- The Washington Times - Friday, March 23, 2007

With trembling hands and blurred vision, the elderly father read the heart-rending dispatch, dated 11 o’clock, July 8, 1863.

“My Dear Father: No letters or private telegrams arrived tonight, but news in the paper, announcing a victory for our army at Gettysburg, contains very sad distressing news for our family. The papers state that Col. Avery of North Carolina was killed — it must be either Moulton or Isaac — one of your beloved sons has fallen I fear.”

The note was from William Avery, who sent it from the nearby town of Morganton, N.C.

As fate would have it, three brothers — Col. Clarke Moulton Avery, Col. Isaac Erwin Avery and Lt. Willoughby Francis Avery — were struck down on the bloodstained field at Gettysburg. Clarke and Willoughby would recover to fight again, but Isaac had fought his last battle, never to return to his native state.

Considering the date on the correspondence, the body of Isaac Avery already had been buried in a shallow grave overlooking the Potomac River at Williamsport, Md., about 40 miles south of Gettysburg.

The Bloody 6th

Isaac Erwin Avery was born Dec. 20, 1828, on the old Swan Ponds Plantation near Morganton in Burke County, N.C. Named after his father, he was the fourth of 16 children born to Isaac Thomas Avery and Harriet Eloise Avery. Just 10 of the Averys’ children lived past childhood. This influential, prestigious family of western North Carolina owned large tracts of land and was engaged extensively in law, education and politics on local and state levels.

After a year of study at the University of North Carolina, young Isaac was sent to manage another plantation owned by his father, in Yancey County. With the coming of civil war and facing threat of an invasion, Isaac put aside “planting the soil” and, along with his younger brother Alphonso, raised Company E, 6th North Carolina Infantry. Isaac was appointed captain of the newly formed regiment, known locally as the 6th North Carolina State Troops.

In June 1862, as the Union pushed deeper into the South, Capt. Avery’s regiment was sent to defend Richmond. There, during the Peninsula Campaign, while driving the enemy from the outskirts of the Confederate capital, he shed his first patriotic blood at Gaine’s Mill, Seven Pines and Malvern Hill.

The 6th North Carolina fought with distinction at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, earning the title “the Bloody 6th.” The recently promoted Col. Avery, however, was recovering from wounds received in Virginia and escaped the bloodiest single day of the Civil War.

The 6th North Carolina Infantry was unique in being the only Confederate unit outfitted with a regimental belt buckle. Those extremely rare waist belt plates contained the legend “6th INF — NC.S.T.” The raised letters represented “6th Infantry — North Carolina State Troops.”

Manufactured in late 1861 in a small railway shop in Greensboro, N.C., the oval cast-brass plates were financed personally by the regiment’s first commander, Col. Charles F. Fisher. A Yankee bullet through the forehead at First Manassas put Fisher in an early grave.

Deadly crossfire

At Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863, Gen. Robert F. Hoke, leading a North Carolina brigade (the 6th, 21st and 57th regiments) was struck down, leaving Col. Isaac Avery in command of the brigade. Although a decisive Confederate victory, this engagement cost the South one of its greatest generals, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

Confident after the recent victory at Chancellorsville, Gen. Robert E. Lee decided once again to take the war into enemy territory. This campaign reached a sudden climax at a crossroads town in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg. Fought between Gen. George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac and Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, the three days of bloody warfare (July 1-3, 1863) would be recorded as the turning point in the War Between the States.

Coming from the direction of Harrisburg, Pa., Avery’s brigade (Richard Ewell’s corps, Jubal Early’s division) missed the first day’s fighting at Gettysburg. However, as the sun set, more than enough “bluecoats” were still standing.

Late in the afternoon on the second day, Early ordered Avery’s North Carolinians along with Gen. Harry Hays’ “Louisiana Tigers” on the right to attack a massed Federal force on East Cemetery Hill. Defended by infantry and several artillery batteries, the Union-held elevated heights were among the most heavily fortified enemy positions on the field.

The two brigades started their charge from a streambed (Winebrenner’s Run) on the Henry Culp farm just southeast of Gettysburg. Climbing over rail fences and stone walls for almost a half mile, the advancing Southerners topped a small rise that had been shielding them and immediately were caught in a deadly artillery crossfire. A Federal gunner remembered the slaughter: “It was one solid crash, like a million trees falling at once.”

