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Revelations From a Civil War Diary
Although the Civil War ended almost 150 years ago, the War Between the States continues to fascinate scholars, military history savants and ordinary folks whose ancestors played some role in that great American drama. To Stephen Ellis, who lives with his wife, Diny, along Lake D’Arbonne northwest of Monroe, childhood stories of one Civil War ancestor set him upon a lifelong quest that eventually led to dusty boxes in the attic of an old house in Maine.
Ellis, born in Covington and raised in New Orleans, is a member of a large extended family with deep roots in the Florida Parishes north of Lake Pontchartrain. His mother, Alyce Grima, was a portrait artist and descendant of a prominent of New Orleans Creole family. His father, Frank Burton Ellis, was a successful New Orleans attorney, politician and federal judge who loved to tell his children stories about the history of the Ellis family. “My father instilled in us a love of family history,” Ellis says one late afternoon while sitting in his study surrounded by family photos. “They all accomplished wonderful things in their life as judges, lawyers and politicians.”
Of all the tales, one fascinated him most. It was about his great grandfather Ezekiel John Ellis, better known as E. John Ellis. Born in 1840 in Covington, E. John was a bright young man who had studied at Centenary College, then located in Jackson (Louisiana) before going on for a law degree at the University of Louisiana in New Orleans (now Tulane University). During the Civil War, young Ellis served as a lieutenant and later captain in the 16th Louisiana Infantry Regiment, which saw bloody action at Shiloh, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Missionary Ridge, Atlanta and Jonesborough, before surrendering in Gainesville, Alabama in May 1865.
Stephen Ellis’s interest in his great grandfather’s service, however, had little to do with battles. His passion to know his great grandfather better began when his father gave him 10 letters that E. John had written home during the battles of Corinth and Murfreesboro. The rhythm of each sentence and sentiment were written in a time when words were meant to sing and convey one’s innermost emotions. They simply didn’t inform readers; they moved them. Reading these letters, Ellis fell into his great grandfather’s grip, one that would drive a passion to learn more about the man who wrote such beautiful prose about such horrific events.
One such example is a letter E. John wrote home in May 1862 from the Battle of Corinth to console his sister after the death of her young child: “We were expecting an attack from the Yankees any moment. I am glad they did not come. I was no longer a man. Completely unnerved, I was a child, yes almost an infant in feeling and there I feared I could not have done my duty. When I saw her last, how bright and how beautiful she was, and it is impossible now for me to realize that she is dead. I realize it. But yet it is so. Her frame is cold, her bright eye no luster, the dimpled cheek is now pale and cold, but thank God our little pet is not dead. Thank God that our Lord when upon Earth on one occasion said to those around him, ‘suffer little children to come unto me and forbid them not.’”
Journal courtesy of LSU libraries – special collections
Beauregard Raised the Spirits
Stephen Ellis recognized the historical significance of these letters. While taking a Civil War history course at Louisiana State University, taught by famed historian T. Harry Williams, Ellis asked Williams if he knew anything about his great grandfather. Williams asked Ellis if he had read his biography of General P.G.T. Beauregard. Ellis, somewhat embarrassed, confessed he had not. “If you had read it,” Williams said, “you would know that I quoted your great grandfather from a letter to his father, dated April 13, 1862.” The letter described how Beauregard raised the spirits of his troops after the bloody Battle of Corinth. “As he rode away after gracefully bowing to the crowd,” Ellis wrote, “a shout such as Napoleon might have heard from the lips of the Guard went up, ‘Harrah for Beauregard our Chief.’ It’s strange Pa how we love that little black Frenchman, but there is not a man in the army who would not willingly die in following his lead.”
