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October 13, 2016

Building Cemeteries: William Wainwright

Building Cemeteries: William Wainwright

 By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

William Alonzo Wainwright (1832-1904) was a leading citizen of Victorian-era Noblesville, later remembered by most citizens through the Wainwright Bank.  William Alonzo Wainwright was born in Hanover, New Hampshire and from the age of twelve until twenty, he clerked for Levi P. Morton who later became Vice President under President Benjamin Harrison. At twenty, he moved to Concord, New Hampshire, and worked in a dry goods store for a year, then moved to Noblesville, Indiana in 1853. In Noblesville, he operated a hardware, tin and stove business first with his brother, and then with George Pontious.  He married his partner’s sister and had three children, only one of whom, Lucius, survived childhood.  He was deeply involved in the social life of the community, joining the Masonic Lodge and the Odd Fellows Lodge as well as playing a horn in the town band

dh-blogIn 1861, with the start of the Civil War, Wainwright enlisted in the 6t Indiana Regiment, Company J, seeing action at the battles of Phillippi, Cheat River, and Georgetown.  He then entered the 39th Indiana as leader of the regimental band until the regiment was mustered out in February, 1862.  In July, 1862, he enlisted in the 75th Indiana Volunteer Infantry as a Sergeant, and was quickly promoted to Lieutenant and Regimental Quartermaster.  A private in the 75th who worked for him said, “I think Lieut. Will is one of the best men in our regiment”.  In December of 1863, he was promoted to Captain and Assistant Quartermaster, Engineers Department, Department of the Mississippi, where he remained until June of 1864 when he transferred from the Engineers Department to be an Assistant Quartermaster, Department of the Cumberland, under J.L. Donaldson.  As part of his duties, he was put in charge of the Taylor Depot in Nashville.

Wainwright was in charge of quite a lot of material.  When he transferred to the Engineer’s Department in 1863, one of his clerks said that he had on hand “something near seven hundred horses and mules, one hundred wagons, two pontoon bridges, three hundred pack saddles, and seventeen wagonloads of nails and many other things too tedious to mention”.

screen-shot-2016-10-12-at-12-10-53-pmIn December of 1865, Wainwright became Chief Assistant Quartermaster in Knoxville, Tennessee, under Major General George Stoneman.  After the war, Wainwright remained there, investigating claims and closing the depot.  While he was in Knoxville, an incident occurred where, in trying to save a black soldier from a lynch mob, he was nearly lynched himself.  His last duty in Tennessee was being given charge of the grim task of re-interring the Union dead from their hasty battlefield graves to the new national cemeteries at KnoxvilleChattanooga, and Atlanta.  In 1869 he transferred to the Quartermasters Department in Brownsville, Texas, where he rebuilt Fort Brown.  He was honorably discharged as a brevet major in 1870.

One of Wainwright’s most difficult tasks was re-interring the Union dead.  He received a great deal of correspondence from bereaved relatives, which would often include items such as locks of hair or other things that people hoped would help in identifying individuals.
Following his military career, Wainwright returned to Noblesville and resumed his hardware business.  He built a farm on north Allisonville Road where he bred and raised horses.  The house is still there.  He organized a trust company that became quite successful.  His prosperity increased during the natural gas boom when one of the largest gas wells discovered in central Indiana was drilled on his farm.  It was nicknamed the “Wainwright Wonder” and even had a cigar named for it.  Wainwright died in Noblesville in 1904 and the directors of the trust company formed the Wainwright Bank a few years later.  The Wainwright Trust building is now part of the Church, Church, Hittle & Antrim building.  His son Lucius, who was always interested in bicycles, took his inheritance and became a partial owner of a struggling bicycle parts firm.  He built it into what is known today as the Diamond Chain Corporation.

wainwrightWhen Wainwright returned from the army, he was asked to be on the board of directors for Crownland Cemetery which had been organized in 1867.  Since he had built several national cemeteries, his expertise was obvious.  Actually, one of the first things he may have done was to move two of his children who had died in infancy from Riverside Cemetery to his family plot in Crownland.

Many of Major Wainwright’s papers have been preserved at various institutions.  The largest collection is at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. The records were purchased by the Tennessee Historical Society in 1949 from Wainwright’s grandson.  There are 20,000 documents and 44 bounds volumes (36 cubic feet) that cover the years 1862 to 1870.  There are other records at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and at the University of Texas.