Saturday, April 06, 2013

Etched in blood: The story of Col. Isaac Avery

Mortally wounded at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, Col. Isaac Avery of the 6th North Carolina
scrawled these words in his own blood on a piece of paper before he died.
Last year, I shared stories here and here on my blog by my friend Richard E. Clem, whose tales of Civil War relic hunting in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania captivated me and others at Connecticut Day at Antietam last spring. In addition to hunting for relics, Clem enjoys writing and researching Civil War stories. Here's a wonderfully written piece by Clem on a Confederate soldier who never returned home.

By Richard Clem

With trembling hands and blurred vision, the elderly, grief-stricken father read the heartrending dispatch:
                                           Morganton / 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 – William Avery  (1)
As fate would have it, three brothers, Col. Clarke Moulton Avery, Col. Isaac Erwin Avery and Lieut. Willoughby Francis Avery were struck down on the bloodstained field at Gettysburg. (2)  The one difference, Clarke Moulton and Willoughby would recover to fight again, but Isaac had fought his last battle and never would return to the Land of Cotton.

Richard Clem
Considering the date on the correspondence and time it took to reach North Carolina, the body of Col. Isaac Avery had been buried in a shallow grave overlooking the Potomac River at Williamsport, Md., about 40 miles south of Gettysburg. (3)

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 child of 16 to Isaac Thomas Avery and Harriet Eloise Avery. Only 10 of the Avery’s children lived past childhood. Owning large tracts of land this influential, prestigious family of western North Carolina was extensively engaged in the fields of law, education and politics on local and state levels. (4)

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 from the North, 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 Sixth North Carolina State Troops. (5)

In June 1862, as the War of Yankee Aggression pushed deeper into the South, Capt. Avery’s regiment was sent to defend Richmond. Here, during the Peninsula Campaign while driving the enemy from the steps of the Confederate capital, Capt. Isaac Avery shed his first patriotic blood at Gaine’s Mill, Seven Pines and Malvern Hill. (6)

Fighting with distinction at Antietam (Sept. 17, 1862), the 6th N.C. having suffered great losses in the ranks was earning the title, “The Bloody Sixth.” The recently promoted “Colonel” Avery, however, was recovering from wounds received in Virginia and escaped the “bloodiest single day of the Civil War.” (7)

The 6th N.C. Infantry was unique in being the only Confederate outfit to claim ownership of a “personalized” regimental belt buckle. These extremely rare waist belt plates contained the legend: 6th INF – N.C.S.T.” The raised letters represented: “Sixth Infantry – North Carolina State Troops.” Manufactured late 1861, in a small railway shop in Greensboro, the oval cast-brass plates were personally financed by the regiment’s first commander, Col. Charles F. Fisher. A Yankee bullet through the forehead at First Manassas put Col. Fisher in an early grave. (8)

A rare 6th North Carolina Infantry belt buckle.
(Photo courtesy Richard Clem)
In the battle at Chancellorsville (May 2, 1863) Gen. Robert F. Hoke leading a North Carolina brigade (6th N.C., 21st N.C., 57th N.C.) was struck down, leaving Col. Avery in command of the brigade. Although a decisive Confederate victory, this engagement cost the South perhaps its greatest single loss in the death of Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

Confident from 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 small crossroads village 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 on pages of history as the turning point in the War Between the States.

Coming from the direction of Harrisburg, Col. Avery’s Brigade (Ewell’s Corps – Early’s Division) missed the first day’s fighting at Gettysburg; however, as the sun set there were more than enough “Blue Coats” still standing.

Late afternoon July 2nd, Avery’s North Carolinians along with Gen. Harry Hays’ “Louisiana Tigers” on the right were ordered by Gen. Early to attack a massed Federal force on East Cemetery Hill. Defended by infantry and several artillery batteries, the Union held elevated heights were one of the most heavily fortified enemy positions on the field. (9)

The two brigades started their charge from a stream bed (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 forces topped a small rise that had been shielding them. Immediately, the Southerners 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.” (10)

In front of his troops mounted on a white horse, Col. Avery was hit by shrapnel or a musket ball at the base of the neck and knocked from the saddle. Appearing on the scene, Gen. John B. Gordon from 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 6-foot-2 frame of the fallen Rebel officer was transported with care to the Culp farm. (11)

