Edwin Miller Wheelock (August 30, 1829-October 29, 1901) was a New Hampshire Unitarian minister of abolitionist sympathies who joined the Union army and served as a chaplain during the Civil War. His wartime reports on the labor and education problems created by the emancipation of slaves led to government posts in Texas during Reconstruction. In later years he returned to the ministry, founding Unitarian congregations in Spokane, Washington and Austin, Texas.
Edwin was born in New York City in 1829, one of eight children born to Charles and Lydia Brown Wheelock. Little is known of his early years. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1853 and from the School of Divinity in 1856. He was ordained minister of the First Unitarian Church of Dover, New Hampshire in 1857. Andrew Peabody delivered the address and Convers Francis, the charge. Wheelock’s sermon was “Authority in Religion.”
Wheelock remained at Dover for five years. His positions on temperance and the slave traffic were stronger than his parishioners felt necessary. According to a Church historian, “that happened which under the circumstances always happens, with only a difference of details. That is to say, Mr. Wheelock remained but the parish found it increasingly difficult to raise his salary. It was said of him that he was better fitted by nature for the bar than for the pulpit.” His natural friendliness fitted him for either position. A parishioner said, “Wheelock was genial and attractive. He easily made friends, and always kept them.”
In 1855 Edwin Wheelock married Ellen M. Brackett, age 25, at Somerville, Massachusetts. They had three children: Charles born in 1856, Emilie in 1861, and Elsie, who died in early childhood in Galveston, Texas.
After John Brown attacked the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry in 1859, Wheelock became Brown’s champion. The raid he said, would lead to an “irrepressible conflict.” Speaking from Theodore Parker‘s pulpit in Boston, Wheelock predicted that, “The attack upon slavery for which John Brown had paid the forfeit of his life would be repeated on a grand scale by the entire north.” In response, the State of Virginia offered a $1,500 reward for his capture, alive or dead.
Lincoln’s 1862 preliminary Proclamation of Emancipation spurred Wheelock to action. The following month he resigned his pulpit at Dover and enlisted, for nine-months, as a private in a New Hampshire regiment. He was soon made Chaplain. His regiment participated in campaigns along the Mississippi River. In 1863 the emancipation of the slaves devastated the region’s plantation economy. The liberated slaves needed food, housing, and work. In response, the Army developed a forced labor system for the former slaves. Reports of their mistreatment and exploitation, however, caused a furor in the North. Wheelock was detached from his New Hampshire regiment and asked by Major General Nathaniel Banks to investigate conditions on nearby plantations.
Wheelock’s abolitionist reputation gave weight to his communications with William Lloyd Garrison, reporting that the negro labor system was in fair working order. In October 1863, Wheelock was appointed inspector of schools for freedmen in the Department of the Gulf and the following March he was made Secretary of the Board of Education for the Department. Subsequently Major B. Rush Plumly and Wheelock reported the opening of 175 schools with 10,000 students in 15 Louisiana Parishes.
At the end of the war, Wheelock was discharged from active service and returned to Dover. Nonetheless, he committed to continuing his work with the Freedmen’s bureau. He decided that the Texas climate might be good for his wife Ellen, who had contracted tuberculosis. The Wheelocks accordingly journeyed to Galveston but found that the climate there was moist. Since the work of the Freedman’s bureau did not begin until the fall of 1865, Edwin took a job in the San Antonio customs house, far away from the humid coast. That fall, when General E. M. Gregory arrived in Galveston to assume control to the Freedmen’s Bureau in Texas, he appointed Wheelock Superintendent of Schools.
Schools were rare in Texas even for white students. Wheelock found that Black education provoked more animosity than emancipation. He faced daunting problems; southerners were afraid to rent space for black schools, teachers were scarce, and money for salaries and textbooks was unavailable. Even so, he shortly had sixteen one-room schools operational, with 1,041 black students. Violence and threats of violence were common. Travel around Texas required no little courage on the part of bureau representatives. Schools were opened only in towns where troops were stationed. According to Wheelock, some 10,000 freedmen learned to read and spell during the five years of the program. Of all the programs supervised by the Freedmen’s bureau, the Department of Education was the most successful.
