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04/2/14

Philip St. George Cocke: A Victim of PTSD

This entry is part 7 of 8 in the series Confederate Generals Officers

Philip St. George Cocke, 1850sBefore the modern age Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome or PTSD was often called combat fatigue, the 1,000 yard stare, shell shock or simply depression. During the American Civil War there was quite a lot of combat fatigue but in many cases the affected men were too proud to ask for help.

The Civil War was the first conflict in American history that had mass armies. The antebellum United States Army had a mere 16,000 officers and men scattered throughout the entire country. Most units were company-size, larger units were very rare. The officers and men were all volunteers. From the end of War of 1812 until the firing on Fort Sumter the United States fought against the Creeks, the Seminoles, plains Indians and the Mexicans.

The first year of the Civil War saw untrained armies fighting in essence as armed mobs. Army commanders had no experience at maneuvering large formations of troops. Despite many of the army commanders having been graduates of West Point and military academies such as the Virginia Military Institute, they were simply inexperienced at the practice of war-making.

Philip St. George Cocke was one such officer who had never seen combat despite having graduated from West Point. A native of Fluvanna County, Virginia Cocke only served two years before resigning to marry and became a cotton planter in Powhatan County, Virginia and in Mississippi. He became an accomplished agriculturalist who published frequent articles in journals and served as the president of the Virginia State Agricultural Society from 1853 to 1856.

After the firing on Fort Sumter Cocke was appointed as a brigadier general in the service of the Commonwealth of Virginia by Governor John Letcher. He was assigned command of all state forces along the Potomac River.

When Virginia’s state forces were consolidated with the Provisional Army of the Confederate States, Cocke was given the rank of colonel in the new CSA forces. Because of this effective demotion, Cocke was superseded in command at Manassas on May 21 by Brig. Gen. Milledge L. Bonham.

Cocke commanded the 5th Brigade under General P. G. T. Beauregard and was assigned to defend Centreville but in the face of advancing Union forces, withdrew behind Bull Run on July 17.

On July 20 Cocke was stationed at Ball’s Ford on Bull Run. In the subsequent First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861, Cocke was assigned to advance against Centreville, a plan abandoned when the Federals began their flanking movement against the Confederate left.

While Col. Nathan George Evans, reinforced by Brig. Gen. Barnard Bee and Col. Francis S. Bartow, opposed the enemy, Cocke’s forces defended against attack in the vicinity of the Stone Bridge, with his headquarters at the Lewis house. At 2 p.m., about an hour before the arrival of Elzey, he led his brigade into action on the left with “alacrity and effect.” He was promoted to brigadier general in the Confederate Army on October 21 and given command of the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Division of the Confederate Army of the Potomac.

First Bull Run was Cocke’s last battle. After eight months’ service, during which he was promoted to brigadier general in the provisional Confederate army, he returned home, “shattered in body and mind.” Exhausted from the strain, and despondent over perceived slights from General Beauregard stemming from the Battle of Manassas, Cocke shot himself in the head on December 26, 1861, at his mansion, “Belmead”, in Powhatan County, Virginia. He was initially buried on the plantation grounds, but he was re-interred in 1904 at Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia.

Philip St. George Cocke was one officer who could not withstand the strain of violent combat. Many officers could not accept the deaths of the men under their command and some resigned their commissions rather than order men to their deaths. It would be a long war with many officers and men suffering both physically and mentally.

 

10/18/13

The Memoirs of William Tecumseh Sherman

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series Northern Diaries, Letters and Memoirs

General William T. ShermanWilliam Tecumseh Sherman is perhaps the most controversial Union general of the American Civil War. His philosophy of total war was reflected in the actions of the Union Army from mid-1863 to the end of the war. His memoirs reflect the type of commander that he actually was; a decisive commander who believed that the shortest course through the war was always the best course.

Sherman began the war as colonel of the 13th U.S. Infantry regiment. In reality he commanded a 3-regiment brigade of 90-day volunteers. He was one of the few Union commanders who distinguished himself at the First Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas as the Confederates named it). He was wounded twice in the battle. He questioned his own abilities to lead troops but President Lincoln thought otherwise and promoted him to brigadier general of volunteers.

Sherman was assigned to the Department of the Cumberland where he succeeded to command by October 1861. Sherman complained bitterly about shortages in men and equipment. By November he was relieved at his own request. Transferred to the Department of Missouri, he was he was put on leave by Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, commander of the department, who considered him unfit for duty.