Bruce Avery, a descendant of the colonel, and his son, Christopher, 
visit Avery's grave in Washington Cemetery in Hagerstown, Md.
(Photo courtesy Richard Clem)
In the Culp’s beautiful two-story brick farmhouse, the mortally wounded Avery was made as comfortable as possible. (12)  All the skills of regimental surgeons Drs. William L. Reese and John G. Hardy proved to be in vain. Knowing the end was near, Isaac’s last thoughts were of his aging father home in Morganton. Paralyzed on the right side, he desperately tried to remove a piece of scrap paper from the pocket of his blood-soaked uniform. Becase Avery apparently was unable to speak, a comrade and close friend, Maj. Samuel McDowell Tate (6th N.C.) knelt by his side holding firm the coarse writing paper. The dying man slowly dipped a small stick or some unknown pointed object in his own life-giving substance and scribbled with his left hand: “Major, tell my father I died with my face to the enemy.” (13)

Shortly after scrawling the crimson-stained parchment the 35-year-old officer’s soul slipped into immortality. Col. A.C. Godwin (57th N.C.) 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.” (14)  A member of Company E, 6th N.C. 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.” (15) This private’s grammar and spelling may not be perfect, but his heart and loyalty can not be questioned.

Col. Isaac Avery died on July 3, the same day his older brother, Col.Clarke Moulton (33rd N.C.), fell also with “... his face to the enemy” during Longstreet’s assault against Cemetery Ridge – better known as “Pickett’s Charge.” Clarke Moulton survived, only to be killed the next year in the Battle of the Wilderness. Lieut. Willoughby F. Avery (43rd N.C.), Isaac’s youngest brother, was also wounded on the first day at Gettysburg. (16)

Like other Southern officers during the Civil War, Col. 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. As in some case,s a bond formed between Isaac and his servant, “Elijah.” (17)

Three days of deadly combat disastrously 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 seemingly invincible army crossed just nine days before. Now with regret the General spoke in despair: “We must now return to Virginia.” (18)  Early morning July 4, Independence Day 1863, under a steady rain, Elijah carefully loaded Avery’s body in a horse-drawn wagon determined to take “Marse Isaac” home to North Carolina. (19)

In advance of the Confederate exodus from Pennsylvania, slowly rolled a 17-mile-long mud-splattered wagon train filled with wounded, dying humanity. (20) One quartermaster wagon driven by a slave carried the lifeless form of what once was his master. Under command of Gen. John D. Imboden, the ambulance “train of misery” finally reached the small riverfront town of Williamsport where discovered the Potomac was at flood stage – too deep and treacherous for crossing. Rain plus intensive heat rapidly increased decomposition of the Confederate dead. A decaying corpse was not only offensive to human smell, but carried highly infectious diseases as cholera and typhoid fever. The undesirable situation of a pursuing victorious enemy and rebel bodies quickly deteriorating, Elijah reluctantly gave up the idea of returning the deceased colonel to Burke County. (21)

Sometime around July 7, the devoted slave buried Col. Avery’s earthly remains in the public Riverview Cemetery at Williamsport. In his “The Battle of Gettysburg,” W.C. Storrick mentions Avery was: “… buried under a pine tree in a small cemetery overlooking the Potomac River.” Today, local residents of Washington County are still being interred in the well-maintained Riverview Cemetery that contains graves dating to the Revolutionary War. (22)

In 1869, Governor of Maryland, Oden Bowie, (1869-1872) decided it was “… altogether fitting and proper” and overdue for a decent burial of the Confederate dead from battles of South Mountain, Antietam and Gettysburg now scattered in hastily-dug graves throughout Washington County. Bowie choose three men from Sharpsburg to physically search 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 re-interment 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. (23)

According to “Bowie’s List,” one Southern soldier re-interred at Washington Cemetery was recorded as originally: “Buried in the public graveyard at Williamsport.” Under ground for almost ten years the skeletal remains of this Rebel was 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 spelled “Avery.” These two minor errors were common during the Civil War and are understandable when considering the marker at the grave site, more than likely made of wood, and after ten years would have been badly weather-beaten and barely legible .Remembering also, assuming Elijah crudly-carved the headboard, most slaves couldn’t read or write. Fortunately, in 1863, someone with foresight took time to place and inscribe a marker of some sort for Avery’s grave or otherwise Bowie’s workers would have had no idea it ever existed or who was buried there. (24)

At the head of Washington Cemetery a cast-bronze marker mounted on granite was erected in the late 1800s. This layout map contains 346 names of the “known” Rebel dead buried there arranged according to each soldier’s individual state.In the same sacred soil are 2,122 Southern soldiers listed simply – “unknown.”

