On Memorial Day we remember the members of the military, both living and departed, for their service to our country. On this day I often think of my Great Grandfather, Richard James Whalen (1846-1903), of Poughkeepsie, New York. Thanks to the efforts of my Uncle George Whalen, we know his history and a little about his father Patrick, who emigrated to the US around 1800. The following except comes from the obituary published by The Brooklyn Citizen, Saturday, October 24, 1903:
“The death of Richard Whalen at Poughkeepsie on Wednesday, October 14th will be learned with regret by his many Brooklyn friends. but especially by General E. L. Molineux and the survivors of the 159th Regiment, N.Y.S. Volunteers…”
“Mr. Whalen enlisted in the One-Hundred-And-Fifty-Ninth Regiment at Hudson, N.Y. as a drummer boy, at the age of 16, but after leaving Hart’s Island, where several Brooklyn companies were merged into the Regiment, he refused to drum, and was taken before his Colonel for disobedience. His patriotic plea that he be allowed to fight and be given a rifle touched the Colonel’s heart and he at once became a soldier.”
“He carried that rifle through the terrific fights at Cedar Creek, and still carried it with Sheridan when the sun went down on Winchester and the Nineteenth Army Corps had saved the day. That rifle made regimental history and many are the tales told of its work and its bearer’s prowess. His dearest comrade in Brooklyn possesses the rifle today. It will be hard for him to part with it, but his dead comrade left a son and the trusteeship provided that should a son survive, the rifle would return.”
“In the Louisiana campaign, the One Hundred And Fifty-Ninth Regiment got its sobriquet, and in this wise: A planter who had been protected by “Dick,” as he was familiarly called, presented him a young black bear. Molineux’s command possessed more and better wrestlers than any other in the Army of the Gulf, but “Dick” was the pride of the regiment in a wrestling bout, and he soon had the bear trained in the art. When the wrestlers of other regiments would come into their camp, they were invited to “try it on the bear,” and never did the bear let them “put it on him.” From that day, the One Hundred And Fifty-Ninth N.Y.S.V. was known as “Molineux’s Bears,” and the regimental button is a red border, white ground, with a bear in relief.”
I don’t know if my Grandfather George Whalen ever recovered the famous rifle, but it is very special for me to know Richard’s heroic story and his predilection for bear wrestling. During the Civil War, he and several thousand of his brothers from New York’s Hudson Valley walked to the Gulf of Mexico and back, fought and somehow survived.
Richard later returned to Poughkeepsie and married Mary Regan. He spent the rest of his life working as an engineer for one of the predecessors of the New York Central Railroad. Today he and my Great Grandmother Mary rest in St. Peter’s Cemetery in Poughkeepsie NY.
Happy Memorial Day Grandpa!