Whitney, Martin Dunster
Age: 20, credited to Rochester, VTVITALS
Birth: 05/25/1841, Hancock, VTADDITIONAL INFORMATION
Alias?: None notedDESCENDANTS
Bingo Cemetery, West Rochester, VT
Check the cemetery for location/directions
and other veterans who may be buried there.
Martin with fiddle in Bingo.
Martin Dunster Whitney was the longest-living Civil War veteran from the Rochester, Vermont area, He distinguished himself not only in his service to the Great Rebellion, but through his extremely active role in Rochester's G.A.R. almost up to the time of his death in 1931. Martin was a common figure at Decoration Day celebrations (called by many locals "Memory Day") for over sixty years, playing his fife at countless Memorial Day events both locally as well as all over the state. He had a remarkable history in the Civil War, not only because he was one of the only area soldiers who escaped injury, but sickness as well. And he returned with a southern bride! He met Rachel in Maryland and called her his "comrade," saying, "we drank from the same canteen."i
Martin Whitney was born on May 25, 1841, the son of Benjamin and Levina (Lowell) Whitney, both Vermonters. His grandfather Oliver Whitney settled that part of West Rochester that at the time belonged to the town of Goshen in Addison County. After 1848 the Land of Goshen, Addison County, became annexed to Rochester in Windsor County. The Whitney farm was run by three generations for over a century. It was located on that part of the Jones Mountain Road on West Hill that descended into the Bingo valley.
Martin had two uncles who fought in the Civil War and at least two cousins: his father's brother Joshua Whitney enlisted as a private in Co. H, 11th Vermont Volunteer Infantry when he was fifty-one-years old, and Joshua's younger brother William Porter Whitney was in the Second Battery Vermont Light Artillery. Martin's cousins, sons of Joshua named Robert Whitney and John O. Whitney, also fought in the Great Rebellion. John died from diseases contracted in the Louisiana theater, as a private in the Second Battery Vermont Light Artillery. Joshua and Robert returned to Rochester with lifelong diseases. Joshua returned after only eight months so insane he had to be chained to the back of his barn!ii
Martin enlisted as a musician when he was twenty, in Captain Henry S. Terry's Co. E., Fourth Volunteer Infantry, on August 29, 1861. He was one of forty other Rochester locals, almost half from West Rochester, none of whom had military training, who elected Sergeant Ransom W. Towle as their sergeant. Ransom was a neighbor and fellow "West-R-Boy," and they left Rochester with much fanfare for Brattleboro, mustering in on September 21, 1861. From there they went first to Camp Advance and then to Camp Griffin, Virginia, to become part of General George McClellan's Peninsula Campaign.
While Martin enlisted first as a musician, he was later listed as "fifer," probably after regimental bands were considered too costly. This awareness began in the fall of 1861, when the Federal government began to tighten its fiscal belt. By July, 1862 the War Department issued General Order No. 91, directing all regimental band members to be mustered out of service in ninety days. In April 1864, Martin was transferred to the Veterans Reserve Corps, and mustered out later that year in October.
Getting rid of regimental bands didn't apply to drummers, buglers, and fifers, since all three were counted on to give a series of commands, both on and off the battlefield, and it was not even considered necessary to be a trained musician to be a drummer, fifer, or bugler. Neither did it mean that the regimental bands disappeared, as many continued. For instance, when the Third Vermont regiment band was disbanded, it was absorbed later into the band of the Vermont Brigade. It is interesting to note that the small and puny looking fife was often the only instrument that could be heard clearly over the roar of thousands of rifles and cannon fire, because its sonic range was so high pitched, since the drums were more in the sonic range of cannon fire, and were thus not always as effective.iii
Rochester is proud of its record in the Civil War, though it paid dearly, and the loss is felt to this day. Rochester was the second town in Vermont to erect a Civil War monument, about which Albert Clarke, himself a veteran of Gettysburg along with Henry Augustus Eaton, wrote, "On its die are inscribed the names of three commissioned officers, three non-commissioned officers, and 34 men-forty in all-which I think is the largest percentage of loss sustained in the United States."iv
Rochester's local H. A. Eaton G.A.R. Post 38 is named after the highest-ranking officer from Rochester, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Eaton, who is the only name above Ransom Towle's on the town's Civil War monument.v The distinctive GAR building was located across from where the Town Clerk's office is now located, and was the scene of not just GAR meetings, but much of the early entertainment of Rochester, from "box social" dances to silent movies, and it was from here that the towns Memorial Day parades began. Martin played practically until the year he died, in the Rochester Fife and Drum Corps, the Rochester Town Band, and with the West Rochester Drum Corps along with two other West Hill natives, Amos Crossman and Wesley Swan. Martin's his trim figure with the high cheek bones and distinguished handlebar mustache make him easily recognizable in decades of photographs. There is also a picture of him playing violin (possibly viola), though there is little other evidence. But this probably made him a welcome addition to the kitchen tunks that were so popular in the many dance halls of Rochester, including the logging camps in West Rochester.
Martin playing Memorial Day at West Hill Cemetery, circa 1910
While almost all of the West-R-Boys returned home sick, Martin seems to be the exception. According to his obituary in the Herald and News of Randolph, he was "never wounded nor taken prisoner. Once while climbing over a fence during an engagement, a shell burst under the fence, throwing him into the air along the rails. Mr. Whitney used to say it 'scared him to death but left not even a scratch!'"vi
Perhaps even luckier, he found his life mate and soul mate during the war, and married Rachel Aurelia Shultz in Frostburg, Maryland, on October 15, 1865. Here he lived with her and farmed until he was needed back home to care for his ailing parents, and brought Rachel and her sister to live with him in Bingo. They had a son who went south to work, and somehow disappeared, never to be seen again. Martin spared no expense trying to find his only son, but "sad and broken with anxiety, the father and mother continued their quiet life in West Rochester."vii
After Martin's wife died in 1914, his cousin Oscar Whitmore and his wife Flava cared for Martin in his old age. Martin's funeral service was with full military honors by the Sons of Veterans and the American Legion, held at the Whitmore's home in Bingo and officiated by the Reverend Norman C. Webster, himself a Legion man. He is buried in the small Bingo Cemetery along with eight other "West-R-Boys," a cemetery that probably has the largest per-capita population of Civil War veterans of any in the state, from a town that gave a higher percentage, per capita, than any town in America.viii
West Rochester Fife and Drum Corps, circa 1900
i. West Randolph Herald and News, obituary, 1931.
ii. Phone conversation with Joshua's g-g-grandson, David Philipsen of Forestdale, November, 2010.
iii. Edwin Palmer, The Second Brigade, Chapter One, from vermontcivilwar.org
iv. Albert Clarke (1901). Rochester Vermont: Old Home Week, p. 26. [Pamphlet]
v. "Hal" Eaton was wounded at Gettysburg, returned to Vermont and had a crucial role in forming and helping recruit members of the 17th Regiment, and died ten days after Ransom. Ransom was killed at the Battle of Winchester (Opequon). Eaton was killed outside of Petersburg at Poplar Spring Church.
vi. HWest Randolph Herald and News, 1931
vii. West Randolph Herald and News/U>, 1931
viii. Rochester Town Report, 1905, p. 2.
written by Joe Schenkman, Rochester, VT, with thanks to the late Helen Brown, Janice Brown, Bill Powers, Tom Ledoux, and Nancy Woolley at the Rochester Historical Society.