He returned home to recuperate. Some historians consider Sherman’s state of mind as a nervous breakdown. Sherman later wrote that the concerns of command “broke me down,” and he admitted contemplating suicide. His problems were compounded when the Cincinnati Commercial described him as “insane.”

Within a short period of time he returned to duty in St. Louis, mostly in rear-echelon assignments in the area of logistical support. It was during this period that he became acquainted with General Ulysses S. Grant and although his senior in rank, he wrote: “I feel anxious about you as I know the great facilities [the Confederates] have of concentration by means of the River and R Road, but [I] have faith in you — Command me in any way.”

Sherman commanded a division at the Battle of Shiloh and like most other Union commanders was caught by surprise when the Confederates attacked. However, Sherman rallied his division and conducted an orderly, fighting retreat that helped avert a disastrous Union rout. On the evening of the first day, he met Grant under a tree smoking a cigar.

Their conversation is one that set the tone for their relationship. Sherman said simply: “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” After a puff of his cigar, Grant replied calmly: “Yes. Lick ’em tomorrow, though.” Sherman was wounded twice more and had three horses shot out from under him but was instrumental in the Union victory. After the battle he was promoted to major general of volunteers.

Sherman went on to command a corps at Vicksburg and the Army of the Tennessee after Grant was promoted to command of the Western Theater. When Grant was promoted to General-in-Chief he appointed Sherman (by then known to his soldiers as “Uncle Billy”) to succeed him as head of the Military Division of the Mississippi, which entailed command of Union troops in the Western Theater of the war.

Sherman conducted a masterful campaign to take Atlanta in early-September 1864 and followed that campaign with the March to the Sea and the March through the Carolinas. Sherman ended his war by accepting the surrender of the General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee on April 17 at the Bennett Place near Durham Station, North Carolina.

After the war Sherman served in a St. Louis as the commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi and later the Military Division of the Missouri. After changes, his command covered territory west of the Mississippi and east of the Rocky Mountains.  When Grant became president in 1869, Sherman was appointed Commanding General of the United States Army and promoted to General of the Army.

In 1875 Sherman published his memoirs in two volumes. According to critic Edmund Wilson, Sherman had a trained gift of self-expression and was, as Mark Twain says, a master of narrative.

[In his Memoirs] the vigorous account of his pre-war activities and his conduct of his military operations is varied in just the right proportion and to just the right degree of vivacity with anecdotes and personal experiences. We live through his campaigns […] in the company of Sherman himself. He tells us what he thought and what he felt, and he never strikes any attitudes or pretends to feel anything he does not feel.

Around 1868, Sherman began to write a “private” recollection for his children about his life before the Civil War, identified now as his unpublished “Autobiography, 1828–1861”. This manuscript is held by the Ohio Historical Society. Much of the material in it would eventually be incorporated in revised form in his memoirs.

Sherman published his memoirs in 1875, becoming one of the first Civil War generals to do so. His Memoirs of General William T. Sherman. By Himself, published by D. Appleton & Co., in two volumes, began with the year 1846 (when the Mexican War began) and ended with a chapter about the “military lessons of the [civil] war”.

They were controversial to say the least but none other than President Grant later remarked that others had told him that Sherman treated Grant unfairly but “when I finished the book, I found I approved every word; that … it was a true book, an honorable book, creditable to Sherman, just to his companions — to myself particularly so — just such a book as I expected Sherman would write.”

In 1886, after the publication of Grant’s memoirs, Sherman produced a “second edition, revised and corrected” of his memoirs with Appleton. The new edition added a second preface, a chapter about his life up to 1846, a chapter concerning the post-war period (ending with his 1884 retirement from the army), several appendices, portraits, improved maps, and an index.

Sherman refused to revise his original text on the ground that “I disclaim the character of historian, but assume to be a witness on the stand before the great tribunal of history” and “any witness who may disagree with me should publish his own version of [the] facts in the truthful narration of which he is interested.” However, Sherman did add the appendices, in which he published the views of some others.

Subsequently, Sherman shifted to the publishing house of Charles L. Webster & Co., the publisher of Grant’s memoirs. The new publishing house brought out a “third edition, revised and corrected” in 1890. This difficult-to-find edition was substantively identical to the second (except for the probable omission of Sherman’s short 1875 and 1886 prefaces).

