Pilotstown, S. W. Pass, La., of disease contracted in the service.

Charles Henry Wheelwright, late surgeon in the Navy of the United States, was born in Purchase Street, in the city of Boston, May 29, 1813, in a house which was built by his father on the spot where the Sailors' Home now stands. His father, Lot Wheelwright, a native of Cohasset, Massachusetts, was originally a ship-builder, and afterwards a ship-owner and merchant in Boston, and was in 1813, and for many years afterwards, a man of wealth. His mother was Susannah (Wilson) Wheelwright, of West Cambridge. They were married in 1793, and Charles was the youngest of their six children.

When about ten years old Charles was sent to the Round Hill Academy, at Northampton, then a celebrated school, kept by Dr. Cogswell, late of the Astor Library, and by Mr. George Bancroft, the historian; but in consequence of failing health (for his constitution was naturally delicate), he remained there only about a year. He went next to the well-known school at Jamaica Plain, near Boston, kept by Mr. Green, where he remained for some time; but his final preparation for college was made under the private tuition of the late Jonathan Chapman, afterwards Mayor of Boston, who, at the request of an older brother, undertook to direct his studies. Before he entered college, however, his health being still delicate, he was sent abroad in a vessel commanded by a brother-in-law, and travelled through various parts of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. This was the beginning of those wanderings which occupied the greater part of his life; and though in after days he often complained of his long absences [30] from home, and of separation from friends and relatives to whom he was strongly attached, yet there was in his nature a certain restlessness and fondness for new scenes and places, which had something to do with his final choice of a profession.

He entered college in 1831, becoming a member of the class which graduated in 1834. After a little more than a year of college life, his health again became impaired, and his lungs appeared so much affected that he obtained leave of absence, and passed the winter in Mobile and New Orleans. At Cambridge he was a general favorite, and formed many intimate friendships which lasted through life. His popularity with his friends and acquaintances arose not only from the sterling qualities of his character, his warm-heartedness, and the general kindness of his disposition, but from his cheerfulness when in society, and the high spirits which seemed natural to him, although he was subject at intervals to very great depression. He was always animated in conversation, speaking in a rather loud tone. He sang a song acceptably, for he had a musical taste, though his voice was not melodious; and in convivial moments his spirits would rise as easily without artificial stimulants, as if the glasses, which he would quietly fill with water and then toss off, really contained the champagne he was supposed to be drinking. It seemed as if the mere presence of his friends was a sufficient stimulus to enable him to drive off that depression which many find it difficult to overcome without some excitement more potent than water.

In the latter part of the Senior year, in consequence of some disturbances which occurred in College, several members of his class were punished by expulsion or otherwise. This treatment was felt by their classmates to be unjust. A pamphlet of considerable ability, written under the authority of the class by one of their number, in which the character and conduct of the Faculty were rather severely handled, only added to the excitement, as it placed the government in the unpleasant dilemma of either suffering under its imputations in silence, or so far forgetting its dignity as to answer an attack made by [31] boys. Finally a number of the class, considering themselves equally guilty with those who were punished, determined not to receive their degrees; and accordingly, when their names were called, agreeably to ancient custom, on Commencement day, they were not to be found.

At a later period, when the pamphlet and the causes which led to this youthful act of quixotism were forgotten, most of these recusants received their degrees, and were welcomed back to the bosom of their Alma Mater; but Dr. Wheelwright's absence on his professional duties, and some unavoidable delays, prevented him from being included in their number, as he had expected. Since his death his friends and classmates have regretted that the list of the Class of 1834, in the Triennial Catalogue, does not contain the name of one who was, to say the least, as much loved and appreciated in College and in after life as any whose name it bears.

There is a Catalogue, however, of at least one society in College, where his name is enrolled. This society is an ancient one, of a social character, composed at that time mostly of intimate friends, and his name appears as its presiding officer from 1833 to 1834. He was also Adjutant of the Harvard Washington Corps, a military company composed of the students of Harvard University, but now long extinct.

Shortly after leaving college, his taste for chemistry and other kindred studies induced him to select medicine as his profession; and he entered the office of the late Dr. George C. Shattuck, and became a member of his household. In 1837 he received the degree of M. D. from the Medical Department of Harvard University; and his father's property having become much reduced, if not entirely lost, he now stood ready to begin life with that advantage which his excellent preceptor, Dr. Shattuck, thought so important, and which in his peculiar style he was wont to term ‘the healthy stimulus of prospective want.’