Writing again to his sister in May 1862, Ellis praised the justness of the Southern cause: “This contest on our part is just, and I am willing for me to wear out in the service or to die in the field before submitting to Yankee rule. Rather than this, I would be willing to live on the mud of the lake swamp, to pillow my head upon the cypress knee, to sleep with the dull eye of the alligator glaring on me and the slimy hissing of the moccasin coiled over my heart. But the time was when all of this might have been avoided. That time is passed however and it now is Freedom or the grave.” Over the years, Ellis transcribed the letters and donated the originals to LSU’s Hill Memorial Library, which houses over a hundred boxes of Ellis family papers.
The most important document to connect Stephen Ellis with his great grandfather’s thoughts, however, remained illusive for many years. It was a two-volume diary that E. John wrote while a prisoner of war at Johnson’s Island on Lake Erie in Ohio. Surviving the devastating battles of Shiloh, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga and Chattanooga, Union troops captured Ellis in late November 1863 at the Battle of Missionary Ridge. “A Yankee captain demanded my surrender,” he wrote. “I threw my sword down the ridge and with very bad grade, surrendered.” Stephen has a copy of the diary that a great aunt had transcribed sometime around 1910, but no one in the family knew if the original still existed, and if it did, where it might be.
E. John’s transcribed journal reveals a remarkable narrative that gives a young man’s reflections on political events leading up to Secession, his attitudes toward the Union and state sovereignty and the battles he fought. He also described daily life in a northern prisoner of war camp, the kindnesses of his captors, the South’s surrender, the death of Lincoln and his journey home. His writings give personal perspectives that are often forgotten to modern discussions on the “Lost Cause.”
The diary begins with the 1860 presidential election. Ellis supported Tennessean John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party, believing he could placate the South and preserve the nation. “I loved the American Union,” Ellis wrote. “I desired its preservation and I thought Mr. Bell the man to preserve it. My hopes were well nigh dashed to the ground by the election of Mr. Lincoln. The excitement in the South was intense. A Sectional candidate elected upon a platform of avowed hostility to the rights and equality in the Union of the Southern or slave holding states.”
To Ellis, President Lincoln’s unwillingness to compromise with the South and his reinforcement of Federal troops at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor were the direct causes of the war. “Mr. Lincoln,” wrote Ellis, “rejected the counsels of the august patriots who formed or composed the border state convention and his arrogance drove Virginia, Tennessee and Arkansas from the Union. . . Now I see that the Secessionists were right and that regard to our best interests demanded a final and eternal separation from the Northern states. Lincoln’s policy of war and subjugation of pillage and confiscation, his proclamation of emancipation, the arming of negroes, the insults to our women and the excesses of the Federal soldiery, all proved to me that the war was for the negro and not for the Union. . . Lincoln’s policy has united a divided South, has divided a united North.”
Battle of Mission Ridge, November 25th 1863
photo courtesty Library of Congress
Mr. Lincoln assassinated
E. John also reveals his thoughts on slavery and black soldiers. “The North,” he wrote, “thinks that we are fighting for slavery.” Not so, he wrote. “Is slavery dearer than life, than home, than loved ones? True we would like to preserve it, but whenever the time comes when Slavery stands in the way of our Independence the North and the world will see how soon and how cheerfully it will be sacrificed. And if the worst comes to the worst, they will see lines of black soldiers, slaves of yesterday, freedmen of that day, trained and disciplined and under the lead of Southern officers, their former masters, men used to command them and whom they love and trust and will follow, trampling down blue lines of drafted infantry and commanding to Northern lips the bitter chalice of invasion and pillage. Northern officers have driven them under fire, Southern officers can lead them over the bayonets and fire of battalions to victory.”
News of Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865, hit Ellis and his fellow Confederate prisoners hard. “Nothing could be more terrible to the sensibilities of soldiers than such a crime,” he noted in his journal. “Soldiers are used to open and honorable war-fare. Death upon the field they expect and to them it is not so terrible there. But for a murderer to steal upon his victim and murder him in cold blood and with deliberate malice is horrible, beyond a soldier’s expression. I am proud to say that [the] announcement was received with silent regret by all the prisoners, with, perhaps, half a dozen exceptions.” Ellis knew Lincoln’s death would be a tragedy for a defeated South. “If the South is too weak to prolong and carry to a successful terminus her struggle, Mr. Lincoln’s death was a misfortune to her people, for he was disposed to be conciliatory and magnanimous. If the struggle is to be prolonged, she has lost a dangerous enemy.”