After Sherman died in 1891, there were dueling new editions of his memoirs. His first publisher, Appleton, reissued the original (1875) edition with two new chapters about Sherman’s later years added by the journalist W. Fletcher Johnson.

Meanwhile, Charles L. Webster & Co. issued a “fourth edition, revised, corrected, and complete” with the text of Sherman’s second edition, a new chapter prepared under the auspices of the Sherman family bringing the general’s life from his retirement to his death and funeral, and an appreciation by politician James G. Blaine (who was related to Sherman’s wife). Unfortunately, this edition omits Sherman’s prefaces to the 1875 and 1886 editions.

In 1904 and 1913, Sherman’s youngest son, Philemon Tecumseh Sherman, republished the memoirs, ironically with Appleton (not Charles L. Webster & Co.). This was designated as a “second edition, revised and corrected”. This edition contains Sherman’s two prefaces, his 1886 text, and the materials added in the 1891 Blaine edition. This virtually invisible edition of Sherman’s memoirs is actually the most comprehensive version.

Sherman’s Memoirs can be purchased in a variety of formats with a number of different pricing levels. Some are purely copies while others have annotations to put them in context. This is simply one suggestion.

07/10/13

A Steep Learning Curve for Generals

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series Command Decisions

The United States Army had just 16,000 men at the onset of the Civil War. A majority of the officer was West Point-trained and had served in various posts around the country. Many of the men who were called upon to lead the large armies that both sides built had commanded companies in their former assignments.

In fact, the only serving officer who had commanded a large force was Brevet Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott, who had commanded 4,000 men in the invasion of Mexico in 1947. Scott was the pioneer of the turning or flanking maneuver that he used to good advantage against the Mexicans. Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman perfect this tactic during the war.

General Albert Sidney Johnston, who was killed at Shiloh, commanded the 2nd Cavalry in Texas. Robert E. Lee was his second-in-command. Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell said that the U.S. Military Academy taught officers everything that they needed to know about commanding a company of dragoons on the frontier. It is no wonder that the pre-war course on strategy and the art of war lasted no more than a week. More time was spent on horsemanship because the army expected their officers to spend most of their careers in the saddle.

Many officers had no experience commanding troops in any type of fighting. Some failed and caused tremendous casualties among their men. Other succeeded purely on natural ability. Men who had led no more than companies were now called upon to lead regiments, brigades, divisions and corps.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain had been a college professor before the war. He learned all of the tactics required for commanding infantry from books. At Little Round Top on July 2nd, he proved that his education was successful when his 20th Maine turned back repeated attempts by the 15th and 47th Alabama who were attempting to turn the Union position.

Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside behaved like a regimental commander but was a dismal failure at commanding an army. His disasters at Fredericksburg and the “Mud March” were an excellent example of his lack of ability. He was somewhat better as a corps commander. “Fighting” Joe Hooker was another Union commander who found his niche as a corps commander after his disastrous defeat at Chancellorsville.

On the Confederate side, Robert E. Lee was a failure in western Virginia at the start of the war. His record was so dismal that he was relegated to the backwater of the Coastal Command in North and South Carolina. His rise to command of the Army of Northern Virginia was purely by chance after Gen. Joseph E. Johnston was severely wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines. Lee happened to be Jefferson Davis’ military adviser and was the right man at the right place.

Lt. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, the great “Stonewall”, had been a college professor at the Virginia Military Institute when the war began. Called upon to train Virginia militia troops, Jackson rose on sheer ability. His Valley Campaign of 1862 is still studied at West Point. He was mortally wounded by his own troops at Chancellorsville but not before crushing the Union Army was a daring flank attack, considered the greatest ones of the war.

Commanders on both sides were generally indifferent to European military theory from men like Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini and the Prussian General Carl Von Clausewitz. Commanders during the Civil War were called upon to be innovative rather than having a great reliance on theory.

The goal of generals during the war was quite simply to destroy the other side’s force. Using as much firepower as they had available, both armies literally flung themselves at each other. Early in the war they did this with little skill. Their armies were simply armed mobs who charged indiscriminately at each other. It was only after the troops and their generals became more skilled did we see maneuvers like the flank attack.

The steep learning curve encountered by generals was only overcome after a great loss of life and futility on the battlefield. In the early war the battles either had very few casualties or many casualties. In the engagements leading up to the First Battle of Manassas (or Bull Run) casualties were never more than 100 on either. At Manassas the Union Army sustain 2,986 killed, wounded or missing while the Confederates had about 1,000 fewer casualties.

