...He talk’d of death, and said he did not fear it. I said, “Why, Oscar, don’t you think you will get well?” He said, “I may, but it is not probable.” He spoke calmly of his condition. …
— From “A New York Soldier” in “Prose Works” (1892) by Walt Whitman.
During the Civil War, many local men fought on behalf of the Union. One family that saw a number of their sons, brothers and cousins go off to war was the Wilber family, whose descendants still largely populate the Five Mile Valley of Allegany and Humphrey.
Pvt. Oscar F. Wilber fought with the 154th New York Volunteer Infantry until he was struck down by Confederate artillery on May 3, 1863, at the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia, according to the Allegany Area Historical Association. Left with a broken femur, Wilber fell into enemy hands until he was exchanged and transferred back across Union lines.
(It was later in the war that General of the Army Ulysses S. Grant stopped the practice of exchanging prisoners of war with the Confederacy, consigning POWs to hellish conditions on both sides until the war ended.)
After several weeks, the young Pvt. Wilber was moved to his final destination at Ward K of the Armory Square Hospital in Washington, D.C. There he met the now famed poet Walt Whitman, who was serving as a volunteer with the Christian Commission, raising money for extra food and supplies for soldiers.
Whitman spent much of his time at the bedsides of wounded soldiers, offering comfort by conversing with the men, reading to them, and writing letters home on their behalf. Whitman comforted Wilber, reading passages of the Bible to the private as he laid suffering from his wounds and illness.
Wilber died July 31, 1863, and his body was returned to Allegany for burial in the family plot at the Five Mile Cemetery. Wilber's upper thigh bone is part of the National Museum of Health and Medicine's collection.
Wilber inspired Whitman to write his sketch "A New York Soldier,” which depicts his encounters with the dying Wilber.
A newly erected historical marker now commemorates Wilbur and his relationship with Whitman. The marker, funded by the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, was dedicated Sunday during an event hosted by the Allegany Area Historical Association and descendants of Wilber.
The association thanked the town of Allegany, Acting Supervisor Jim Hitchcock and the town board, Stephanie Guthrie and the Allegany Cemetery Association, Mark H. Dunkelman and the descendants of the 154th New York, the Allegany American Legion 892 Charles Harbel Post, Larry Kilmer and his fellow Civil War re-enactors and the Pomeroy Foundation for its involvement and support.
“Also, a very special thanks to Spencer Morgan, a descendant of Oscar Wilber, whose idea it was to do this,” the association noted in its Facebook post about the marker. “He did the research, applied for the grant from the Pomeroy Foundation and did all the legwork associated with this event.”