While still a prisoner, Ellis refused to take an oath of allegiance as long as the war continued. “I cannot take the oath yet,” he confessed. “I do not see why I should for the Trans Mississippi Army is yet in the field; the Confederate government yet exists. My oath to it is not forgotten and I cannot forget it while the government exists either as a civil or military organization. When the Confederate government is dead, and its dissolution seems inevitable, then I will cease to be a soldier.” After Confederate General Kirby Smith surrendered the last major Confederate Army on June 2, Ellis took the oath and began his long journey down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to south Louisiana. In a bit of irony, he reached home July 4th, 1865.
The war over, Ellis went on to a successful career in law and politics during Reconstruction. After a brief stint as editor of the Amite Daily Wanderer, he set up a law practice in Covington and in 1867 married Josephine Chamberlain. The couple moved to New Orleans where he practiced law and quickly became a major figure and moderating voice in the city’s violent post-war political struggle between native Democrats and Republicans backed by federal troops. During those years, Ellis served in the state senate from 1866 to 1870 and the U.S. House of Representatives from 1875 to 1885. In Congress, Ellis was a member of the commission that negotiated the Compromise of 1877 that ended Reconstruction. Leaving Congress in 1885, Ellis remained in Washington, D.C., to practice law. He died four years later from a heart attack at the age of 49. Ellis is buried in the family cemetery at Ingleside near Amite. E. John’s diary then began its odyssey through various branches of the Ellis family.
Historians have looked favorably upon Ellis’ post-war career. Joy Jackson, in her 1969 book New Orleans in the Gilded Age, states that Ellis, while in Congress, “staunchly fought for improvements for his state and [New Orleans his] adopted city (such as levee construction, creation of the National Board of Health, and a Navy yard in Algiers).” He was, Jackson continues, “a man noted for his spellbinding oratory and spotless integrity.” His business ventures, however, did poorly. He invested in railroads and tried to start a lottery company to compete with the Louisiana Lottery Company. These and other ventures left him in dire financial straits. “Ellis,” according to Jackson, “went to an early grave, a poor but honest and honored man.” Historian Justin Nystrom in his 2010 book, New Orleans After the Civil War, describes Ellis as “one of those rare Louisiana politicians, in his own era or ever since, who seemed unable to enrich himself through office-holding. . . He was too honest, too unlucky, or simply not skilled enough to profit from any of them.”
These stories had captivated Stephen Ellis since childhood. Missing, however, was the original diary. In 1999 Ellis had a hunch. Searching the Internet, he located a second cousin in Maine. Cousin Nancy was E. John’s granddaughter through his daughter Lillian. “I told her I had been looking for the diary for 40 years,” Ellis recalls. “I asked her if she had any clue. She told me she had 10 boxes of her mother’s things in the attic but hadn’t opened them since her mother’s death. Two weeks later she and her son John called to tell me they had the original diary. She invited me to come up and spend some quality time with it. I intended to ask them if they would consider passing it down to the guy who spent 40 years looking for it. My other approach was to see if they would donate it to Hill Memorial Library, which is really where it belongs.”
Stephen recalls how he “became very emotional” while holding the original journal in his hands for the first time. “It was a surreal experience, sitting on the couch and turning the pages of that magnificent piece of history.” Now, the mystery is solved, and Ezekiel John Ellis has come home. Nancy and her son donated the diary to Hill Memorial Library where, as Ellis notes, “it belongs.”
For more information about the Ellis Family Papers and E. John Ellis’s diary, visit LSU’s Hill Memorial Library at lib.lsu.edu/special/findaid/2795.inv.pdf.