One name found on the heavy plaque listed from North Carolina 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 using the source of elimination, there can be no doubt -- the remains of the Confederate soldier resting in the North Carolina section of Washington Cemetery belong to Col. Avery. (25)

Three sons of Isaac Thomas Avery were killed during the Civil War while one died later from the results of injuries suffered during the conflict. Only Major Alphonso Avery survived the bloodshed to live to an old age. Over a period of time all bodies were brought home and buried in Morganton; however, as far as the family knew, Col. Avery was still beneath Yankee terrain somewhere in the North. (26)

Eventually, Elijah made it home to Swan Ponds Plantation with the Colonel’s sword and pocket watch. In sorrow with sympathy, the slave told the Averys he had buried Isaac on a bluff along the Potomac River at Williamsport -- whereever that may have been. Years passed as the elusive final resting place of the Colonel was mostly forgotten. On the last day of 1864, with the war still raging, Isaac Thomas Avery passed away. The sacrifice of three sons to the Southern cause was more than the broken heart of a 79-year-old grievous, caring father could endure. (27)

Around 1895, Alphonso Calhoun Avery, a North Carolina Supreme Court Judge, traveled to Williamsport with the object of locating the long-lost grave of Col. Avery. The Judge was the same younger brother of Isaac who helped organize Company E, 6th N.C. Regiment back in 1861. Judge Avery’s companion on the journey was Capt. J.A. McPherson of Fayetteville. The Captain had fought along side the Avery boys in Company E on various blood-contested fields. (28)
Col. Isaac Avery died on July 3, 1863 in Gettysburg. From Morganton, N.C., he is buried
in Washington Cemetery in Hagerstown, Md. (Photo courtesy Richard Clem)
Thirty years after the war, any trace of Avery’s first (original) grave had vanished. At least 20 years before Alphonso’s visit to Washington County, Gov. Bowie’s laborers had removed the Colonel’s remains from Riverview Cemetery and would have also removed any crude marker indicating the grave ever existed. Of course, Judge Avery had no knowledge of "Bowie’s List" or heard 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 overlooking the beautiful Potomac. Following distinguished service on the State Supreme Court bench, Alphonso Avery led the law school at Trinity College in Durham, which eventually became Duke University. It may also be noted Alphonso was a brother-in-law to the immortal Stonewall Jackson. The judge was married to Susan Morrison while the Southern  general was married to her older sister, Mary Anna Morrison. Alphonso Avery died in 1913, leaving Col. Avery’s final bivouac a dark mystery to the prominent family. Isaac’s original Gettysburg message in blood is preserved and remains protected in a historical archives in Raleigh, N.C.. (29)

In October 1905, President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt (1901-1909) delivered a speech in Raleigh at the unveiling of a statue of the Englishman, Sir Walter Raleigh, from which the state capital of North Carolina takes its name. According to the Atlanta Journal the President’s program contained words he struggled and choked to read from a slip of yellow-aged paper. And then with solemn reverence he gave the note to Lord James Bryce, Britain’s minister to the United States. Slowly studying the few words the minister then handed back the note and quietly confessed: “President Roosevelt, we have nothing to compare with this in the British Museum.” (30)