He decided to enter the Navy; and having first attended a course of medical lectures in Philadelphia, he was examined and commissioned as Assistant Surgeon, October 17, 1839. [32] He must have passed an excellent examination, as his name stood third on the list. He was soon after ordered to the sloop-of-war Marion, and remained in her on the Brazil station about three years. Much of the time was spent in the ports of Rio Janeiro, Buenos Ayres, and Monte Video, especially in the two latter. At Buenos Ayres the American officers were treated with much attention by Rosas, who was then at the height of his power; and Dr. Wheelwright saw a great deal of him and his family. In a letter written during this cruise he says: ‘I passed seven as happy months as I ever knew in Buenos Ayres, and perhaps, had the country been quiet, I had been there still. But Rosas is losing ground. . . . . These South American republics, like the Kilkenny cats, fight till nothing but their tails are left.’ He little thought, as he wrote this letter, that he should, in a comparatively few years, see his own country engaged in a civil war in which more valuable lives would be lost on each side than Rosas and his antagonist had enrolled in their respective armies, and that his own would be among the number.

On his return, in 1843, he was for some time in the receiving-ship Ohio, at Boston, and the frigate Independence, one of the Home Squadron. In this year he passed the usual examination, and took the rank of Passed Assistant Surgeon.

In 1844 he left the Home Squadron; and after a short leave of absence, he was ordered, in 1845, to the Naval Hospital at Pensacola. The government was at this time constructing a new hospital at that station, and orders came from Washington, for some reason, to cut down the trees which grew on a marsh in the vicinity. The medical officers at Pensacola remonstrated against this measure, as being likely to cause malaria by exposing so much wet ground to the rays of the sun, but without effect. The summer of 1845 was dry, but the winter and spring succeeding were very wet and rainy; and after the heat of summer came on, a most violent form of bilious or yellow fever showed itself, and soon began to rage with great severity. The gentleman who held the position of surgeon during the first part of the sickly season was in very delicate [33] health. There were no hospital nurses except ignorant negroes, and almost the whole responsibility and labor fell upon Dr. Wheelwright, as assistant surgeon. The mortality was very great, for all the invalids of the Gulf Squadron were sent to the hospital. It soon became almost impossible to procure and retain servants; and he was obliged, in many cases, to perform the duties of surgeon and nurse for the dying, and then to render the last offices to the dead. The surgeon who succeeded the one first in charge took the fever himself, and the poor assistant was worse off than ever; but he continued to perform his duties with his usual energy and spirit, even after the time had passed when, by the usages of the navy, he had a right to ask to be relieved from the post. At last he was taken ill himself. The fever ran high, and for some days his life was despaired of; and though he finally rallied, he never afterwards enjoyed the same degree of health as before.

After his recovery from the fever, he had leave of absence for some months, which he employed in travelling in Europe and in visiting the hospitals of Paris and other Continental cities; and he then joined the Mediterranean Squadron in January, 1848. In February, 1849, he returned to this country; and in the spring of 1850 he was ordered to California, by way of the Isthmus. The agitation caused by the gold discoveries had extended to our naval vessels on that station, and they were for some time unable to move for want of crews: the men deserted, and not a few of the officers resigned. Dr. Wheelwright was attached to one of these vessels for many tedious months. As the pay of a naval officer then hardly equalled that of a waiter in a hotel, a visit to San Francisco was too expensive to be often undertaken; and Congress, too, evidently disapproved of such visits, and refused to increase the pay of the officers on that station. This monotonous course of life was at last ended by his being ordered to the Falmouth, in which vessel he visited Oregon and Vancouver's Island, and finally returned to the Atlantic States in February, 1852.

In the following August he joined at Norfolk the steamer [34] Powhatan, which made a part of Commodore Perry's famous Japan expedition. Doctor Wheelwright was not present at the signing of the treaty between the United States and Japan, for he was ordered to the Plymouth, which left for China before that ceremony took place. During this cruise he was promoted to a surgeoncy, his commission being dated April 5th, 1854. On his arrival at home, after being a few months in the receiving-ship at Boston, he was ordered to the Home Squadron in the Cyane, and visited Newfoundland and other places on the northeast coast of America. In 1859 he was again in the Gulf of Mexico, exposed to the bad influence which the climate now had upon his constitution.

In 1860, at Philadelphia, and again in 1861, at the Brooklyn Navy-Yard, he was a member of the Board to examine Surgeons for admittance to the Navy. In 1861 this service was very fatiguing, owing to the great increase of the medical corps required by the civil war. The Board sat for many hours daily during several months; and when he returned to the receiving-ship at Boston, where he was then stationed, he was much exhausted. Anxious, however, to perform his duty, and probably not aware of his own state of health, he applied for active servive, and was in consequence ordered to the steamer San Jacinto, which sailed March 5th, 1862, in search of the ship-of-theline Vermont, reported to be drifting about dismasted off the South Shoal. After a vain search (for the report afterwards proved incorrect) the San Jacinto returned to Boston, and had hardly arrived when orders were received (on March 9th) to sail at once for Hampton Roads, to assist in the expected sea-fight with the famous Merrimack. Dr. Wheelwright came on shore for an hour, on the afternoon of that day, to take leave of his friends. They never saw him again.

