Nebraskan with Lee at Appomattox
Omaha World Herald, Sunday Magazine Section, November 10, 1929
By Gerard Coburn Griswold
One of Two Confederate Veterans Living in This State Was on Picket Duty Day of Surrender, Saw Grant and His Men “Come Over Hill and Pass Down”
HOW MANY men are there living in Nebraska who served the confederacy in the civil war? Dr. T. C. Sexton, retired Fontanelle, Neb., physician, for many years a resident of Fremont, is one. He fought in the civil war as a private in Stonewall Jackson’s famous army. He marched 15 miles in the coup that turned Hooker’s flank at Chancellorsville, heard the volley that fatally wounded “the south’s most illustrious strategist,” and the next morning, May 3, 1863 was himself seriously wounded as a ball went through his knee on the same battlefield.
After the war Dr. Sexton came west to Nebraska with another young physician, located at Fre (section missing) medicine. Three months later he moved to Fontanelle where in the following years he built up a large practice. In 1888 he returned to Fremont. The _______________ land holdings in Dodge county and successful management of farms was the factor that finally turned the physician into an agriculturist.
Dr. Thomas C Sexton is 85, has been recognized as one of the largest farm managers in this part of the state and one of the wealthiest of Dodge county farm land owners. The detailed story of his service in the war has been told before.
Are there others?
Go out to Springfield, Neb., and ask. W. H. Ellis, who will be 85 his next birthday, will answer, “I am.” And then he will add, “And working every day.”
Mr. Ellis, when he reads this story, will be glad to learn that there is at least one of his comrades of the south still living in Nebraska. For at the time he was interviewed, he and his friends believed that he was the last. He had been trying to find another, but to no avail. With Fremont and Springfield just a few miles apart, there are possibilities of a confederate reunion hereabouts some of these days. Two is the least possible number with which a reunion can be effected. Are there any more?
WHEN the reunion of civil war veterans, north and south, was held in Gettysburg some years ago, there were [sic] four confederate soldiers from Nebraska on the same train that carried Mr. Ellis there, but he didn’t get their names or address. When the American Legion convention was held in Omaha, officials here tried to find confederate veterans of Nebraska, but found not a single one.
It looks as if Dr. Sexton and Mr. Ellis may be all. A native of North Carolina and a soldier for the south from that state, Mr. Ellis upon attending the Gettsyburg [sic] assembly was asked if he wanted to be placed with those from North Carolina.
“No,” he replied. “I’ll stay with the boys from Nebraska. That’s my home now, and they’re my people. I’ll stay with them.”
Mr. Ellis came to Nebraska in 1876 from Illinois where he had married. He lived for some years in Nemaha county in and around Brownville. Forty-seven years ago he moved to Springfield.
Springfield was a small town then,” said Mr. Ellis, “I’ve hauled a good part of the material with which it has been built up since.”
When he first came to Springfield he went into the draying business. For 18 years he was pumper for the railroad, pumped water for the engines. Today he hauls wood, coal and cobs.
Mr. Ellis was not found readily the other day, but was finally located down at the station, where several other men of years had assembled. The local was just coming in. Mr. Ellis wore an olive drab army blouse, the kind American soldiers wore in the world war.
There was no romantic or patriotic significance in the wearing. “I got it from Montgomery and Ward. Sent to Kansas City,” he said. “It fits snug keeps me warm and don’t get in my way when I’m working.”
Mr. Ellis left the station and took his callers to the little house in Springfield, where he has lived for 43 years. His wife died several years ago. He and a daughter occupy the house. The daughter Mrs. Verlie Bolen runs a café downtown. She was at the café then. Mr. Ellis led the way up the steps and motioned for his guest to follow. He took them out to the barn.
IN a dark corner he tugged, hauled, labored and brought forth a rusty long barreled breech-loader. It looked like the gun Rip brought back from the mountains. He tugged at its hammer, but it wouldn’t budge, rusted tight.
Finally after much pounding he knocked the breech open and a spoonful of dust fell to the floor.
“That’s certainly an old residenter,” breathed Mr. Ellis. “There were a lot just like it in the war.”
Mr. Ellis posed with gun in hand, then led the way to his sitting room and took his place in his easy chair with is right by the small radio with ear phones that sits in the window. He used to attend the Baptist church but there isn’t any Baptist church in Springfield. So now he gets his sermons by radio. He also gets other things from the stations of his choice. He listens in at night, and on Sunday. The rest of the time there is work to do. He told of just having hauled three loads of wood 60 miles. Loaded it on his Ford truck, drove it into town and put the wood away.
“But I make more with cobs than I do with wood or coal,” he explained. “And I’d rather haul them for they’re not so heavy for me to handle.” Mr. Ellis says it is necessary for him to work for a living.
Six girls and one boy of his nine children are living. There are 22 grandchildren and eleven great-grandchildren.
He thinks, “that North Carolina like some other southern states could help an old soldier a bit.” For it was North Carolina and the south that he served through three years of actual warfare. The dreary, dogged, disheartening warfare of the southern army. In thin old clothes made only of southern cotton and entirely inadequate for the cold northern winters, he moved to and fro over what he says, seemed like a million miles.” He was there when the great commander surrendered.
“But I don’t see much hope for a pension,” he declared. “So long as I am able, I expect I’ll just keep hauling along.”
WILLIAM Henry Ellis, confederate soldier, who stood near Appomattox courthouse on April 9, 1865, when Lee surrendered to Grant, went to war at the age of 18, when those men 18 to 35 were conscripted for service.
He had heard about the war of revolution while sitting on the knee of his grandfather who had fought for the redcoats. When the call came although he didn’t hanker for bloodshed he was ready to go.
“I was on picket post the day Lee surrendered, and saw Grant and his men come over the hill, and pass on down,” he recalled.
