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Memorial Day Tribute: The Enduring Legacy of the Whitaker Family

The family's incredible record of service to this country includes a Revolutionary War officer, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner from the Civil War, a decorated aviator from World War I and the founder of the Gold Star Mothers organization.

Born on June 15, 1841, in Killingly, Gen. Edward Washburn Whitaker was one of 16 children born to George and Mary Whitaker. Edward was one of eight brothers, four of whom served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Serving in the military was a Whitaker family tradition, as Edward's great-grandfather, Lt. Richard Whitaker, had served in the American Revolution.

Edward Whitaker distinguished himself rapidly while in the service. By the age of 23, he had already attained the rank of general — the youngest general to fight in the Civil War. Whitaker fought in an incredible 82 engagements during the war and was wounded twice. For his heroism at Reams Station, VA, on June 29, 1864, Edward Whitaker was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, one of 56 men from Connecticut ever to win this prestigious award. His citation for the medal read as follows: 

"While acting as an aide, he voluntarily carried dispatches from the commanding general to General Meade, forcing his way with a single troop of cavalry through an infantry division of the enemy in the most distinguished manner, though he lost half his escort."

Edward soon became a top aide to Gen. George Armstrong Custer; in fact, he became Custer's chief of staff. Whitaker arranged the meeting between Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant that led to the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.

Edward paid a heavy price for his wartime service. A horse fell upon him at Five Forks, VA, an accident that resulted in back and groin injuries that plagued him for the rest of his life. Additionally, he later suffered from a heart condition brought on by contracting malaria following the Battle of Gettysburg. Nevertheless, Gen. Edward Whitaker lived to be 81 years old, dying on July 30, 1922.

Following the Civil War, President Ulysses S. Grant — whose family came from Windsor — appointed Whitaker to be postmaster in Hartford in 1869. It was in Hartford that his youngest daughter, Grace Darling Whitaker, was born in 1870.

Grace Darling Whitaker later was to marry George G. Seibold in Washington, D.C. The couple's son, George Vaughan Seibold, became an aviator during World War I. Lt. Seibold was assigned to the 148th Aero Squadron of the British Flying Corps. A decorated aviator, Lt. Seibold was shot down and killed on Aug. 26, 1918, in France. His parents did not learn of his fate until nearly four months later. His death prompted his mother to start a support group for mothers who have lost a son or daughter to war: the Gold Star Mothers.

Believing that contained grief ultimately proves to be destructive, Grace Seibold reached out to other grief-stricken mothers and organized the first branch of the  84 years ago this week, on June 4, 1928. A non-political organization, the Gold Star Mothers also work to comfort injured service personnel and their families. Perhaps the most famous Gold Star Mother was Aletta Sullivan, mother of the five Sullivan brothers from Iowa. The Sullivan brothers were all killed aboard the USS Juneau on November 13, 1942, during the Battle of Guadalcanal. Few remember that four brothers from the Rogers family of New Haven also served on the Juneau; fortunately, two of the brothers had been transferred to another ship just before the Juneau was sunk; nevertheless, Pat and Louie Rogers perished with the Sullivans.

Grace Seibold's desire to reach out and to comfort families such as the Sullivans and Rogers who had lost family members in war is an extension of a long Whitaker family tradition of service to this country. That tradition began with Lt. Richard Whitaker's service in the American Revolution and continued with the service of four Whitaker brothers in the Civil War — including one who won the Medal of Honor — and was carried forward into the 20th century with the death in World War I of Grace Seibold's son, George.

The Whitaker tradition of service remains in the 21st century with the enduring legacy of the Gold Star Mothers organization — a group with about 950 current members who work continuously to comfort others and to preserve the memories of those who have sacrificed their lives for freedom.

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