In 1867 Wheelock helped form the Republican party in Texas. That year the new Governor appointed him State Superintendent for Public Instruction. His report, proposing a system of state funding and statewide standards for education, was soon adopted. He also called for the development of a first-class university for the state.
Wheelock went on to fill other posts in Texas politics and government, including official reporter for the State Supreme Court, 1870-72; Alderman, 1872; editor of The State Journal, 1870-74; and Superintendent of the Institute for the Blind, 1872-74. Out of the highly-charged partisan political climate during Reconstruction came a number of negative evaluations of his effectiveness: one historian charged him with being a political power broker or carpetbagger, another questioned his financial interest in The State Journal when it was the paper of record, while a third accused him of quarrelling with critics instead of advancing black education. He is nevertheless generally credited as having been a fair man of even temperament.
After Reconstruction Wheelock bought a house in Austin and concentrated on civic affairs, including the Austin State Fair of 1876. For a time, in San Antonio, he served as Deputy Collector of Internal Revenue. In 1887, after touring the west by train, Wheelock moved to Spokane, probably leaving his family behind. Here, along with 20 charter members, he founded The First Unitarian Society of Spokane. They purchased a lot and built a church that could seat 275 people. Little record of this ministry exists, other than a debate, noted in the local Herald, in which he explained that Genesis was not to be taken literally.
Wheelock’s daughter Emilie cared for his wife Ellen while he was in Spokane. In 1889, when his daughter married, he returned to Austin. A number of prominent citizens of Austin convinced him to start a ministry there. By 1892 the new society had rented the second floor of the Board of Trade building. Wheelock preached a number of sermons centered on the rights of labor and the abuses of monopolies and trusts. In 1899, with his health declining, he delivered his last sermon. The Austin Statesman carried an article saying that, during the church’s eight years, the services were influential and inspirational and were marked by the able and courageous leadership of the Reverend Wheelock. His retirement years were largely spent studying the works of his friend, the mystic poet Thomas Lake Harris, one-time Universalist minister and the spiritual leader of the Fountain Grove movement near Santa Rosa, California.
Wheelock’s early sermons had showed the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his middle years he had explored the role of evolution in thought and religion. His latter discourses were either in the Theosophical-Spiritualist or Socialist-Labor populist vein.
Ellen, age 65, had succumbed to the debilitating effects of TB in 1895. Six years later Wheelock died at the home of a friend. The commemorative service was led by a former Presbyterian minister who had his own independent congregation. Wheelock’s will divided his estate between his daughter and his “master,” Thomas Lake Harris.
Wheelock’s daughter, Emilie Wheelock Howson, through her bequests became better known than her father. She inherited a considerable fortune from her brother Charles, who died in 1927. When she died, in 1957, she left a million dollars to various charities. The largest single group of gifts went for schools and libraries in Austin’s Black community. The local Unitarian church, the American Unitarian Association, the Women’s Club, Farley’s Boys Ranch, and The Austin Library each received $100,000. The Austin Unitarians used their inheritence to purchase land and to build Howson Hall and an education wing.
The Center for American Studies of the University of Texas at Austin is the primary repository of Wheelock materials. Other items are in the libraries of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts and at the Austin History Center, a division of the Austin (Texas) Public Library. An admiring member of the Austin congregation, law student Charles Kassel, collected copies of a handful of Wheelock’s printed discourses. Over the next forty years Kassel added biographical notes and had the discourses published in The Open Court, a Chicago magazine devoted to science, religion, philosophy, and the extension of the religious parliament idea. A few of Wheelock’s discourses were published as pamphlets or small books.
A book-length biography, Jerry D. Frazee, The Magnificent Carpetbagger (1976), reprints most of Wheelock’s discourses and newspaper clippings and includes an extensive bibliography. Carl H. Moneyhon wrote the entry on Wheelock in The Handbook of Texas and Republicanism in Reconstruction Texas (1980). Also useful is Claude Elliot’s “The Freedmen’s Bureau in Texas” in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly (1952 & 1973). An excellent general reference on this period is Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (1962).
Article by Jerry Frazee
Posted September 7, 2006