Burial site reportedly found for rebel officer who occupied York
This map from ‘East of Gettysburg’ shows the location of various units in Jubal Early’s division as his Confederates invaded York in the days before the Battle of Gettysburg. One of his commanders, Isaac E. Avery, directed a brigade that lodged in York for nearly two days. Avery was later mortally wounded in fighting at Gettysburg, and his burial site has reportedly been identified. Background post: Civil War in York County, by the numbers.
The Associated Press has reported that the burial site of Col. Isaac E. Avery probably has been identified in Hagerstown.
The Civil War colonel, temporary head of North Carolina brigade, was mortally wounded in fighting on Cemetery Hill in Gettysburg.
Before Gettysburg, Avery was in York… .
He was the commanding officer in wounded officer Robert F. Hoke’s group of North Carolinians. His men entered York, along with division commander Jubal Early, via East Berlin and Weigelstown.
They camped in and around York – in the market sheds in Centre Square, the Penn Park military hospital and the old fairgrounds in southeast York. It was his men that townspeople had the most contact with.
Two other brigades camped out along the Codorus Creek, north of town. And the last brigade – John B. Gordon’s – marched to Wrightsville in an unsuccessful attempt to take the Susquehanna River bridge.
His was the group of invaders that caused eye-witness Cassandra Small to write after their departure:
“They were so filty looking! Only think! Our market house, where some slept, was literally alive. A man had to be largely paid to clean it; had to turn the hose all over it. Oh, you can form no idea of their appearance.”
Well, the North Carolinians took their lice with them to Gettysburg, where about one-third of Avery’s unit bravely died against a well-grounded enemy.
The Associated Press story on the finding of the colonel’s burial spot follows:
The Civil War spawned countless human narratives, each seemingly more heart-wrenching than the last. But few of those narratives matched the drama surrounding the final moments of Confederate Col. Isaac Erwin Avery.
The date was July 2, 1863, the opening day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Avery’s North Carolina unit was ordered to attack a heavily fortified Union position on East Cemetery Hill. Leading the charge on a white horse, Avery was struck in the neck by a musket ball.
As he lay dying, a close friend, Maj. Samuel McDowell, managed to reach Avery’s side. So badly wounded that he was unable to speak, Avery dipped the point of a stick or some other sharp object into his blood and scratched out on a piece of paper his last words, “Major, tell my father I died with my face to the enemy.”
That final message is preserved in historical archives in Raleigh, N.C. But for nearly a century and a half, Avery’s descendants have been trying to discover where his body is buried.
Now they know, thanks to the efforts of a Hagerstown history buff named Richard Clem.
Clem, 67, says he’s always been fascinated by the story of Avery’s death.
“Seems like it’s always been in the back of my mind,” he said. “And I knew that a good many of those Averys had kept coming up and looking for him.”
Indeed, Avery’s family knew only he had been buried on land overlooking the Potomac River at Williamsport as the Rebel troops made their long march back home. Members of Avery’s family made repeated trips to Williamsport right after the war, continuing their hunt for his grave up to the 1960s.
Unknown to the family, Maryland Gov. Oden Bowie had appropriated $5,000 after the war to find and rebury the thousands of Confederate soldiers buried in shallow graves near Sharpsburg, Williamsport and other areas of Washington County in western Maryland.
The governor bought three acres inside Hagerstown’s Rose Hill Cemetery for what became known as the Washington Confederate Cemetery, conscious that many Northerners objected to burying fallen Rebel soldiers in the national cemetery at Antietam.
Clem obtained a list of the 346 identified Confederate bodies that had been reinterred. There are 2,122 unidentified Confederates buried there, as well.
On the list, Clem found a notation, “Buried in the public graveyard at Williamsport,” and with it, “Col. J.E. Ayer, 6th N.C.S.T., July 3, 1863.”
He knew that Avery’s 6th North Carolina Infantry regiment had been known back home during the war as the Sixth North Carolina State Troops, and that its soldiers wore waist belt plates, reading in raised letters: “6th INF _ N.C.S.T.”
But what he also deduced was that the “J” listed as the soldier’s first initial actually could be an “I” for Isaac, and that “Ayer” actually could be “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 … badly weather-beaten and barely legible” by the time Bowie’s workers found the Williamsport graves, Clem wrote.
Further proof, he said, is that the list shows that three other soldiers, also from North Carolina, were found buried nearby.
“So it has to be him,” he said. “There’s no one else even comes close to that (information). It has to be Avery.”
Avery’s family was delighted with the news. Bruce Avery, a descendant of the Confederate colonel, who lives on Kent Island, recently dedicated a granite marker at the Rose Hill Cemetery in his ancestor’s honor.
For additional Civil War blog entries, see /yorktownsquare/war/civil_war.