Thursday, September 22, 2022

The fighting Averys

   “Major, tell my father I died with my face to the enemy,” is a well-known last request made during the war. It was uttered by Col. Isaac Avery after he was mortally wounded at the battle of Gettysburg. Isaac Avery was just one of five Avery brothers who rose to prominence in the 19th century. They were all the sons of Isaac and Harriet Erwin Avery. The Avery family were large landowners in western North Carolina.

William W. Avery
   The oldest brother was William Waightstill Avery. Born in Burke County in May 1816, W.W. Avery graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1837. He later studied law under Judge William Gaston and was admitted to the bar. Avery became a trustee of the University in 1850, and in 1857, became a director of the Western North Carolina Railroad. Avery served several terms in the General Assembly, and in the 1856-1857 term, was speaker of the North Carolina Senate. He, along with Thomas L. Clingman, was a strong advocate for secession. In 1858, he ran for a seat in the US House, but lost to Zebulon Baird Vance. In 1860, Avery was chairman of the state’s delegation to the Democratic National Convention, meeting in Charleston. Appointed Chairman of the resolution committee, Avery “favored the majority report denying the right of congress or territorial legislation to prohibit slavery in the territories, demanding federal protection for all property in those territories, upholding the Fugitive Slave Act, and advocating the acquisition of Cuba from Spain as soon as practicable.” Many delegates walked out, but not the North Carolinians. They would walk out when the convention met again in Baltimore. Once North Carolina left the Union, Avery served as a member of the provisional Confederate Congress and as chairman of the committee on military affairs. Avery failed to win an appointment to the Confederate senate and returned to western North Carolina, where he worked on raising a regiment for Confederate service. W.W. Avery was mortally wounded while leading local home guard in a skirmish with raiders in northern Burke County in late June 1864, dying on July 3, 1864. Avery was married to Mary Corinna Morehead, daughter of Governor John Motley Morehead, and they had several children.[1]

Clark M. Avery
   Clark Moulton Avery was the next son with a wartime connection. He was born in October 1820 and, like his older brother, graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Unlike his brother, he was not a politician, but instead farmed a large piece of property in Burke County. In February 1861, friends enticed Avery to run for the state secession convention, and election that he won. However, the convention did not meet. Avery would not serve when the actual convention met in May. Instead, when the principles of the foundation of the United States came under attack, Avery joined the military. On April 25, 1861, he was elected captain of Company G, 1st North Carolina Volunteers, fighting at the battle of Big Bethel in June 1861. Then-colonel D.H. Hill wrote that "Captain Avery Company G displayed great coolness, judgment and efficiency in the battle of Bethel." As the regiment neared the end of its six-month term of enlistment, Avery was elected lieutenant colonel of the 33rd North Carolina Troops, and then in January 1862, colonel. In March 1862, Avery was captured at the battle of New Bern, being released seven months later. He returned to his regiment and was wounded in the fighting at Chancellorsville and at Gettysburg. At the battle of the Wilderness in May 1864, Colonel Avery was struck in the left arm. When he refused to go the rear, a stretcher was brought forward, and he was carried along the lines, encouraging his men. Avery was eventually struck four times that day, including in the leg, neck, and through the body. Avery survived for six weeks before dying of his wounds on June 18, 1864. Avery was married to Elizabeth Tilghman Walton and was survived by four children.[2]

Isaac E. Avery 
   Isaac Erwin Avery was born in December 1828 in Burke County. For one year, he attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill but then left the school to help manage his father’s farms in Burke and Yancey Counties, North Carolina. He also worked with Charles F. Fisher and Samuel McDowell Tate to construct the Western North Carolina Railroad. When the war came, he worked on forming a company that became a part of the 6th North Carolina State Troops. Avery was elected captain of Company E on May 16, 1861. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel and then colonel of the 6th NC and was wounded at the battle of Malvern Hill. On July 2, 1863, while leading Hoke’s brigade in an attack on the Confederate left, Avery was mortally wounded, penning the famous note after his wound: “Major, tell my father I died with my face toward the enemy.” Avery died the next day. Colonel A.C. Godwin, 57th NC, wrote in his official report that, upon the death of Avery, “the country lost one of her truest and bravest sons, and the army one of its most gallant officers.” His slave, Elijah, began to return to Burke County with the body, but he was forced to stop and bury Avery in Williamsport, Maryland. Avery’s body was later moved to Rose Hill Cemetery in Hagerstown.[3]

   Alphonso Calhoun Avery was born in September 1835. After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Avery studied law under Chief Justice Richmond M. Pearson and was licensed in June 1860. AC Avery helped his brother Isaac raise a company and was then elected first lieutenant in that company in the 6th NCST. Following the battle of Seven Pines, he was promoted to captain, but by the end of 1862, he was transferred to the staff of Maj. Gen. D. H. Hill as assistant inspector general. Major Avery later served on the staffs of John C. Breckinridge, Thomas C. Hindman, and John B. Hood. At the end of the war, Avery was commanding a battalion in the western parts of North Carolina, attempting to curtail some of the damage being done by Federal raiding parties and bushwhackers. Avery was captured in Salisbury by some of Stoneman’s men and was imprisoned at Camp Chase until August 1865. After the war, Avery practiced law and was elected to the state senate; he lost his seat when the radicals came to power, served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1875, and then served as judge of the superior court. Trinity College (now Duke University) conferred upon him a MA, and the University of North Carolina honored him with an LL.D. In 1888, A. C. Avery was elected an associate justice of the Supreme Court, serving for eight years. In 1892, he assumed the position of dean of the law school at Duke University. Avery retired in 1897 and became a prolific writer, respected historian, and prominent member of the Southern Historical Society. His first wife was Susan Washington Morrison, daughter of the Rev. R. H. Morrison. His brothers-in-law included D.H. Hill, Stonewall Jackson, and Rufus Barringer. Avery’s second wife was Sarah Love Thomas, the daughter of Col. William Holland Thomas. A.C. Avery died in June 1913.[4]

