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BEHIND THE LINES With Ellers in the Civil War
Byron H. Eller
It has been our endeavor through the pages of "The Eller Chronkles" to present to the readers an account of how the Civil War involved and affected the lives of individual Eller men, as well as entire families; some more profoundly and tragically than others. How the lives of these families were forever changed by the misfortunes and horrors of the Civil War must never be lost sight of or forgotten by us, their descendants.
It has been found that a score of Eller families contributed two or more sons to the armed services, both North and South. As far as I have been able to ascertain the family with the highest number of sons participating was that of Joseph4 "Joe" and Mariah Hedden Eller (Susannah3 "Sukie", Jacob2, Jr., Jacobl) of North Georgia. This family had eight sons serving in the Georgia State infantry and cavalry, C.S.A. Tommy Flanagan and Calvin Neal Eller (EFA members) are descendants of one of these men, Elisha Hedden Eller1.,
In a previous article in The Eller Chronkles was presented the story of three brothers, sons of Andrew and Martha Eller, of Indiana, all three having served in the Union Army.2 In the story presented here we will turn our attention southward to North Carolina and consider the four sons of Absalom4 and Sally Reynolds Eller, ( John3, Peter2, George1 Michael Eller).3
Mathias5 Eller, (probably the same Mathis listed in “Index of Confederate Soldiers from the State of North Carolina"). Born 22 March 1831, enlisted 25 March 1862 into Co. K, 53rd North Carolina infantry regiment. He was wounded the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, captured on 7 July 1863 when his brigade was acting as the rear guard protecting the retreat of the Confederate army as it recrossed the Potomac River at Williamsport, Maryland, to return to Richmond. Mathias remained a prisoner of war and died 25 September 1863, of dysentery, at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.4
Francis5 Eller, Born 3 January 1833, enlisted first 22 September 1862 into the 52nd NC Infantry for one year, then was re-enlisted 13 September 1863, by his cousin, Jesse5 Franklin Eller (Simeon4, John3, Peter2, George Michael1). He was absent due to illness most of the time until 18 December 1864, at which time he was reported absent without leave. No further details of his war activities are known, but on post war information, see Hook, p. 85.
James Madison5 Eller, Born 17 June 1840, enlisted 12 June 1861, into the 26th NC Infantry. He was captured on 4 July 1863, at the Battle of Gettysburg, and remained a prisoner of war up to two months before the end of the war.5
Now we come to the youngest son of Absalom4 and Sally Eller, William5, Harrison. He was born June 17, 1843, and enlisted into Co. K, 53rd North Carolina Infantry, April 30, 1862, making him a young 18 years of age. As we have already learned, the officer commanding Company K was Jesse F. Eller, the first cousin of the four brothers under consideration. It is the story of the last brother that we will follow for the remainder of this narrative, for it is found to have some very interesting circumstances connected with it, as well as further tragedy for this Eller family.
It was summer 1864, and a Confederate army of 20,000 men, under Lieutenant General Jubal Early had gone north and was now at the northern gates of Washington City, in fact one could almost imagine seeing the newly placed dome of the capitol building shimmering in the oppressive July heat, just five miles distant. The entire north was in a state of panic. At no time during the war had a Southern army been this near to the Federal capitol and it seemed as though there was no stopping the greatly over exaggerated army that threatened the city.
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President Abraham Lincoln had been frustrated over and over again with the prosecution of the war through it's early months, principally because of the inadequacies and failures of the Union commanding generals. Finally Lincoln knew he at last had found a general who could and would fight to bring the terrible war to a successful conclusion. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant was the man. He was made Commander-in-Chief of all the Union forces in March 1864. Grant carefully developed a multi-theater strategy involving all available Union forces, to begin the last big offensive simultaneously. An army in Georgia under Sherman was to advance on Atlanta. Operations were to begin in the Virginia peninsula, as well as farther south. And the Shenandoah Valley was to be secured as a source of provisions and subsistence for the Union forces heading for Richmond. Grant, at the head of the Army of the Potomac, started the campaign by crossing into the Virginia Wilderness, May 5, 1864.