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


1.   Letter of William Waightstill Avery to his father, Isaac Thomas Avery, July 8th 1863,
      Collection of Avery family papers, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1777-
      1890, 1906;  "Death Not Written in Blood," article published in The Atlanta Journal,                                                                  
      April 12th 1931.
2.    Ibid. pp. 5-6.
3.    Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, University of North Carolina Press;
       Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia; A Descriptive List of the Burial Places of the
       Remains of the Confederate Soldiers Who Fell in Washington and Frederick
       Counties, Published by direction of Oden Bowie, Governor of Maryland, 1869;
       Coco, Gregory A., Wasted Valor, Thomas Publications, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania,
       1990, p. 30.
4.    Avery family papers, pp. 5-6.
5.    Ibid. p.7.
6.    Dictionary of North Carolina Biography; Documenting the American South.
7.    Avery family papers, p.7.
8.    Mullinax, Steven E., Confederate Belt Buckles & Plates, O’Donnell Publications,
       Alexandria, Virginia, 1991, pp. 168-169; Phillips, Stanley S., Excavated Artifacts
       From Battlefields and Campsites of the Civil War – 1861-1865, Litho Crafters, Inc.,
       1974, p.27.
9.    Files of the Gettysburg National Military Park, East Cemetery Hill; Campbell, Eric
       A, A Field Made Glorious, Cemetery Hill: From Battlefield to Sacred Ground,
       Gettysburg Magazine, No. 15, pp. 114-115.
10. Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide, Time Life Books, Alexandria, Va.,
1985, pp. 116-117.
11.  Gordon, John B., Reminiscences of the Civil War, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New
       York, 1903, p. 161.
12.  Coco, Gregory A., A Vast Sea of Misery: A History and Guide to the Union and
       Confederate Field Hospitals at Gettysburg July 1st – November 20th 1863,
       Thomas Publications, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 1988, p. 115.
13.  Article from Raleigh Observer, May 11 1894.
14.  Report of Col. A.C. Godwin, 57th North Carolina Infantry, June 3rd – August 1st
       1863, Gettysburg Campaign, p.3.
15.  Aftermath of Gettysburg: Letter of John J. English, Company E, 6th North Carolina
       Infantry, from near Hagerstown, Maryland, July 9th 1863, p.1.
16.  Avery family papers, pp.6-7.
17.  Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Isaac E. Avery, p.1; Documenting the American
       South, University of North Carolina Press, p.1.
18.  Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. III, Thomas Yoseloff, New York,
       1956, p.422.
19.  Wikipedia encyclopedia; Documenting the American South.
20.  Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide, p. 150.
21.  Storrick, W.C., Gettysburg: The Place, the Battles, the Outcome, McFarland,
       Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1932, p.33.
22.  Ibid.
23.  Stotelmyer, Steven R., The Bivouacs of the Dead, Toomey Press, Baltimore,
       Md., 1992, pp.36-37.
24.  Governor Bowie’s List, p.53.
25.  Records of the Washington Confederate Cemetery, Hagerstown, Maryland;
       Bowie’s List; Joseph Coxon’s Map of 1888.
26.  Avery family papers, p.5.
27.  Ibid.
28.  Coco, Gregory A., On the Bloodstained Field II, Thomas Publications,
       Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 1989, pp.113-114.
29.  Avery family papers.
30.  Death Not Written in Blood, Atlanta Journal.


  1. Hopefully Col. Avery's soul slipped into immortality rather than immorality - an unfortunate typo!! - but at least an indication this article was read and enjoyed.

  2. I have the 'rest of the story' of Col. Avery's grandfather, Waightstill Avery, who fought a duel with Andrew Jackson. It is an interesting family story of why this duel was fought. I am Col. Avery's Great Granddaughter, Rosalie Zimmerman, and Great Great Granddaughter of Waightstill Avery.

    1. Hello Rosalie. I am the 5th great-granddaughter of Solomon Avery, Waightstill's brother. I am just beginning to discover my Avery line and happened upon this blog today. A touching and tragic story. We have a noble lineage, indeed.

  3. Rosalie: would love to hear from you if you have more to add to this story. I can be reached at

  4. Typo is fixed! 😛

  5. One would think Col. Avery would be happy to look down and see the flag of his enemy adorning his grave. One would be wrong. Col. Avery would be glad to know that his friend, Major Tate (last commander of the 6th NC.S.T.)managed to keep the original flag of the 6th NC throughout the rest of the war untouched by enemy hands and returned home to Morganton with it. It has been a beautiful story about Issac Avery's note scrawled in blood - but it was not written with blood, and that does not diminish the historical importance of the note or the benchmark it sets for all sons who want their father's approval and blessings when at war.