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One Less Unidentified Gettysburg Casualty

Relatives of Confederate Colonel Isaac Erwin Avery had searched for the North Carolinian’s grave in the Williamsport, Md., area for close to a century, but were unable to find it until Hagers town, Md., historian Richard Clem took up the search.

Avery was fatally wounded when his 6th North Carolina infantrymen charged East Cemetery Hill on July 2, 1863, at the Battle of Gettysburg. Shot through the neck and unable to talk, he scribbled this note: “Major, tell my father I died with my face to the enemy.” Avery lingered until July 3.

Maryland Governor Oden Bowie, who served from 1869 to 1872, appropriated three acres of the Hagerstown Rose Hill Cemetery to rebury Confederate soldiers from Gettysburg left in shallow graves near Williamsport, where Avery was initially buried, and other areas within Washington County, Md., during the Confederate retreat from Pennsylvania—a fact unknown to the Avery family.

Two thousand unknown Confederates are buried in Rose Hill, but there is a list of 300 Confederate soldiers that are identified. On that list, Clem found a “Col. J. E. Ayer, 6th N.C.S.T., July 3, 1863.” He knew the 6th North Carolina was known as the N.C. State Troops, and he deduced the “J” was meant to be an “I” and that Ayer was actually Avery.

The Avery family concurred with Clem’s research and placed a granite marker for their long-lost ancestor at the cemetery.

Civil War Link to the Great White North

The territory of Alaska, purchased from Russia in 1867, was secured for the United States by Civil War veterans sent there in July 1868 to establish a fort and provide an official American presence in the vast acquisition.

The square-rigged USS Torrent, which was carrying 125 members of the 2nd Infantry Regiment, struck submerged rocks during a storm on July 15 and sank near Cook Inlet. The men and the wives and children of 15 of the soldiers, as well as five officers and a civilian crew, all survived and were later rescued.

The long-lost wreckage was discovered in July 2007, but the news was not announced for several weeks. Archaeologists diving on the wreck found guns, cannons, shoes, plates and sections of the hull, as well as heavy bronze rudder hinges.

Supporters of the Torrent project hope to have the site listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Toxic Smoke Over Monocacy Battlefield?

Monocacy National Battlefield superintendent Susan Trail was surprised to learn Frederick County, Md., commissioners were seeking bids to build an energy-generating trash incinerator with a 150- to 170 -foot-tall smokestack across Interstate 270 from the battlefield and new visitors’ center. Trail said she knew nothing about it until a few weeks before a commission hearing in December, when a bid proposal to construct the plant was discussed.

At the meeting Trail and others protested the plan while some others praised it as a job-creating venture that would reduce costs for the county, which is now trucking 800 tons of refuse per day to Virginia.

“We have issue with the visual impact of the smokestack but also the long-term effects of toxins coming from the incinerator,” she said. “The prevailing wind blows across the battlefield. What will be the cumulative effect in 10 or 20 years?”

The proposed site is on county land and is zoned for industrial use. The commissioners have made an offer to neighboring Carroll County to operate a joint facility at the site that would come close to doubling the amount of refuse incinerated at the facility.

Trail said she is consulting with officials in the National Park Service to see what can be done about the threat to the battlefield, which brought 24,000 visitors to Frederick County last year.

Reader Query

In the November/December 2007 issue, there is a picture of the death mask of President Ulysses S. Grant, which I find very curious. What is the purpose of life and death masks? How far back does this practice go? Is it still done today?

Gerald R. Durst, Amarillo, Texas

The practice is indeed old, dating back at least 4,000 years in Egypt. In Europe death masks of important people became popular in the 14th century, according to Willa Shalit’s book Life Cast: Behind the Mask. “These death masks are a tribute to the men whose friends and followers couldn’t bear the thought of these faces being gone forever,” Shalit wrote. “Though vague, expressionless, and somewhat ghoulish, these death masks satisfy our desire to know what these men really looked like.”

In the days before photography, death or life masks were also a popular way for sculptors to assure a true likeness of a subject. Most often they coated the subject’s face in oil before applying plaster of Paris. For a life mask, quills were inserted into the subject’s nose, so he could breathe.

It could take 20 minutes to an hour for the plaster to set up, depending on the artist. Thomas Jefferson, whose life mask was taken by John Henri Isaac Browere, was nearly stuck in his. After an hour, the plaster got too dry, and Browere had to use a mallet and chisel to break it off.

Taking life masks or casts, as Shalit calls them, continues as an art form, but today the process has been much improved thanks to the use of a quick-drying gel.

Fort Zachary Taylor vs. Australian Invaders

Although Florida was part of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War, Fort Zachary Taylor in Key West remained in Federal hands throughout the conflict. In fact, it served as headquarters for the U.S. Navy’s East Gulf Blockading Squadron, charged with capturing supply ships heading for Confederate ports. The fort’s role as a military facility ended in 1947, and the property was deeded to the state of Florida along with an adjoining beach for use as a state park.

All was well until the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) decided several years ago to remove some 800 Australian Pines at the fort and along the beach area because they are non-native trees. State law calls for invasive exotic plants and trees on parkland to be removed and replaced with native Florida species.

The problem is that the pines, widely planted across the state more than a century ago to create windbreaks and to prevent soil erosion, are now much loved for their appearance and the shade they cast, which enables locals and tourists to enjoy the beach even in the hottest weather. The DEP says the pines will be replaced with more appropriate shade trees. That does not please a group of local residents, who believe the pines’ removal will harm the area’s beauty and is an unncessary financial burden for the state at this time.

They also point out that the pines require no water, an advantage considering Florida’s recent drought problems. The group has launched a campaign and a Web site,, to try to impel the state to reverse its policy, at least for Fort Zachary Taylor.

DEP spokesman Chris Cate said the state is proceeding with its plan to remove the pines. “The Division of Recreation and Parks intends to remove 10 percent of the Australian pine trees each year for 10 years,” Cate said. “At this time we are working on a removal schedule for Australian pine trees and a replanting plan for native plants. There are no definite dates at this time.”

National Archives Joins 150th Anniversary Commemoration

The National Archives will mount a major exhibit in Washington, D.C., for the sesquicentennial of the war. The exhibit will also travel to cities with major museums that can handle the necessary security requirements.

Marvin Pinkert, executive director of the Center for the National Archives Experience, made the announcement to members of several of Washington’s Civil War Round Tables. The exhibit is scheduled to open at the Archives in late 2009 to coincide with the anniversary of John Brown’s attack on the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry.

Pinkert said the Archives does not expect to tell the whole Civil War story but rather to aid in the exploration and understanding of the war. Some of the original government documents planned for the exhibit include the two 13th Amendments, the earlier one sometimes referred to as the “missing amendment.” In early 1861, Congress passed a 13th Amendment that would prohibit the government from banning slavery in any of the slave-holding states, but it was never ratified. The second amendment, carrying the same number but abolishing slavery throughout the country, passed on January 1, 1865, and was ratified on December 6, 1865.


Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.