Saturday, October 07, 2017

A last supper, then 'dread realities of war' for brothers

       PANORAMA: Antietam National Cemetery. Ephraim Eager's remains may lie here.
                                     (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

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Shortly before two momentous battles, Private James H. Eager of the 5th Pennsylvania Reserves was fortunate to enjoy supper with his older brother in the camp of the 19th Indiana. A sergeant in the Hoosier State regiment in the Iron Brigade, Ephraim Eager had moved west in 1857, leaving behind his sisters, brother and widowed mother in Lewistown, Pa.  In Pennsylvania, the Eager boys had worked as printers at a newspaper published by their brother-in-law.

This tattered newspaper obituary for Ephraim Eager
 was marked "B" in the pension claim file of his mother.
Elizabeth Eager was granted a Civil War pension at the standard
 rate of $8 a month. (National Archives via
The chance meeting in mid-September 1862 was the last time James saw Ephraim alive.

On Sept. 14,  1862, the Federals forced the Confederates from the passes at South Mountain, a prelude to much more severe fighting three days later by the banks of Antietam Creek. "We drove the enemy from one of the best and strongest positions they ever occupied," James wrote to his mother about his first battle. "Families were robbed of fathers and brothers on that day." At Turner's Gap, Ephraim led his battle-hardened company against troops from Georgia and Alabama.

At the "desperate fight" at Antietam,  the "dread realities of war," James wrote, "were brought to our own door."

In the brutal, back-and-forth fighting near the Hagerstown Pike, Ephraim fell with a bullet wound in his stomach while leading Company A, the Union Guards. Carried from the field by comrades, he died a short time later and was "decently buried by the boys of his company." In battle nearby, James narrowly escaped being maimed himself when a bullet passed over his shoulder and struck Private Henry Couts standing behind him above the eye, killing him.

Eager was "killed almost
 instantly,"  wrote 19th Indiana
 Captain Alonzo Makepeace,
 shown in a post-war image.
"We fell back, and the rebels, thinking we were whipped, advanced with a cheer," James wrote Oct. 6 from a camp near Sharpsburg, "but were driven back by a flank movement. You would be surprised to hear them cheer. It resembles a lot of school girls at recess. It is far different from the manly voice of the men of the north."

Only 25, Ephraim "fell in the cause of his country," the Lewistown (Pa.) Gazette lamented, "gallantly fighting for those rights handed down to us by our revolutionary fathers." In Eager's adopted state of Indiana, the Anderson Union also offered an impressive tribute.

"Among those who have fallen victims to this wicked rebellion," it said, "we know of no one who was more generally regretted, and whose death cast a deeper gloom upon society, than our dear friend Ephraim B. Eager."

"He was a young man of much promise and high social qualities," the Union noted in a finishing touch in the obituary, "kind and generous in his nature, had gained the friendship of a large circle, and was respected by all.

Marker for Indiana unknown
at Antietam National
"But he's dead -- and over his green tomb shall ever wave the emblem of fadeless recollection. He sleeps for the flag, and may its stars shed their tears over his loyal soul forever."

A little more than a month after Ephraim's death, Captain Alonzo Makepeace of the 19th Indiana wrote a brief note to Eager's sister, Marion Shaw. Ephraim was "killed almost instantly while behaving handsomely in command of the Co.," he explained. His marked grave had been visited by his brother, the officer wrote, and "all regret his death."

Perhaps because the marker for his makeshift grave was destroyed by the elements, Eager's remains were never recovered by the family. Instead of a grave in his native or adopted state, the former newspaper printer's final resting place is unknown. He may lie among the nearly 4,800 Union soldiers in Antietam National Cemetery.


National Archives via


Eager lived in Anderson, Ind., which he described in a letter to his mother Elizabeth in January 1860 as a "rather sickly place" because of the "great many deaths" that had occured there that winter. Of his marriage possibilities, he told his mother, "No prospects of your prodigal getting married – haven’t thought of it yet." This letter was found with his mother Elizabeth's claim for a Civil War pension.

National Archives vis
Anderson, Monday morning, Jan. 10, 1860

Dear Mother,

This morning I again assume my seat to write to you. I have been well since you heard from me last. Christmas and New Year’s passed off very quietly in Anderson [Ind.], but not so with it in Lewistown [Pa.] I suppose. I rec’d one very nice gift from a lady friend. It was a gold pencil and pen – cost about eight dollars. There has been a great many deaths in Anderson this winter – rather a sickly place. No prospects of your prodigal getting married – haven’t thought of it yet. I enclose ten dollars $10, which I should have done New Year’s day had it been convenient. Please answer immediately on receipt of this that I may know you rec’d it.

Your affectionate son,

E.B. Eager

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For more Civil War condolence letters on my blog, go here.


-- Ephraim B. Eager pension file, National Archives & Records Administration, Washington, D.C., via
-- Lewistown (Pa.) Gazette, Oct. 1, 1862 and Oct. 15, 1862.
-- Eager's obituary in the Anderson (Ind.) Union was reprinted in a Lewistown newspaper on an unknown date.

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