But the Army of the Potomac was subjected to unprecedented slaughter as it slugged it's way toward the Confederate capitol, climaxing at the Battle of Cold Harbor, Virginia, June 1-3, 1864. Neither were the operations going as planned or expected in the other theaters. When it seemed that Grant's grand scheme was stalemated, and even in doubt, both armies, Union and Confederate, paused to recover and resupply their troops.
General Robert E. Lee now presented a proposal to President Jefferson Davis to reclaim the Shenandoah Valley for the Confederacy. As the Southern leaders planned their strategy they saw it might be possible and advantageous to carry the war not only to the Shenandoah but in fact to the north as far as Washington City itself. In doing this it was seen that several things might be accomplished. The great pressure Grant was bringing against Richmond would be relieved; provisions would be obtained from the Shenandoah, as well as from north of the Potomac, for the ill fed and poorly clothed Confederate soldiers; and taking the war to the very doors of the northern capitol would be politically dangerous for President Lincoln, whose re-election was coming up in five months.6
Already the anti-war party of the North was campaigning vigorously against Lincoln, and because of the horrible losses in the Wilderness, at Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor, the cry was even stronger that Lincoln must be defeated at the polls. He himself expressed his belief and doubts that the prospect for victory in November was unlikely unless something very drastic and favorable to the administration were to take place. Another thought that caught the imagination of General Lee, which he presented to Davis, was the distinct possibility that Jubal Early could detach a cavalry brigade to operate against Baltimore, then move rapidly 70 miles southeast of Washington to the very tip of the Maryland peninsula. The purpose of this scheme, to free 18,000 Confederates imprisoned at Point Lookout, Maryland, who in turn could be incorporated into the invading force.
On June 12, 1864, Lee sent for recently promoted Lieutenant General Jubal Early. He would lead the Confederate forces north, invade Maryland, and drive toward Washington City, and force the Federal Government to loosen Grant's ever-tightening grip on Richmond and Petersburg. His troops were to be composed of his own command, who had up to now been opposing the invading Union army, combined with Confederate troops already in the Shenandoah Valley. Together the total number of troops would be in the neighborhood of 20,000 men.
With Jubal Early would go the 53rd NC Infantry, and with the 53rd would be young William Harrison Eller. Of the ten Ellers who had been members of Co. K, 53rd NC regiment William was the only one still present in the company to make the raid into Maryland. The attrition rate of the 53rd had been excessive, by reason of illness, death, injury, capture, and desertion. Even Captain Jesse F. Eller, commanding company K, was absent due to wounds sustained May 19, just one month prior, at the Battle of the Wilderness.
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Going north with William Harrison Eller, but in other regiments and probably not known to him, would be:
James5 Eller, (Charies4, John3, John Melcher2, Jacob1). James resided in Rowan Co., NC. Born 1835, he enlisted in Co. H, 23rd NC Regiment, September 3, 1862, and was present throughout the war, to be paroled at Appomatox Court House. (See The Eller Chronicles, Vol. IV, #2, p. ).
Joshua Eller (s/o Charles and Catherine Eller8), Born 1834 in Rowan County, NC. Enlisted in Co. D, 23rd NC Infantry, September 6, 1862. Was wounded at Gettysburg, July 1, 1863, but returned to duty and was present until paroled at Salisbury, NC may 13, 1865.
William Eller (Ancestry not known). Born 1838. Resided in Mecklenburg Co., NC. Enlisted into Co. E, 5th NC Infantry, July 4, 1861 at Salisbury, NC. He was a teamster. Present until captured April 3, 1865 in a hospital at Richmond, Virginia.
No doubt there were other Ellers in other organizations but they are unknown to me at this time.
Early and his Confederates started into the Valley on June 13, 1864, and had an amazing and generally unexpected success against two separate Union commands, driving these troops west across the Alleganies into West Virginia. Many of the Rebel soldiers were barefoot, their clothing in tafters, stomachs generally empty, subsisting on green corn, but they willingly headed into the Valley to fight, loping along at a pace of 20 miles a day. On July 5, Early's men crossed the Potomac at Shepardstown, eager to march on Washington before Grant had time to react. These men had marched about 300 miles within 30 days, and that in the blistering head and suffocating dust of summer.