Avery, mounted on a white horse, was riding in front of his troops when he was hit by shrapnel or a musket ball at the base of the neck and knocked from the saddle. Gen. John B. Gordon of Georgia would write years later: “Resting on his elbows, I could see the gallant young Avery in his bloody gray uniform among his brave North Carolinians.” Once the smoke settled over the field, the fallen 6-foot-2-inch Rebel officer was transported with care to the Culp farm.

Scrap of paper

In the Culps’ beautiful two-story brick farmhouse, the mortally wounded Avery was made as comfortable as possible. All the skills of regimental surgeons William L. Reese and John G. Hardy proved to be in vain. Knowing the end was near, Avery directed his last thoughts to his aging father at home in Morganton.

Paralyzed on the right side and apparently unable to speak, he desperately tried to remove a piece of scrap paper from the pocket of his blood-soaked uniform. A comrade and close friend, Maj. Samuel McDowell Tate of the 6th North Carolina, helped him, kneeling by his side and holding firm the coarse writing paper. The dying man slowly dipped a small stick or some other unknown pointed object in his own blood and scribbled with his left hand: “Major, tell my father I died with my face to the enemy.”

Shortly after scrawling the crimson message, the 35-year-old officer died.

Col. A.C. Godwin of the 57th North Carolina took command of the brigade and later spoke of Avery with highest admiration: “In his death the country lost one of her truest and bravest sons, and the army one of its most gallant officers.”

A member of Company E, 6th North Carolina wrote home to Burke County: “Col. Avery he was wounded one Evening and died the next night I am very Sory that he got killed for I liked him beter than any body I was under but he is gone now he was acting brigadier general.” This private’s grammar and spelling may not be perfect, but his heart and loyalty cannot be questioned.

‘Train of misery’

Col. Isaac Avery died on July 3, the same day his older brother, Col. Clarke Moulton Avery of the 33rd North Carolina, also fell with “his face to the enemy,” during Pickett’s Charge. Clarke Moulton Avery survived, only to be killed the next year in the Battle of the Wilderness. Lt. Willoughby F. Avery of the 43rd North Carolina, Isaac’s youngest brother, had been wounded on the first day at Gettysburg.

Like many Southern officers during the Civil War, Isaac Avery employed the services of a plantation slave. The main job of these black servants was to prepare meals for their masters and tend to their horses. A bond formed between Isaac and the slave, Elijah.

Three days of deadly combat failed to drive the Union Army from its strong defensive position on Cemetery Ridge. Lee then turned his face south toward Williamsport on the Potomac, where his once seemingly invincible army had crossed just nine days earlier. The general spoke in despair: “We must now return to Virginia.”

Early on the morning of July 4, 1863, under a steady rain, Elijah carefully loaded Avery’s body into a horse-drawn wagon, determined to take “Marse Isaac” home to North Carolina.

A 17-mile-long, mud-splattered wagon train filled with wounded, dying humanity moved in advance of the Confederate exodus from Pennsylvania. One quartermaster wagon driven by a slave carried the lifeless form of what once was his master.

The ambulance “train of misery,” under command of Gen. John D. Imboden, finally reached the small riverfront town of Williamsport, where Imboden discovered the Potomac was at flood stage — too deep and treacherous for crossing.

Rain plus intense heat rapidly increased decomposition of the Confederate dead. A decaying corpse was not only offensive to human smell, but carried highly infectious diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever. Thus, Elijah reluctantly gave up the idea of returning the deceased colonel to Burke County.

Sometime around July 7, the devoted slave buried Avery’s remains in the public Riverview Cemetery at Williamsport. W.C. Storrick, in his book “The Battle of Gettysburg,” mentions that Avery was “buried under a pine tree in a small cemetery overlooking the Potomac River.” Today, residents of Washington County still are being interred in the well-maintained Riverview Cemetery, which contains graves dating back to the Revolutionary War.

Mistaken entry

In 1869, Maryland Gov. Oden Bowie decided it was “altogether fitting and proper” and overdue for a decent burial of the Confederate dead from the battles of South Mountain, Antietam and Gettysburg scattered in hastily dug graves throughout Washington County. Bowie chose three men from Sharpsburg to search physically and compile a registry of all Confederate grave sites known to exist in the county and surrounding areas.

The descriptive list would include the soldier’s name (if known) and a rough location of the grave. Three years later, approximately three acres of land at Rose Hill Cemetery in Hagerstown was purchased for reinterment of the “Rebel Bones.” The new site would be called the Washington Confederate Cemetery. The arduous task of exhuming and moving the Confederate remains to Hagerstown was completed by 1874.

According to “Bowie’s List,” one Southern soldier reinterred at Washington Cemetery was recorded as originally buried “in the public graveyard at Williamsport.” Under ground for almost 10 years, the skeletal remains of this Rebel were exhumed and registered as “Col. J.E. Ayer, 6th N.C.S.T., July 3, 1863.”

Two mistakes are found in this entry. First, the letter “J” should be an “I” for Isaac. Second, “Ayer” should be “Avery.” These types of errors were common during the Civil War and are understandable when considering that the marker at the grave site more than likely was made of wood and after 10 years would have been badly weather-beaten and barely legible.

A cast-bronze marker mounted on granite was erected at the head of Washington Cemetery toward the end of the 19th century. This layout map contains 346 names of the “known” Rebel dead buried there, arranged according to each soldier’s state. On the same sacred soil are 2,122 Southern soldiers listed simply as “unknown.”

One North Carolina name found on the heavy plaque is “Col. J.E. Ayer.” This would be Col. Isaac Erwin Avery. Military records prove there was only one colonel attached to the 6th North Carolina State Troops who, according to Bowie’s ledger, died on “July 3, 1863.” After studying all official documents and by process of elimination, there can be no doubt — the remains of the Confederate soldier resting in the North Carolina section of Washington Cemetery is Isaac Avery.

Futile search

Three sons of Isaac Thomas Avery were killed during the Civil War, and one died later from injuries sustained during the conflict. (William Avery, who in July 1863 wrote the note alerting his father to the death of one of his sons, died on July 3, 1864, while leading a company of Burke County militia against a band of Tennessee unionists.) Only Maj. Alphonso Avery survived to old age. Over time, all bodies were brought home and buried in Morganton. However, as far as the family knew, Col. Avery was still beneath Yankee terrain.

Eventually, Elijah made it home to Swan Ponds Plantation, carrying the colonel’s sword and pocket watch. The slave told the Averys he had buried Isaac on a bluff along the Potomac River at Williamsport. Years passed as the final resting place of the colonel was mostly forgotten. On the last day of 1864, mourning the loss of three sons, Isaac Thomas Avery passed away at 79.

Around 1895, Alphonso Calhoun Avery, a North Carolina Supreme Court judge, traveled to Williamsport with the goal of locating the long-lost grave of his brother Isaac. The judge was the same younger brother who had helped Isaac organize Company E, 6th North Carolina Regiment, back in 1861. Judge Avery’s companion on the journey was Capt. J.A. McPherson of Fayetteville. The captain had fought alongside the Avery boys in Company E on various bloody fields.

Thirty years after the war, any trace of Avery’s original grave had vanished. At least 20 years before Alphonso’s visit to Washington County, Bowie’s laborers had removed the colonel’s remains from Riverview Cemetery and also would have removed any crude marker indicating the grave ever had existed. Of course, Judge Avery had no knowledge of Bowie’s List or of a Confederate cemetery in Hagerstown, several miles north of Williamsport.

Only the Almighty knows how long the two North Carolinians spent unsuccessfully searching Riverview Cemetery.

Nothing to compare

Following distinguished service as a judge, Alphonso Avery led the law school at Trinity College in Durham that eventually became Duke University. It also may be noted that Alphonso was a brother-in-law to the immortal Stonewall Jackson. The judge was married to Susan Morrison, and the Southern general was married to her older sister Mary Anna Morrison.

Alphonso Avery died in 1913, leaving Isaac Avery’s final bivouac a dark mystery to the prominent family. Isaac’s original Gettysburg message in blood is preserved in state archives at Raleigh, N.C.

In October 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt delivered a speech in Raleigh at the unveiling of a statue of the Englishman Sir Walter Raleigh, from which the capital of North Carolina takes its name. According to the Atlanta Journal, the president struggled and choked to read from a slip of yellow paper. Then, with solemn reverence he gave the note to Lord James Bryce, Britain’s minister to the United States. After slowly studying the few words, the envoy handed back the note and quietly remarked: “President Roosevelt, we have nothing to compare with this in the British Museum.”

The short message that left both men speechless that day in Raleigh had been etched in human blood. Written more than 40 years earlier, it said all that ever could be asked or expected from a soldier, North or South: “Major, tell my father I died with my face to the enemy.”

Richard E. Clem is a cabinetmaker in Hagerstown, Md., and frequent contributor to this page.

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