The San Jacinto remained in Hampton Roads until Norfolk was taken, and in May joined the Gulf Squadron. This squadron consisted of about twenty-three vessels, and for several weeks Dr. Wheelwright performed the duties of fleet surgeon. He was at this time much reduced in consequence of having had a severe attack of dengue, or break-bone fever, on [35] his passage from Norfolk to Key West. It was evident from his letters that he looked forward with dread to another summer in the Gulf, and had a sick man's longing for home; but he did not ask to be relieved. Just at this time he received orders to go North in the Colorado, but most unfortunately the orders reached him forty-eight hours after she had sailed. This was a terrible disappointment. Surgeons could not be spared in those days, and new orders came for him to take charge of the Naval Hospital recently established at Pilotstown, a little village on the southwest pass of the Mississippi. This hospital received the sick and wounded from the squadron in the river; and as it had been established but a short time, and in a hurried manner, was poorly provided with the necessary articles for the suffering patients. The responsibility and labor of the post weighed heavily upon the surgeon. He had been there about a week when he thus wrote to a relative:—

My duties here are like those at Pensacola, only infinitely greater. I was young and strong then, and came away, as you remember, much shattered. There are about sixty patients, many terribly wounded, or sick with fever, and most limited means to treat them. Except beds, no furniture that we have not taken by force from the dozen or more houses here. Conflicting orders come to the captains of the transport steamers relative to receiving men from the hospital without their accounts, and these are not sent with them to the hospital. So here I have to keep them, and many die in consequence. It is distressing to have those in charge who ought to be sent home; and yet my hands are tied, and I cannot send them. I have been here a week, have only one assistant, am weak from want of sleep and a diarrhea. There is no way to get relief from my situation. I shall do my duty to the last.

He was not only weakened by a constantly increasing diarrhoea, and worn down by his incessant labor and want of sleep, but the feeling that he could not properly provide for those under his charge, and that many lives were lost on this account, depressed his spirits, and left him the less energy to resist his disorder. Till the 30th of July, however, he continued to perform his duties, but on the morning of that day he was unable to get up. He grew rapidly worse; and though all [36] means were used which the place afforded, it was too late to save him. Before the day closed he was quietly relieved of his post. His death, though far removed from his home and relatives, was in some respects such as he himself would have preferred; for up to the last possible moment that his strength permitted, and till within twenty-four hours of his death, he was engaged in the discharge of the most satisfactory duty which any man can perform,— the relief of the sick, the wounded, and the dying; and he fell a sacrifice to his own exertions and anxiety in behalf of those whom his country had committed to his charge.

In his last letter he alludes to his being no longer young and strong, but years had made no change in the qualities of his heart or in the general characteristics of the man. He had still the same slender, erect figure, the same hearty, ringing tones in his voice, the same animated and confident manner, and the same kindness and good — will expressed in his whole bearing. Any one who saw much of him, even if not an intimate friend, must have perceived his strong, plain commonsense, his contempt for everything mean and underhand, his resolution, firmness, and courage in the performance of his duty, the great purity of his character, and, above all, a manly straightforwardness in his every action, word, and look; for there never seemed to be the slightest disguise about him. His friends, of course, understood the generosity of his character and the strength of his attachments; but few could know how devoted he was to the interests of some whom he looked upon as especially committed to his protection, what acts of generous kindness he was constantly performing for them, and how much they and their home mingled in all his thoughts and plans.

The following extract from a letter written by the distinguished commander whose vessel, the Cayuga, led the fleet in the famous passage of the forts below New Orleans, and who had known him since his first entrance into the Navy, indicates in what estimation he was held in that service where the best years of his life were spent. [37]

The character of Dr. Wheelwright was singularly free from reproach of any kind. He had the love and respect of all who ever sailed with him. He ranked high in his own corps as a skilful and thorough physician, and was distinguished always for his sympathy with, and careful attention to, the sick. He adorned our profession by many noble qualities. With winning and affable manners, he combined firmness, a high conscientiousness, a firm adherence to whatever was right, and an uncompromising resistance to injustice and wrong.

He lived for others more than for himself; and this is proved by the manner of his death, which was caused by his devotion to our sick and wounded sailors after the battle of New Orleans. . . . .

No one who knew Dr. Wheelwright speaks of his loss without emotion; but to those who were intimately associated with him, his loss is beyond repair. His life was as gallant and costly a sacrifice as any which the Rebellion entailed on our country.

Dr. Wheelwright was never married. His remains were buried at Mount Auburn, August 14, 1862.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
Charles Henry Wheelwright (14)
Rosas (3)
George C. Shattuck (2)
John Wilson (1)
George Washington (1)
Perry (1)
S. W. Pass (1)
Alma Mater (1)
Green (1)
William Cogswell (1)
George Bancroft (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: