SARATOGA SPRINGS — One hundred and 57 years after Capt. Luther Wheeler died while storming Fredericksburg, the statue with his face was shattered at Congress Park.
It was knocked off its pedestal and appears to have shattered when it hit the ground.
Police discovered the Civil War statue in pieces on the ground during a routine foot patrol around 3:30 a.m. Thursday. Officers were reviewing security camera footage to determine whether they could identify who committed the vandalism.
It’s not the first time sculptures have been damaged in the park. In 1999, a teenager vandalized Spit & Spat, two figures blowing water through conch shells. In the Italian-style garden there used to be many other sculptures near them, but they were destroyed by vandals decades earlier.
But when the public raised money to restore Spit & Spat, the city received so much money that it was also able to afford security cameras, which are now placed throughout the park.
Wheeler’s image was chosen in the 1870s for a Union soldier statue to commemorate the members of the 77th New York Volunteers. The battalion was drawn out of companies from all of the northern Saratoga towns, as well as Saratoga Springs. Numerically, the battalion should have been given a number in the 30s, but members petitioned the governor to be named in honor of the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, a decisive battle in the Revolutionary War.
Their petition was accepted and they formed in 1861 as the 77th, Bemis Heights Battalion, in honor of their Revolutionary War roots. The battalion took part in all the campaigns of the Army of the Potomac, the Campaign in the Shenandoah Valley under General Philip Sheridan, and fought in the Battle of Fort Stevens at Washington, D.C.
It started with 900 men in 1861. By the Battle of Antietam in 1862, there were fewer than 300 men able to fight, and the highest ranking commander was a captain.
That might be why Wheeler was remembered so fondly. He was one of the captains.
He had joined the regiment as a first lieutenant. He was 21 when the regiment mustered out of Saratoga Springs. Six months later, he was promoted to captain.
On May 3, 1863, at age 22, he was wounded while storming Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg. He died a day later, but the Union army won the battle.
After the war, the statue was commissioned to stand in downtown Saratoga Springs. Soldier statues were very popular.
“You could go to these foundries and you just picked the style you wanted. These were out of the catalog,” said Executive Director James Parillo of the Saratoga Springs History Museum.
They could be customized, and this one was made to resemble Capt. Wheeler.
It was dedicated in 1875 to the members of the 77th.
Two years later, the Grand Army of the Republic Post 92 in Saratoga Springs was named in his honor.
It’s not clear why the statue was made with his face, Parillo said. A former archivist researched it and left a handwritten note in the museum’s file on the statue, he said.
“She researched it for somebody,” he said.
The statue was of a soldier in a knee-length coat and cape, holding a rifle in both hands, with the rifle butt resting on the ground.
The monument was well-marked, with a bronze plaque that clearly stated the meaning of the statue. It reads: “The Seventy-Seventh Regiment, New York Volunteers (Bemis Heights Battalion, Third Brigade, Second Division, Sixth Corps, Army of the Potomac, 1861 – 1865) Took part in all the campaigns of the Army of the Potomac, also in the Battle of Fort Stevens at Washington, D.C. and in the Campaign in the Shenandoah Valley under Sheridan.”
“This was to commemorate the volunteers who volunteered to preserve the Union,” Parillo said.
He’s hoping it will be replaced with a similar statue.
“I look forward to seeing something back. Our park, we’re a national historic landmark,” he said. “All of these monuments are here for a meaningful reason.”
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