The classic Valley Campaign was a true illustration of how a gifted commander could out-maneuver and defeat his enemy. “Stonewall” Jackson led a force of 17,000 men over 646 miles in 48 days and won several minor battles as they successfully engaged three Union armies (52,000 men), preventing them from reinforcing the Union offensive against Richmond.

Ultimately, the classroom for generals on both sides of the war was the battlefield.

05/20/13

1862: The End of Conciliation in the East

This entry is part 4 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

Map of US with divisionsWhile 1861 same several attempts to settle the war without shedding an ocean of blood, 1862 would see the gradual descent of the war into a bitter conflict on both sides. In order to understand this period we’ll look at the war from various perspectives. This post will cover the Eastern Theater.

After the First Battle of Manassas, or Bull Run as the losing Union side named it, both sides began a gradual feeling-out process that was the antithesis of the later total war waged by both sides. The reality of First Manassas convinced both sides that their armies were no more than armed mobs. Both armies were deficient in training, leadership and even uniforms.

Both sides had uniforms that in some cases caused confusion on the battlefield. There were Confederate units with blue uniforms and Union units with a sort of blue/gray uniform. Some of the uniforms were garish and impractical like the Zouave uniforms worn by units on both sides. Even the early Confederate battle flags caused confusion because of their similarity to Old Glory.

Both armies in the Eastern Theater spent the fall and winter reorganizing, training and equipping their troops. In the Western Theater there were tentative probes down the Mississippi River and into Kentucky which had tried to remain neutral.

Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant would make his first major foray from his base at Cairo, Illinois on November 7, 1861. The Battle of Belmont would see a limited clash of arms on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River with limited aims and a small loss of life.

In the Eastern Theater there were several engagements at the edges of the conflict but Maj. Gen. George McClellan refused to be pushed into major combat before he felt that his massive Army of the Potomac was ready to advance. By the end of 1861, McClellan had fortified Washington into one of the most defended cities in the world with 48 forts, 480 guns and 7,200 artillerymen.

The Army of the Potomac, McClellan’s chosen weapon of “shock and awe” had grown to over 190,000 men, the largest army ever assembled on the North American continent. It was was considered by far the most colossal military unit the world had seen in modern historical times. But McClellan wanted more. He envisioned an army of 273,000 with 600 guns to “crush the rebels in one campaign.”

McClellan continually overestimated the numbers of enemy troops that were facing him in the Washington area. On August 8, believing that the Confederates had over 100,000 troops facing him (in contrast to the 35,000 they actually deployed at Bull Run a few weeks earlier), he declared a state of emergency in the capital.

By August 19, he estimated 150,000 enemy to his front. McClellan’s future campaigns would be strongly influenced by the overblown enemy strength estimates of his secret service chief, detective Allan Pinkerton, but in August 1861, these estimates were entirely McClellan’s own.

The result was a level of extreme caution that sapped the initiative of McClellan’s army and caused great condemnation by his government. Historian and biographer Stephen W. Sears has called McClellan’s actions “essentially sound” if he had been as outnumbered as he believed, but McClellan in fact rarely had less than a two-to-one advantage over his opponents in 1861 and 1862. That fall, for example, Confederate forces ranged from 35,000 to 60,000, whereas the Army of the Potomac in September numbered 122,000 men; in early December 170,000; by year end, 192,000.

Eventually after much debate and arguments between McClellan and the Lincoln government, the Army of the Potomac was transported to the tip of the Peninsula where they began a slow advance northwest to their ultimate goal of Richmond. From the siege of Yorktown to Malvern Hill, McClellan and first, Joseph E. Johnston and then Robert E. Lee slugged it out over a four-month period. Eventually, the Confederates deflected the huge Union army from its goal.

While McClellan was left idle at Harrison’s Landing, Lee turned and thrashed Maj. Gen. John Pope at Second Manassas. He then turned north and headed into Maryland where Lee and McClellan met in the bloodiest one-day battle of the war at Antietam. After a bloodletting that caused almost 23,000 casualties, McClellan was relieved of command and replaced by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside.

With the departure of McClellan the war in the Eastern Theater began a slide to total war. Burnside’s first major battle was at Frederickburg on the Rappahannock River. The Union artillery preparation for the crossing of the river would destroy a large part of the town.

Union cavalry units were sent into the Virginia countryside to seize food and fodder thus denying it to the Confederates. This would establish a pattern for both armies to prey upon the civilian populations. The Confederate cavalry would do the same in Maryland and later Pennsylvania.

05/13/13

General Winfield Scott’s Plan to End the Rebellion

This entry is part 3 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

General Winfield ScottThe prime mover of conciliation with the South in the Lincoln administration was its General-in-Chief Winfield Scott. Scott was a Virginian but also a steadfast supporter of the Union. He was the most recognizable soldier in the United States and had served his country longer than any other man in American history, and many historians rate him the best American commander of his time. Over the course of his forty-seven-year career, he commanded forces in the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Black Hawk War and the Second Seminole War.

Now, he was called upon to craft a strategy that would preserve the Union with a minimum amount of bloodshed. This would be the most difficult task in his distinguished career.

Throughout the late spring and early summer of 1861, Scott crafted his strategy. However, elements within the administration and in the press began to agitate for immediate action. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, an influential Republican, led the opposition to Scott’s gradualism. Blair in a letter to Lincoln insisted that Scott and other Army officers underestimated the depth of the secession spirit in the South.

Blair contended that unless immediate action was undertaken the Confederate government would consolidate their hold on the southern states. Blair warned that if that occurred only the complete conquest of the South could end secession. In retrospect Blair was absolutely correct and only the complete and utter conquest of the South brought the southern states back into the Union.

Scott’s plan was an all-encompassing strategy that became known as the Anaconda Plan. The plan called for the complete blockade of the Southern ports which would deny the South revenue from the trading of cotton. It would also deny the South those items that the Confederacy required to conduct the war.

The major problem with a complete naval blockade was that the United States lacked the navy to conduct such an all-encompassing 3,500 mile operation. The hundreds of ships needed to carry out such an operation would need to be built, equipped and crewed. This would require time to accomplish and in fact Scott’s plan provided no details only an overall strategy. Eventually, the Union Navy had 500 ships to carry out this operation.

The land phase, in part, called for a force of about 80,000 men to move down the Mississippi River and split the Confederacy in half. A spearhead The Anaconda Planconsisting of a relatively small amphibious force, army troops transported by boats and supported by gunboats, should advance rapidly, capturing the Confederate positions down the river in sequence.

They would be followed by a more traditional army, marching behind them to secure the victories. The culminating battle would be for the forts below New Orleans; when they fell, the river would be in Federal hands from its source to its mouth, and the rebellion would be cut in two.

This was in fact what the Union did. Starting from Cairo, Illinois, Union forces worked their way downriver capturing strategic locations. At the same time naval and army forces moved upriver from the Mississippi Delta until both forces met at Vicksburg.

Scott also called for a similar force to move from Washington into the Virginia countryside. He hoped that the threat of large forces on their home grounds would bring the Southerners to their senses. He also expected that the appearance of large Union forces would encourage loyal citizens to rise up against the secessionists.

He then anticipating the landing of strong naval and army troops along various points of the coast. This, he hoped, would force the state governments to recall their troops and fragment the “grand army and make it powerless for any offensive movement.”

All of Scoot’s grand strategy came to naught with the Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run or Manassas as the victorious Confederates named it. This defeat any hopes of a rapid Confederate collapse. Once the South became united by this stunning victory any hopes that the Anaconda Plan had held out.

05/10/13

Toward A Real Civil War: Spring and Summer 1861

This entry is part 2 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

Ohio VolunteersThe antebellum United States Army had about 16,000 officers and men. Of these about one-quarter of the officer corps resigned to join the Confederate Army. At the onset of the war both armies were no better than armed mobs, untrained, undisciplined and unblooded. Both sides were simply groping toward civil war without a firm plan.

The U.S. Army consisted of ten regiments of infantry, four of artillery, two of cavalry, two of dragoons, and one of mounted infantry. The regiments were scattered widely. Of the 197 companies in the army, 179 occupied 79 isolated posts in the West, and the remaining 18 manned garrisons east of the Mississippi River, mostly along the Canada–United States border and on the Atlantic coast.

President Abraham Lincoln initially issued a call for 75,000 volunteers to serve for three months to put down the “insurrection”. Some have said that the Union government was overly optimistic but in reality that was the limits of Lincoln’s legal authority. Until Congress reconvened he could only ask for that many volunteers.

While the army was forming, the Lincoln administration went about seeking ways to heal the breach between the North and the South. Many Northerners retained the belief that a settlement with the Southerners could be achieved without too much bloodshed. Those who supported General Scott believed as he did that quick, bloody action would push the Southern Unionists into supporting the secessionists. There was a significant group who was of the opposite opinion that quick action could ignite the Southern Unionists into action on the side of the Union.

