Many soldiers who fought in and survived the Civil War brought home with them physical and emotional scars, with stories of battles fought, marches made, colleagues killed, captured or wounded, and tales of many horrible events they had experienced or witnessed. It was an unforgettable time for these men, who never again would live through such a terrible conflict.
Other men, however, had less extreme wartime experiences, without the famous battles and charges and minus any military glory or honor. Among this latter group was 2nd Lieutenant Gilbert W. Ely, whose Civil War career was brief and obscure, but still challenging enough to make for the intriguing story that follows.
Gilbert was born in Monmouth, New Jersey in 1828, the son of Allison and Lydia Ely according to findagrave.com, though the 1850 census lists his father’s name as “Elitlue.” If this is the correct family, Gilbert’s ancestors had lived in New Jersey since the 1680s, according to family trees on ancestry.com, but Gilbert and his family would end that long tradition during his youth.
In 1840 the 8-member family lived in Montgomery County, Ohio, probably in Dayton, where they resided in 1850, when their family included Gilbert, his 5 siblings and their parents. At this time, Gilbert and his father both worked as laborers. In 1860, the three remaining Elys (Gilbert not among them) were running a boarding house in the same city. (Gilbert does not show up on this census.)
He apparently enjoyed the privilege of a good education, as signed documents in his file on fold3.com (I found them through ancestry.com) are well-written in terms of legibility, grammar, spelling and the clarity of his thoughts. His education may have helped him gain a commission as an officer.
His military adventures began on May 10, 1861, when he joined company G of the 1st Kentucky Infantry at Camp Clay in Cincinnati, Ohio. Camp Clay was one of the camps that Ohio's governor William Dennison had ordered to be created to speed up enrollment of the state's military volunteers during the weeks after the firing upon Fort Sumter. It had been named in honor of Henry Clay and was located in the small Cincinnati neighborhood of Pendleton. (This neighborhood is currently the location of the modern "Jack Cincinnati” Casino.) It existed only in 1861.
At this time, Kentucky was still trying to remain neutral in the young war, so some early Kentucky regiments were organized in neighboring states and enrolled men from various states. The 1st Kentucky began service under the command of Colonel James Guthrie, who had recruited and organized it, though he resigned before year’s end.
Gilbert joined this unit while it was still a three-month unit, and he held the rank of 1st Lieutenant. When this regiment was officially accepted into Federal service for a three-year term on June 4 (mustered in by Major Sidney Burbank), Gilbert was mustered back in as a 2nd Lieutenant for the longer term.
His new military life would prove to be less than glamorous, but would also serve as an example of some of the more common day-to-day activities in such a large army. These happenings may seem like minutiae today, in the big picture of the famous battles and legendary leaders of the war, but must have been of the greatest importance to Gilbert and other “common soldiers” like him. Some of the details of Gilbert’s career remain unknown, but enough evidence remains for the telling of his story.
This is Gilbert Ely’s Civil War.
Soon after joining the army, Gilbert found time to pose for a portrait at a photographer's office in Cincinnati. Fortunately, he signed the back of the picture and even included "Newport, Kentucky" in his signature. Newport is a town across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. Perhaps he was living there or maybe was temporarily assigned to the Newport Barracks, but, whatever the reason for him signing it that way, his signature is a valuable source, as without it his picture would likely be another anonymous image in somebody's collection, if even still in existence. Thanks to this signature, this stained portrait was the inspiration for the discovery of Gilbert’s story.
From author’s collection
The 1st Kentucky organized as a 3-year unit in June 1861 and soon moved to the Kanawha River Valley in western Virginia (now in West Virginia), under the command of Brigadier General Jacob Cox, who led the brigade, and then Brigadier General William Rosecrans, in charge of the region. They were involved in several small engagements in the region, including one at Gauley Bridge.
One of their camps in the area was Camp Gauley, but the record of Gilbert’s troubles begins on September 9, when he sent a letter to General Cox from Camp Enyart.
One of the 1st Ky encampments, Camp Enyart, W.Va., courtesy kyhistory.pastperfect.com. It presumably was named for Colonel David Enyart. The drawing was made Sept. 20, 1861, shortly after Gilbert's troubles began.
He wrote that he had received a letter from his mother about the approaching death of his wife. He requested a 10-day furlough to visit his home in Dayton. “I appeal to your humanity to grant me the privilege of seeing my wife before she dies.”