William was the oldest of the five children of Farmer Evan Ellis. He first served with the Fifth North Carolina cavalry, and later was one of those sent to fill up the First.
“We saw plenty of fighting,: he said, “but I only brought back one scar from the war.”
He rolled up a pants leg, and after unpinning his sock, and laying the safety pin on the floor, rolled up the leg of his woolen underwear. He revealed a very considerable scar, the kind you might expect a minnie ball to make.
“A boil,” said Mr. Ellis. “It gave me a lot of trouble, but a bullet might have been worse.”
Mr. Ellis brought back from the reunion at Gettysburg a card shaped like a foot. On one side is the drawing of a bare sole, with a big smear of black on the heel.
“Tar Heels, that’s what they called us from the turpentine state,” he explained then he turned the card over and read: “The Tar Heels’ Roll of Honor, North Carolina with a male population (regular military age) of 115,000 furnished 127,000 confederate soldiers. Lost 40,375 of her brave sons, double the loss of any other, with five thousand to spare. First at Bethel, foremost at Gettysburg, furthest at Chickamauga, the last of Appomattox. God Bless North Carolina. R. E. Lee.”
Sometimes they followed the troops ahead of them by bloody footprints in the snow. Many walked on bare and bleeding feet, he says. And when a fight was fought in which union soldiers fell, and they advanced, the men were only too glad to get the shoes of those who had fallen.
“MY FATHER was opposed to slavery,” said Mr. Ellis, “but my uncle, my mother’s brother, owned slaves who stayed on the place after the war was over and wouldn’t leave, only to go to church. They helped him farm, and were as loyal and faithful as they had ever been.”
Mr. Ellis knew Reams’ Station. No battle of the war was more brilliant in its particulars and results from the southern viewpoint than that of Reams’ Station fought on August 24, 1864. General W. S. Hancock of the federal army had seized and fortified a position from which General Lee ordered Lieutenant General A. P. Hill to dislodge him. So stern was Hancock’s resistance that two bloody assaults had been repelled, when the privates of Cook’s, MacRae’s and Lanes, North Carolina brigades, demanded to be led to the attack in which their comrades had failed. Their officers compiled with with [sic] 1,750 muskets in the charge, they took the works and captured 2,100 prisoners and 13 pieces of artillery. The North Carolina cavalry regiments were also greatly applauded by General Hampton for service on the same occasion.
It was at Reams’ Station when a comrade was hit through the hand below a finger, that Mr. Ellis watched the finger amputated by a friend who sawed it off with a dull pocket knife.
“I was cooking a big pancake for breakfast one morning, as we were camped on our way to Appomattox, when the bugle sounded the alarm,” he recalled. “I didn’t intend to miss my breakfast, so I raked some live coals on a board, put my pan with its cake on top, mounted my horse and road along cooking my cake until it was finished. Rations were pretty precious and if you had some you weren’t going to give them up.”
There were many at home suffering for food. The pay of confederate soldiers in the ranks was $15 and $17 per month in “confederate money.” During the latter days of the war flour sold for eight hundred dollars per barrel; meat $3 a pound, chickens $15 each shoes (brogans)* three hundred dollars a pair; tallow candles $15 per pound and coffee $50 per pound. Many soldiers’ wives were almost entirely dependent on the pay of their husbands for support.
MR. ELLIS and his comrades didn’t drink much coffee at $50 a pound, but he says no coffee in the world ever tasted any better than that they made out of parched chestnuts.
“On the march to Appomattox the union troops cut our wagon train in five parts. I spotted one of these wagons from which horses had been cut and decided that here was my chance to get some rations, coffee, sugar, and dried beef,” he said.
So he made his way to the wagon, ate his fill, and was taking away all he could carry when a Yank stuck his head in the back end.
“Anything here to eat Johnny?” asked the Yank.
“Plenty. Help yourself,” replied Ellis.
And as Ellis climbed out the front end the Yank climbed in the back. Hunger and hospitality were greater than the urge of combat, and soon two men, instead of one, were satisfied.
Even short furloughs home were filled with work and danger for he was pressed into service against the bushwackers [sic]who were making life miserable for the home folks by constant pilfering. Young Ellis with seven companions was asked to go into the mountains, the strong hold of the bushwackers [sic] and capture the leader of the band who had two thousand ______________ call. They did just that, surprising and capturing the leader while he was separated from his men. But he was wounded so severely he died in a few days.
JUST before the end of the war not a few failed to wait for the surrender Mr. Ellis says and what with losses in battle and all when he and his comrades reached Appomattox courthouse their ranks were very thin. One whole company had just quit and gone home. Out of _____ own regiment which mustered 1,2__ the fall before, there were but ___ left, when the surrender came.
“I wasn’t in the McLean house so I didn’t see the actual surrender. I was on picket post,” he said. “But I saw what happened soon afterward. Officers and men of my side, with tears streaming down their faces, embraced each other, when the news came that it was over.
“I threw my saber into the air. And my great regret is that I didn’t get it back for it had belonged to General McClelland, and bore his name. I had picked it up on the battlefield sometime before.”
Not long after Mr. Ellis came to Springfield, men of the G. A. R. met one night. “There’s a Johnny Reb in town,” informed one of their number. “Let’s invite him to sit in,” they said. This they did and he accepted. “That’s one reason I wanted to stay with the boys from Nebraska at the Gettysburg reunion,” said Mr. Ellis.
“William Henry Ellis, with old gun of civil war times.”
“Mr. Ellis in another pose.”
“General Lee’s surrender, as sketched from a painting by Sidney Riesenbert in Scribner’s Magazine.”
“Dr. T. C. Sexton”
*Brogans also known as Jefferson Booties were all leather shoes that tended to wear out quickly.