The Rev. John M. Whitehead
Topeka Cemetery’s only Medal of Honor recipient is John M. Whitehead, a pastor who earned the nation’s highest military honor without ever lifting a rifle. The chaplain, assigned to the Fifteenth Indiana, was cited for the bravery and compassion he showed under fire at the Battle of Stones River.
This battle, near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, had the highest percentage of casualties of any major battle during the Civil War. “Of my own regiment every alternate man was either killed or wounded,” Whitehead wrote. “Though a non-combatant, I was with my regiment during the entire battle, comforting the dying, carrying off the wounded and caring for them.”
Whitehead dressed wounds, prayed over the dead and dying, and heard last words. The fighting was so fierce, he said, that every other man in his regiment was wounded or killed.
But the chaplain continued his mission, carrying men back from the front line, supporting those with lesser wounds to the rear and providing whatever first aid he could. Whitehead reported his next-door neighbor from Wayne County, Indiana, fell dead in his arms from a bullet that wounded two other men.
Whitehead was not a young man when the war began. He was nearing 40, having been ordained as a Baptist minister for nearly 20 years. Whitehead continued his ministry with the Baptist church after the war. In the late 1880s, he found his way to Kansas, taking on a congregation in Silver Lake before moving to Topeka, where he helped build the First Baptist Church. He served as chaplain of the Legislature for two sessions.
The Rev. Whitehead is buried in Section 56, Lot 27, his grave marked by a monument and two small Civil War headstones. With him are his wife, Mary; his son, John W. Whitehead; and his sister, Linda Whitehead.