George B. Wiltsie, 4th NY Heavy Artillery, standing second from left
In April I received an incredible gift in the mail, courtesy of Bill Keeler of the Perinton Historical Society and Fairport Museum. Bill has spent much time transcribing the Civil War diary of George B. Wiltsie which came into the possession of the Fairport Museum last year. The disk I received contained the transcription, and soon I was transported back in time, into George Wiltsie’s wartime world.
George B. Wiltsie was born on May 16, 1837, the seventh child of Thomas Wiltsie and his wife Rachel Brownell Wiltsie. The Wiltsie family homestead was located in Duanesburg, New York until the spring of 1834, when the entire Wiltsie family traveled by packet boat on the Erie Canal toward their new home. Maps of the time show that the Wiltsies settled on land west of the Erie Canal in Perinton, New York, right about where Route 31 passes over the canal between Mill and Kreag Roads. It was here that George Wiltsie’s story began.
Little is known of George’s early life in Perinton. We can imagine that life must have been hectic in a household that eventually grew to include 11 children. Thomas Wiltsie was a farmer, and George followed in his father’s footsteps until August 12, 1862. That was the day that George enlisted in the 4th NY Heavy Artillery.
George’s first journal entry is written one week later, and expresses his reasons for joining the fight: “August 19, 1862 …I bid adieu to friends and old associates, feeling it a duty to [fight] for home and its comforts, to assist in the rescue of a Government in peril.” The next few entries in the journal tell of traveling with the Army, and of the poor food and filthy conditions. It occurred to me that through most of the diary, George was very optimistic and upbeat. He mentioned having leave and seeing the Smithsonian and the Liberty Bell. He commented on the beautiful architecture that he saw on his travels with the Army. Soon after arriving at Fort Pennsylvania, George came down with typhoid fever. He managed to pull through and rejoin his unit. However William Cook, who was a comrade in the 4th NY Heavy Artillery and a fellow Monroe County resident, became sick at the same time as George and died within one week from the disease. William Cook is another of my Pittsford boys who will be mentioned in upcoming posts.
George’s happy frame of mind continued even through August of 1864 when, on the 25th, George matter-of-factly mentioned that “…the Rebels advanced on us and the battle commenced which ended with our defeat and capture of a large number of prisoners myself among the number.” I can’t even imagine the terror I would feel at being captured by the enemy. However, George took his imprisonment in stride and even managed to joke about his new surroundings, “Paid adieu to Libby [Prison] this morning and went to the famous resort of Uncle Sam’s boys for three days better known by them as Bell Island.” Ultimately ending up in Salisbury Prison, George’s journal chronicles the boredom, crime and lack of proper shelter at Salisbury but still sounds optimistic.
As the days turned into months of imprisonment, George’s optimism began to fade. The entry for November 8, 1864 noted that it was Election Day and George wished he could vote for Abraham Lincoln. The last journal entry was made on December 9, 1864. He may have already been ill with the typhoid fever that would take his life in Annapolis, Maryland on March 21, 1865. His body was returned home and buried at Pittsford Cemetery beside his sisters Antoinette and Eliza and his brother Frank. The man who remarked on the beauty of architecture and who took joy in historical monuments was dead at the young age of 28.
I have seen a photo of George B. Wiltsie. It is in the personal collection of Jason Puckett, a Wiltsie family descendant. Unbelievably, Jason bought the photo on eBay. It was labeled with the names of the four soldiers pictured – William B. Lyke, George Wiltsie, Henry Root and Albert E. Lyke. The Lyke boys are mentioned several times in George’s journal. George is standing second from left sporting a bushy black beard. Military service records provided by the New York State Archives show that George had brown eyes, dark hair and a dark complexion, and that he stood 5′ 4 1/2″ tall.
After sharing his photo of George Wiltsie, Jason shared something with me that meant even more. In an email, Jason wrote to me, “You have taken it upon yourself to remember my ancestors and acknowledge their existence when others might just think of them as headstones in the cemetery. I honestly doubt that there is anyone that goes to visit George’s grave anymore out of remembrance of his life. You still do that, and I thank you for that respect for my family. I really just want to say thank you because it is an honor to me and my family that someone cares enough to remember. Your passion for the Civil War and the men who chose to serve inspires me. Thank you so much for taking your time to remember my family and the other men who were willing to give their lives to defend my family.” Jason’s eloquence moved me to tears.
The goal of my Civil War project, cemetery tours, speaking engagements and my Illuminated History blog is to remember these men who took time out of their lives to serve our country during a period of division and strife. It honors the memories of our hometown heroes because their stories deserve to be told. Every time I place a flag by a Civil War soldier’s grave, I speak their name and promise aloud that they will not be forgotten.