   The last Avery brother to serve in the war was Willoughby Francis Avery, born in Burke County in May 1843. He was attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when the war broke out, and, leaving the school, he joined the 3rd North Carolina Cavalry, where he was elected third lieutenant. When the company was reorganized, he failed to win reelection and resigned. Avery was then appointed a second lieutenant in Company C, 33rd North Carolina Troops. Promotion to first lieutenant came on January 14, 1863, and on December 15, 1863, he was promoted to captain and transferred to Company E. A month later, he was transferred to Company I. Captain Avery was wounded in the mouth and throat at the battle of the Wilderness in May 1864, returned to duty in November 1864, and was captured at Salisbury on April 12, 1865. He was confined at Camp Chase and released in June 1865. After the war, Willoughby Avery edited newspapers in Charlotte and Asheville before returning to Burke County and establishing a newspaper in Morganton. He was married twice and died November 1876.[5]

   There are, of course, the Avery daughters as well. Adelaide Leah Avery (1822-1897) never married but became one of the first librarians in Burke County. Mary Ann Martha Avery (1831-1890) married Joseph Franklin Chambers. Harriet Justina Avery (1833-1902) married Pinckney B. Chambers, a major in the 49th North Carolina Troops. The last daughter, Laura Myra Avery (1837-1912), never married.

[1] Warner and Yearns, Biographical Register of the Confederate Congress, 9-10; Powell, Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 1:67.

[2] Powell, Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 1:111; Allardice, Confederate Colonels, 68.

[3] Jordan, NC Troops, 4:266; Allardice, Confederate Colonels, 47; The Herald-Mail, November 4, 2007.

[4] Powell, Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 1:66-67.

[5] Manarin, NC Troops, 2:221; Jordan, NC Troops, 9:220; Powell, Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 1:72.

Tuesday, September 06, 2022

Refusing to serve under Stonewall Jackson

   In all honesty, he was not “Stonewall” Jackson yet. He was still the eccentric Thomas J. Jackson, professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy and Instructor of Artillery Tactics at the Virginia Military Institute. And the 12th Virginia Infantry wanted no part of him.

   Parts of the 12th Virginia predated the war. The Petersburg Old Grays were organized in 1828 and fought in the Mexican War. The Petersburg City Guard was organized in 1852. Those two companies served as a detail during the hanging of John Brown in December 1859. Several of the other companies were also organized prior to the war. Once the war came, these companies were organized into the 12th Virginia Infantry.

   Like every other infantry or cavalry command, the new regiment needed a colonel. Virginia Governor John Letcher was considering Professor Thomas J. Jackson for the post. On one hand, Jackson was extremely qualified for the post. He was a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, and had seen service in the Mexican-American War in an artillery battery, earning several brevets for his actions. His tour in Mexico also saw him serving in the quartermaster’s and commissary’s offices. Jackson was then posted at Fort Columbus, New York; Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania (court-martial duty); then at Fort Hamilton, New York. In December 1850, Jackson and his company were sent to Florida. He then left the army to begin teaching at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington.[1]

    Jackson was not the most engaging teacher, and his rigid teaching style soon earned the enmity of many of his young pupils. “[S]o difficult & taught by such a hell of a fool,” wrote one student in an optics class. A fellow professor wrote that “As a Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy -, Major Jackson was not a success. He had not the qualifications needed for so important a chair. He was no teacher, and he lacked the tact required in getting along with his classes. He was a brave man, a conscientious man, and a good man, but he was no professor.” That fellow professor would add “His genius was in the Science and Art of War.” [2]

   That view of Jackson, a genius in the science and art of war, had yet to emerge when the 12th Virginia was being formed. In April 1861, Jackson delivered the VMI cadets to Richmond to serve as drillmasters for the many new companies and regiments in the capital. Not having an assignment, Jackson volunteered to instruct artillery companies. Jackson was then appointed a major in the topographical engineers. Then Jackson was appointed colonel by Governor Letcher. But, what regiment to assign him to? Word arrived at the camp of the forming 12th Virginia Infantry that Letcher was considering Jackson to be their colonel. When his nomination came up before the Virginia legislation, someone asked “Who is this Thomas J. Jackson?” A post-war newspaper reported that,  at the beginning of the war, Jackson “was assigned by the Governor of Virginia to command of the Twelfth Virginia Infantry, stationed at Norfolk, and composed of crack companies from different parts of the State. The regimental officers had been told that Jackson was of ‘an eccentric and ascetic disposition,’ and they protested against him so strongly that the Governor assigned him to another field duty. He was soon heard from as Stonewall Jackson, and the Twelfth Virginia kept very quiet about a certain little matter.”[3]

   Jackson was promoted to colonel, then sent to Harpers Ferry to take command of all the troops present. On June 17, 1861, he was promoted to brigadier general. The 12th Virginia “kept very quiet about a certain little matter.” If you would like to learn more about the 12th Virginia Infantry, check out John Horn’s The Petersburg Regiment in the Civil War (2019).

[1] Robertson, Stonewall Jackson, 77.

[2] Robertson, Stonewall Jackson, 121, 125.

[3] Robertson, Stonewall Jackson, 219; The Somerset Press, February 15, 1875.