Postmaster General Montgomery Blair was on the side of those who pushed for quick, decisive. He wrote Lincoln that in his opinion the officer corps was making a fatal flaw by overestimating the strength of the secessionist spirit in the South. Blair predicted that if the North didn’t move rapidly then the South would only be subjugated by complete conquest.

As the spring moved into early summer and no offensive action was undertaken Lincoln began to have doubts in Scott’s policy of deliberation. The South had achieved a number of minor victories: the capture of the shipyard, the seizure of Harper’s Ferry and the minor but humiliating defeat at Big Bethel, Virginia.

Both the New York Tribune and the Chicago Tribune called for the Union army to drive on Richmond with the slogan, “Forward to Richmond.” General Irvin McDowellHowever, the majority of the nation’s newspapers continued to support General Scott’s plan of deliberately fencing the Confederates in. Scott hoped that by amassing huge armies in the east and west, he would discourage the Confederate troops. He was hoping that loyal citizens would rise up and prevent any further attacks, like Fort Sumter.

At the cabinet meeting on June 29th, Lincoln gave the Army command marching orders. He insisted that they advance as far as Manassas within two or three weeks. Scott resisted but eventually agreed to the order. By July 8th, Lincoln issued order for General Irvin McDowell, the field commander, to launch his offensive. McDowell launched his forces on July 16th.

McDowell had been a supply officer from 1848 until 1861. He was pushed for a field command by his mentor, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. Although McDowell knew that his troops were inexperienced and unready, and protested that he was a supply officer, not a field commander, pressure from the Washington politicians forced him to launch a premature offensive against Confederate forces in Northern Virginia.

In order not to antagonize the Southern civilians, McDowell gave instructed his men to conduct themselves ” with as much forbearance and propriety as if they were at their own homes.”    

McDowell’s army met their Confederate counterparts near Manassas Junction on July 21st where an all-day battle ensued. His strategy during the First Battle of Bull Run was imaginative but ambitiously complex, and his troops were not experienced enough to carry it out effectively, resulting in an embarrassing rout. The Union defeat ended any hopes of a Confederate collapse and peaceful reconciliation. President Lincoln summoned Maj. Gen. George Brinton McClellan to take command of the Union Army in the East.                                                                                                                                         

05/23/11

Isaac E. Avery

“Major, tell my father I died with my face to the enemy. I. E. Avery.”

Isaac Erwin Avery was born in Burke County, North Carolina, one of sixteen children, on December 20, 1828. Three of the brothers were killed during the Civil War and one was crippled for life. He attended the University of North Carolina for one year but left to run a plantation owned by his father.

He formed Company E of the 6th North Carolina Infantry Regiment and was named its captain. He led the company at the First Battle of Bull Run and the Battle of Seven Pines. In the summer of 1862, he was promoted to Colonel Isaac Erwin Avery, CSAthe rank of colonel. He was wounded at the Battle of Gaines Mill and missed the subsequent battles of Second Bull Run and Antietam. After the Battle of Fredricksburg, the 6th North Carolina Infantry Regiment came under the command of Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke. Hoke was wounded at the Battle Chancellorsville in May 1863 and Avery temporarily assumed command of the Hoke’s Brigade for the Gettysburg campaign. On July 1st Avery led his unit north and east of the town but their advance was stopped by Federal artillery fire from Culp’s Hill. On July 2nd Major General Jubal Early ordered Avery and the brigade of Brig. Gen. Harry T. Hays to assault eastern Cemetery Hill. During the early evening attack Avery was struck in the neck by a musket ball and fell from his horse, bleeding profusely. His wounding went unnoticed for some time. The uncoordinated attack failed badly and Avery was discovered sometime later by several passing soldiers. As his aide and former business partner, Major Samuel Tate knelt by his side Avery, unable to speak from his mortal Colonel Isaac Avery's Famous Notewound and with his right hand useless from the paralysis, scribbled these deathless words with his left hand and gave it to Tate. It said: “Major, tell my father I died with my face to the enemy. I. E. Avery.”

He died the following day in a Gettysburg field hospital. He was eventually buried at Washington Confederate Cemetery, part of Rose Hill Cemetery, in Hagerstown, Maryland.

Colonel Isaac Avery's gravestone