On July 9, the Rebels met a scratch force of Yankees at Monocacy River east of Frederick, Maryland. Major General Lewis Wallace, a political general, was Federal commander of the District of Maryland, and in this capacity had command of the 6,000 men soon to face Early's 20,000 veterans. Wallace's most enduring fame would come later as the author of the novel "Ben Hur: a Tale of the Christ." 9 This defense against the Southern force was effective enough to delay their march on Washington by one day. With no battle at Monocacy, Early's men would have arrived in Washington a day before Federal reinforcements arrived and might have been able in that case to have entered the city. William Harrison Eller, and the 53rd, was not in the fighting of this day, for his division was acting independently to the north-east guarding the main approaches to Baltimore.
With the knowledge that a Rebel army was approaching Washington from the north, the capitol was placed on full alert. A thirty mile ring of fortifications, with a total of 68 forts, encircled the city, making it among the most powerful defensive positions the world had seen.10 Fort Stevens was the key to the system in the northern sector, protecting the Seventh Street Pike, today Georgia Avenue. However, the forts were inadequately manned. Most of the regular troops in these fortifications had been sent south to join in Grant' s offensive toward Richmond, leaving only skeleton crews in place.
In haste, all the available army units in the city were called together. Added to them were the clerks from various governmental offices, walking wounded, invalids, veteran reserves, and "100 day" men. These motley groups were rushed out the Seventh Street Pike to Fort Stevens to man the forts and occupy the rifle pits and skirmish lines connecting the forts. Fewer than 10,000 troops could be assembled on the morning of July 11, but 15,000 experienced veterans were being rushed by Grant from his command in Virginia to Washington to man the defenses, along with the collection of men as mentioned already there. At midday, July 11, as Jubal Early was approaching Fort Stevens, the northernmost of Washington's defensive works, veteran troops from two Federal corps were being rushed northward from their transports at the Sixth Street wharves, that had brought them just in time to repel Early's attack thought soon to come.
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Early could see the dome of the U.S. Capitol, five miles away, shimmering in the July heat. He ordered General Rodes, who commanded the leading division, to form a line of battle "as rapidly as possible, throw out skirmishers, and move into the works." William Harrison Eller, being in Rodes' division found himself in these skirmish lines looking on Fort Stevens and the U.S. Capitol buildings beyond. Even though the general idea and command was for the Confederates to attack as soon as they could form ranks, it was found to be an impossibility. These men had just finished a day of hard marching in enervating heat, following directly on a day of fighting at Monocacy crossing. They had fallen out by the hundreds, and those who were present to receive Early's orders were too weak to do more than spar with the Yankee skirmishers. By the evening of July 11, it was apparent to Early that the opportune time to march into Washington City had come and gone. The failure of his command to move the troops forward that afternoon had been "fatal."11
The Confederates did stay in their established lines July 12, menacing and skirmishing, but there would be no assault. If William Harrison Eller, in the skirmish lines at 300 yards in front of Fort Stevens, could have looked forward and into the works of the fort, he would have seen a tall, lanky civilian in a stove-pipe hat standing and peering out over the terrain where William and his fellow Confederates were positioned. But he would not have known that this was Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. President, and Commander-in-Chief of all the forces that were facing them.
