ETCHED IN BLOOD
The Story of the AVERY Family
Written and Submitted to Genealogy Trails By: Richard E. Clem
With trembling hands and blurred vision, the elderly grief-stricken father read the heart-rending 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 never to return to the Land of Cotton
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, Maryland - some forty miles south
Isaac Erwin Avery was born December 20, 1828, on the old Swan Ponds Plantation near Morganton in Burke County,
North Carolina. Named after his father, he was the fourth child of sixteen to Isaac Thomas Avery and Harriet Eloise
Avery. Only ten 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
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 recent 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
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"
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 1-2-3, 1863) would be recorded on pages of history as the turning point in the War Between
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
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 six foot-two inch frame of the fallen Rebel
officer was transported with care to the Culp farm.11
In the Culp's beautiful two-story brick farmhouse, the mortally wounded Avery was made 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. Apparently 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 immorality. 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
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 3rd, 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 his horse. As in some cases
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 towards 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 4th, 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 7th, 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 back to the
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 reinterment 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 reinterred 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
At the head of Washington Cemetery a cast-bronze marker mounted on granite was erected in the late 1800's. 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 is Col. Avery.25
Three sons of Isaac Thomas Avery were killed during the Civil War while one died later from the results of injuries
sustained 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 Far 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 - where
ever that may have been. Years passed as the elusive final resting place of the Colonel was mostly forgotten. On
the last day of 1864, December 31st, 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
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
Thirty years after the war any trace of Avery's first (original) grave had vanished. At least twenty 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, North Carolina.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
forty 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."
This article first appeared on the Civil War page of The Washington Times.
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.,
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, Virginia,
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 11th 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,
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.
23. Stotelmyer, Steven R., The Bivouacs of the Dead, Toomey Press, Baltimore,
Maryland, 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.
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.
Bowie, Oden, A Descriptive List of the Burial Places of the Remains of Confederate
Soldiers Who Fell in Washington and Frederick Counties, 1869.
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.
Coco, Gregory A., Wasted Valor, Thomas Publications, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania,
Gordon, John B., Reminiscences of the Civil War, Charles Scribner's Sons,
New York, 1903.
Mullinax, Steven E., Confederate Belt Buckles & Plates, O'Donnell Publications,
Alexandria, Virginia, 1991.
Phillips, Stanley S., Excavated Artifacts From Battlefields and Campsites of the
Civil War 1861-1865, EithoCrafters Inc., 1974.
Storrick, W.C., Gettysburg: The Place, the Battles, the Outcome, McFarland,
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1932.
Avery family papers, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Avery, William W., Letter to father, July 8th 1863, Collection of
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
English, John J., Letter to Aunt & Uncle, July 9th 1863, Courtesy
of Mrs. Julia Spicer, North Cove, North Carolina.
The Atlanta Journal, Atlanta Georgia.
Raleigh Observer, Raleigh, North Ca
COL. ISAAC AVERY - FOLLOW-UP
BY: RICHARD E. CLEM
Before mailing a letter, Gen. Stonewall Jackson would hold it in the palm of his hands and pray that it would be
a blessing to whoever opened it. So, remembering the example of the Confederate legend, I held my article on Col.
Isaac Avery - 6th North Carolina Infantry - and prayed once published it would be read by some member of the Avery
family. From the time of the Civil War, this distinguished North Carolina family had been searching for the colonel's
grave, however, the mystery remained unsolved. On Saturday, March 24, 2007, the Washington Times published the
Avery story. A few days after publication I received a phone call that started, "My name is Bruce Avery. Is
this Richard Clem who wrote the article on Col. Isaac Avery?" My prayer was about to be answered beyond my
Col. Isaac Erwin Avery commanded a North Carolina brigade at Gettysburg. Late on the second day's fighting while
leading a charge against Cemetery Hill, he was shot from his horse. The bullet struck the base of the neck leaving
him completely paralyzed on the right side. Unable to speak, he gestured with his left hand for his close friend
at his side, Major Samuel Tate, to remove a piece of scrap paper from his uniform. And then with a stick or some
other pointed object, the dying soldier scribbled in his own blood, "Major, Tell my father I died with my
face to the enemy."
