27 November 2007 by Published in: General musings 8 comments

Col. Isaac E. Avery of the 6th North Carolina Infantry was frightfully wounded while leading Hoke’s Brigade in the assaults on East Cemetery Hill on the night of July 2, 1863. Left unable to speak, Avery scrawled a farewell note to his father in his own blood. Avery died while being transported in the Wagon Train of Wounded. His grave was lost for more than a century. That grave has now been located. Here’s a newspaper story:

From the Associated Press…

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.

I circled back and included this story in the Wagon Train of Wounded chapter of the retreat manuscript today, as this story was just too good not to include.

I’m certainly happy for the Avery family, but between the Battles of Antietam and South Mountain and the men who died during the retreat from Gettysburg, there had to have been literally thousands of Confederates left behind in unmarked, shallow, and even temporary graves. I can’t help but wonder how many there are, and whether anyone cares about them in the way that Mr. Clem obviously was moved by Avery’s story.

Scridb filter


  1. Tue 27th Nov 2007 at 10:27 pm

    I don’t think Avery’s grave was ever missing, or at least it’s whereabouts have been known for awhile.

    Brown has the story of his burial and reburial in his retreat book. And I think Greg Coco had it in one of his ten or so years ago.

  2. Thu 29th Nov 2007 at 8:19 pm

    Coco indeed had the story years ago, but he apparently wasn’t buddies with an Associated Press reporter to get the story its recent national publicity.

  3. Rob Wynstra
    Fri 30th Nov 2007 at 10:12 am

    Another mention of this incident can be found in the memoirs of Walter A. Montgomery from Iverson’s Brigade:

    In some cases, loyal servants even carried the bodies of their masters in the wagons for proper burial back home. At one point in the retreat, the servant of Colonel Avery from the 6th North Carolina was “assailed” with orders to bury his master’s body along the road because of the “increasing offensiveness” of the corpse. “He was cursed and beaten with pieces of fence rail by some of the troops; but he remained faithful to his trust,” Sergeant Walter A. Montgomery of the 12th North Carolina recalled. “With several other North Carolina soldiers, I came to the old negro’s rescue, and enabled him to carry his charge to a place of safety.”

  4. Mon 10th Dec 2007 at 4:13 pm

    Check it out:


    Sat 15th Dec 2007 at 11:39 am


  6. eddie l. wilder
    Wed 12th Aug 2009 at 1:07 pm

    I have been facinated with the sixth Nort Carolina Inf since 1969 when I found a belt buckle at the Wilderness. Ironically the 6th did not participate in the wilderness campaign. This discovery prompted me to do extensive research on ,the 6th. I have given talks to civil war groups regarding my research from their inception in Burlington, N.C. through Spring of 1862.

  7. Bob Pomeroy
    Sat 04th Jun 2011 at 7:14 pm

    I am amazed and very grateful for the efforts made by these important historians commenting above. The vast detail I infer from their notes is apparent. Thank you

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