At mid-afternoon of July 12 the President and Mrs. Lincoln drove up to Fort Stevens in a carriage. They were welcomed by the general in command of the defenses there, who invited the President to watch the fight in which they were engaged. Lincoln readily accepted the invitation since it was, said Lincoln, " the first opportunity to see a real battle". He stepped up on the parapet of the fort, exposed from the waist up, to Confederate fire. Bullets were sending little spits and puffs of dust from the embankment on which they stood. A young Federal officer was killed not far from where the President was standing. Several times Lincoln was asked to sit down. It is said that the general who had so graciously invited him to see the fight threatened to have the President arrested and removed by a squad of soldiers. Finally a busy young captain named Oliver Wendell Homes (author of the favorite poem, "The Chambered Nautilus", and later Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court) noticed this ungainly civilian popping up. Without recognizing him, Holmes shouted, " Get down, you damn fool, before you get shot!" Amused at this irreverent command, Lincoln got down and stayed down.12.13
William Harrison Eller would never know either that there were distant cousins occupying the trenches in front and to the right of him. Among the hurriedly gathered troops manning the defenses in the neighborhood of Fort Stevens were the "100 day" men.14 One of these regiments was the 147th Ohio Infantry, organized at Camp Dennison, Ohio, and mustered in May 16, 1864. This organization left the state for Washington D.C. May 20, and was assigned to garrison duty at Fort Stevens, and others, in the defense of Washington, till August 23. The 147th Ohio was active in the repulse of Early's attack on Washington, July 11-12.15 The two Ellers in the 147th were:
Enock4 Eller (John3, Leonard2, George Michael1). Born August 2, 1825, Miami Co., Ohio. Enock lived with his brother Joseph, who had been appointed his guardian after the death of his parents. In this home was a nephew: Henry5 Eller, (Joseph4, John3, Leonard2, George Michael1). Born 1837, Miami Co., Ohio. Henry was twelve years younger than Enock, but it is apparent that there was not only the uncle-nephew relationship, but that the two were more like brothers.16 They enlisted together, May 16, 1864, Miami Co., Ohio, into the 147th Ohio Infantry which was organized by John Brough, the war governor of the state of Ohio, and sent east to help stem the tide of the Southern army that was threatening the nation's capitol.17
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The Confederates remained in their lines all that day, being subjected to severe shelling until late afternoon. Just before dark the Federals increased their bombardment even more, and then begin trying to set the houses near the lines on fire, which they succeeded in doing, and then made a charge on the Confederate lines, forcing some of the brigades to fall back. Rodes division (with the 53rd NC) was ordered forward to retake the lost ground, in which it was temporarily successful. The casualties on both sides were considerable.18 However, General Early could see that with reinforcements in the Federal lines and with the strong defenses, further effort would be worthless. A general order was given by the General for his spent army to begin the long weary march back into Virginia.
The 53rd NC was one of regiments left to support and protect the rear of the main Confederate force as it withdrew back northward, and in doing so became involved in one of the hottest conflicts in its experiences.19 About 1: a.m., July 13, the retreat began by moving off in the direction of Rockville, where the rear-guard was attacked by a strong Federal cavalry force . A sharp encounter occurred in which the Confederates were driven with some loss. Frederick, Maryland was reached later that day.20 Early reports, "I was compelled to leave 400 wounded men in Frederick because they could not be transported.21” On July 14 the Potomac was reached and a crossing of the invading army was successfully accomplished at Whites Crossing, about thirty miles north of the Capitol.22
William Harrison Eller's service record has this short, terse entry: "Killed in action near Washington, D.C., July 13, 1864." It becomes a question as to where and when William actually fell in baffle. We know that the great majority of casualties in the battle at Fort Stevens occurred on July 12, but it appears that William died on July 13. It is possible that his wounds were sustained on July 12 and he expired on the 13th. Or he may have been a casualty during the rear-guard action on the 13th, between Fort Stevens and Rockville. We have seen that General Early was unable to evacuate his wounded and left 400 at Frederick, so it is highly unlikely that those killed in battle would have been taken with the retreating army back into Virginia.
Where then does William Harrison Eller lie buried? About three miles beyond Fort Stevens on Georgia Avenue of today, at the community of Woodside, stands a gray monument before Grace Episcopal Church the inscription on which reads, "To the memory of Seventeen Unknown Confederate Dead who Fell in Front of Washington, D.C., July 12, 1864. By Their Comrades."23,24 Could it be that William lies buried here in an unmarked grave?
This 300 mile, 30-day excursion to the northern rim of the Federal capitol had struck fear in the hearts of the citizens of Washington and Baltimore. The gray clad infantrymen had come in closer range of both and had come nearer to capturing the capitol than at any other time during the war. The Confederates came nearer to capturing the Federal capitol than any Federal had come, so far, to Richmond. In the process Early won the admiration not only of his fellow countrymen, whose spirits were lifted by the raid, but also of foreign observers, who still might somehow determine the outcome of this apparently otherwise endless conflict.
(Eds. Interesting to note is the fact that Byron now has compiled and published so much on Ellers in the Civil War that he can provide much cross-indexing and draw interesting comparisons among those Ellers who served with the Federal forces and those who served as Confederates. We wish more EFA members would follow Byron's example and seize a topic and pursue it with the same dedication and diligence that he has demonstrated in his research on Ellers in the Civil War.)