The perspective of time tends to wipe out the harsh conditions and the horror that accompanied the Civil War. We tend to view the great battles as exciting and thrilling, not unlike some people of the time who would ride out in carriages to watch battles.
We tend, too, to forget the kind of conditions the military men had to live in. More than twice as many men died of disease than died in battle. This was true, too, for James Ellis’ regiment.
James Kenton Ellis (1836-1889) is my great-great grandfather. Born in Pulaski County, Virginia, he was a teacher in Kentucky when he married his first wife, Mary Bolt, in 1860. He joined the 26th Regiment Infantry in 1861. His service record, from seeing his first action at Woodbury, KY, October 29, 1861 to his mustering out in Louisville, KY on July 10, 1865, is a long list of criss-crossing several states. This included being in the Battle of Shiloh on April 6 and 7, 1862 and later at the surrender of Gen. Joseph Johnston and his army at Bennett Place.
Two letters from early 1865 from James to his mother bring home the realities of war. The text is presented as written:
Anapolis, MD February 1st, 1865
I seize this opportunity of dropping you a few lines by the way to let you know how I am and how I am getting along. I am not in good health at this time principally cold though I have been shaking with the ague some. I hope though this will reach you in good health. I left Nashville, Tenn on last Thursday morning the 26th of Jan at 6 o’clock a.m. after laying one night in the Zolicoffer Barracks. We got to Louisville that evening. I had my pocket book stole that day in the cars with fifteen dollars and sixty cents in it. I had several searched but it was no use so I gave it up. I am satisfied one of the fellows of the 140th Indiana got it. It fell out of my pocket on the seat while I was reading a book and he was on the seat with me. He left the seat before I missed it. I had him searched but it was gone. Well I was stuck in a dirty filthy hole that night where I nearly froze. Next day we went across the river to Jeffersonville, Indiana and was packed into boxcars without fire and went to Indianapolis, Ind. I suffered with cold very much that trip. We got passenger cars at Indianapolis for Pittsburg, Pa. We done very well there. We got supper in Pittsburg the first after leaving Louisville. We was put in boxcars at Pittsburg for Harrisburg, Pa. We did not change cars at Harrisburg but came on to Baltimore City. We got there yesterday morning at 4 o’clock a.m. We got breakfast before day and then lay there till 12 o’clock. We then took a train for this place where we arrived at 4 o’clock p.m. We came here to these barracks where we still remain. We go where we please. They tried to guard us but found it would not pay so it was soon dried up. I do not know where my regiment is and if I had my descriptive role so I could draw money and clothing I would not care a cent where it was. My corps (23rd Corps) left East Port, Mississippi and went down the river to Pudduca, Ky. and up the Ohio river to Louisville. They then continued their way up the Ohio river. Since then I know nothing definite of them. Report say some of them are up in Washington City D.C. I know nothing positive of their where abouts. I wrote to Mary from Baltimore and from here also today. I have not heard from home since the 21st of Nov. I do not know what to think of it. I wrote at least 25 or 30 letters from Nashville Tenn and was there nearly 6 weeks and not a word from any of you. I want you all to try and do a little better. It is said that the President of the United States passed through this place today for City Point on some business connected with peace. I hope it may be true or at least that peace may be made shortly. I mostly write this letter to let you know where I am and as soon as I get where I can write at leisure I will give you and uncle Sam a history of my career and my observations of the army that I think will be interesting to some of you for I have seen some queer times and made some observations that would look improbable to most of you thou I intended to keep a journal but found I could not do it. The term and substance is this – a soldiers life is worse than a dogs life – few honest men in it – none among officers and especially doctors. I think above all things a doctor ought to be the best friend to a soldier and they are the most miserable quacks and scoundrels that lives. The morals of this people after this war will be mourned by the wise and good of this nation. I have no chance to write to do any good. I hold the paper in my hand as best I can. You had better direct your letter to Co. D, 26th Ky 2nd division 23rd Army Corps Washington City. I must stop. Will write in a few days again. Your son. J.K Ellis
Newberne, N. Carolina March 1st, 1865
I once more take the opportunity of dropping you a few lines to inform you where I am and how I am getting along. We set sail from Alexandria, Va. on Feb. 22nd on the steamship New York, of New York, for Fort Fisher. We anchored off Fort Fisher on the morning of Feb. 25th. We did not go on shore but a pilot boat came on board with orders to go to Morehead City — 38 miles from this place. We weighed anchor and put to sea again. We were landed at Morehead City yesterday about noon and in the evening we took the cars for this place where we arrived about 10 o’clock in the night. We slept here in the depot where we still remain. Our regiment and division is down at Fort Fisher. Whether they will come here or we will have to go there I cannot say — or where we will go I cannot say. When the boat came on board of us at Fort Fisher we heard of the fall of Wilmington NC. The particulars I do not know yet. I did tell you that on the voyage from Alexandria to Fort Fisher we were chased by a Rebel privateer but it was of no use for we were on one of the fastest vessels afloat. As it happened she was a new vessel on her first voyage from New York. We had to put further to sea for sea room but we soon left the privateer behind. I wrote to you and James Muncy from Alexandria on the receipt of your welcome letter for it was the 1st for a long time from any person. I have no news of any note to write. This is a very nice place here but it is raining and I have not been over much of it to give you a description of it. It is situated on the Neuse River and vessels of any size can come up here. The Rebs are coming in here nearly every day and giving themselves up. I do not know how long we will stay here. We may leave here in an hour or we may stay here a month if our division comes here. We will not leave here till it comes up, which may be some time. If we have to go to it we may leave at any minute. When you write direct your letter to Co. D, 26th Ky., 1st brigade, 2nd Division, 23 Army Corps, Washington, D.C. and it will come all right. Give my respects to all and tell James and the rest of them to write to me. I have a poor chance to write. I have to write on my knee or any way I can. I am in ordinary health, better than I could expect. I did not get sea sick to amount to anything but nearly all the rest did, some 12 or 15 hundred. No more at present but I still remain yours as ever. J.K. Ellis
During its service, the 26th Regiment lost two officers and 27 enlisted men killed and mortally wounded and two officers and 142 enlisted men by disease.