During the retreat from the battlefield of Gettysburg, Col. Avery's slave, Elijah, planned on returning the body
of his master to North Carolina, but due to decomposition, the remains were buried at Williamsport, Maryland, on
a hill overlooking the Potomac River. In 1869, Governor Oden Bowie of Maryland appropriated $5,000 to purchase
land to rebury the thousands of Confederate soldiers in shallow graves throughout Washington County. At this time,
Col. Avery's remains were removed from Williamsport and re-interred at the new Washington Confederate Cemetery
within Rose Hill Cemetery in Hagerstown, Maryland.
Growing up in the South End of Hagerstown, my brother Don and I played "cowboys and Indians" over this
sacred ground many times - having no idea it contained the bodies of close to 2,500 Confederate dead. Now, after
more than 50 years at the age of 67, I would return to my old playground.
Bruce Avery, living on Kent Island in the Chesapeake Bay, explained over the phone, he was a fourth cousin to Col.
Isaac Avery and wanted to put some sort of stone on the good colonel's grave. Until Bruce read my Washington Times
article, the Avery family had no knowledge of Bowie's List or any idea where Col. Isaac Avery was buried. A flat
stone was ordered from the U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs, which furnished and inscribed the marker "free
of charge." A good gesture on the part of the Federal government to furnish a stone for a Confederate soldier's
grave. Maybe, someday that War Between the States will come to an end.
So, on the crisp fall morning of November 3, 2007, I anxiously drove to Rose Hill Cemetery to meet Bruce and participate
in a small dedication ceremony of the Avery stone. Around 10:30 AM Bruce showed up after a two-hour drive with
members of his family and approximately 20 re-enacting friends representing the 9th Virginia Infantry. Dressed
in Confederate uniforms, some of the 9th Virginia came from far away as Hanover, Pa., Sharpsburg, Md., Virginia
Beach, Va., and the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Along with a warming, welcoming sun, over 30 local residents made
their way to Rose Hill for the dedication.
As organizer of the event, Bruce gave me the opportunity of speaking first, describing Col. Avery's plight and
how the Washington Times article made installation of the stone a reality. Standing in dew-covered grass while
facing the grave marker and the 9th Virginia, Bruce gave details of Col. Avery's service and the recommendation
by his superiors for the rank of general. Unfortunately, the military career was cut short at Gettysburg.
One spectator at the event from Pennsylvania wrote to a friend in Vermont, "I attended the ceremony this morning.
Very touching and fitting indeed! If souls float, Avery's soul was descending and everybody felt it. There was
something touching and indescribable about the silence that made everyone in attendance kind of look to the ground,
of course, the ground itself was literally a graveyard, as we were all standing on the bones of dead warriors,
most of whom are unknown but to God."
Ken Avery, Bruce's brother from Annapolis, had a moment of prayer and then sprinkled soil over the grave from Swan
Ponds - Col. Avery's plantation home in Bruke County, North Carolina. "May all who visit in the future know
this is hallowed and sacred ground," Ken Avery reverently spoke. Mary Ann Avery, Bruce's wife, read an excerpt
from Shelby Foote's - The Civil War - A Narrative. "It's sad for the family when you don't know where a soldier
is buried. It must have torn Isaac's dad apart not knowing," Mary Ann mentioned. "It's important to have
him marked with soil from his home state. He's still under North Carolina soil after today."
With a conclusion to the ceremony, 5-year-old Christopher Avery assisted by his father, Bruce, placed a floral
wreath on the granite stone and then slowly stood and saluted the members of the 9th Virginia Infantry. For a few
solemn, precious moments, complete silence fell over Washington Confederate Cemetery.
According to Ken Avery, it meant a lot to finally identify his ancestor's final resting place. "We are descendants.
He was a hero to the cause of the South," Ken asserted. "This helps us bring some closure to this piece
of our family history."
Bruce Avery as a Civil War re-enactor and researcher for nearly 20 years, said out of gratitude, "I know the
family story behind Isaac. It's an honor for me to have gotten this done. Hopefully, he's up there looking down
Where Avery fell on the bloodstained field of Gettysburg, President Lincoln spoke these words, "It is all
together fitting and proper that we should do this." Old Abe's words echoing from the past is the reason we
gathered on the beautiful morning of November 3rd - to dedicate a lasting memorial to Col. Isaac Erwin Avery of
the 6th North Carolina Infantry. Someday when the Southern Cross of Honor is presented, may one of his comrades
step forward and proudly say, "Col. Avery never once disgraced his noble uniform of Gray."
Copyright © 2008 by: Genealogy Trails - with original
rights reserved for contributors