Letter asking for leave
On the back of an unsigned and undated page in the file appears the following line: "I have permission from Lieut. Col. Enyart. I await with impatience your answer." From the wording and handwriting, it appears Gilbert added this to the back of his request, as sort of a postscript, though I do not claim any expertise in handwriting analysis.
General Cox' response, written on the same date from Gauley Bridge (Headquarters, Kinahwa Brigade) follows: "I regret to be obliged to inform you that no furloughs can now be granted by me to officers without first submitting the supplication to Gen. Rosecrans. To do so by mail is a tedious operation. I hope to have a quicker (illegible - perhaps “word”?) in a few days."
"I assure you of my heartfelt sympathy about your family and fervently hope you will hear better news shortly. If I have an opportunity of getting Gen. Rosecrans' assent to giving you leave of absence within a few days, I will certainly do so."
After waiting a few days and not getting further response, Gilbert was not happy. He wrote another letter, this time directly to Brigader General Rosecrans from Camp Gauley on October 3. His message (misspelling the general’s name as “Rosencrans”) stated:
"I hereby tender my resignation as 2nd Lieutenant in Company G, First Regiment of Kentucky Volunteers."
"My reasons are: 1st I have been in the service for five months and have not yet received my commission. 2nd The palpable favoritism shown to some of the officers of the regiment to the injury of others, myself among the latter named."
He concluded by asking the general for his earliest attention to this request, but followed up two days later with a letter of further explanation.
He began this second letter by describing his attempt to get a furlough to visit his wife "about a month ago." He forwarded General Cox' response "since when I have heard no more of the matter." He claimed that "favorite officers can obtain furloughs for thirty and sixty days," before logging his next complaint, which hints at another chapter of his story.
"While performing my duty as Officer of the Guard on the third of this month, I was intolerably interfered with by a sergeant of company E of this regiment. His insolence caused me to act a little hasty toward him and that is now seized as a means of persecution towards me."
He then asks the general to give his resignation "immediate attention."
Nothing in his file indicates exactly what happened next, though the “interfering” sergeant probably reported the incident to his superiors, with Gilbert likely being arrested and held for a court martial. There is no mention of an arrest or trial, but his actions were not ignored, as the file includes a list of charges and specifications against him as well as one interesting piece of correspondence regarding his case.
After his apparent arrest, Gilbert faced four charges:
Charge the first: "conduct unbecoming an officer." The specifications were: "...was while in the performance of duties of 'Officer of the Guard' in a state of intoxification rendering him entirely unfit to perform said duty in a proper manner" at Camp Gauley on October 3.
Charge the second: "Using language unbecoming an officer and a gentleman while on duty" with the specifics just being that he used such language while serving as "Officer of the Guard" on the same day and location.
Charge the third: "striking a non-commissioned officer." The specifics involved: "struck with his hand or fist 2nd Sergent Daniel W. Glassie of Company E...on the head and face twice," again at the same time and place. (Note: the soldiers and sailors website only lists this additional name in a Kentucky artillery unit, but a pension record on fold3.com mentions the 1st Kentucky Infantry and one page in his file, documenting his artillery service, says he was mustered out of service and back in to accept a promotion on October 31, 1861. It gave no more specifics, but that date indicates it might be the same guy. Here is a bit of history on Glassie’s artillery unit.)
Charge the fourth: listed with the previous specification, as the writer apparently wanted to use only one sheet of paper. "Did (illegible word) draw and cock his revolver and threaten to shoot."
Charges against Gilbert Ely
Exactly what happened regarding these charges is unclear, but on October 23, then Lieutenant-Colonel Enyart (who had replaced Colonel Guthrie in charge of the unit) wrote to the Judge Advocate from Camp Gauley:
The bearer of this, Lieut. Ely Co, "G" 1st Ky. Regiment, reports himself to you in reference to some charges which the party with him desires to withdraw. I hope after hearing Lieut. Ely's statement that you will disregard the matter, as we are short of efficient officers. Lieut. Ely is a good officer (and) promises to hereafter most faithfully attend to all his duties. If the charges are allowed to be withdrawn, I think it will be satisfactory to all parties.
David Enyart, courtesy loc.gov
Neither this letter, nor anything else in the file completely confirms if charges were dropped or pursued. An 1881 "special order" in Gilbert's file shows that his record was considered complete with an honorable discharge, due to his tender of resignation, effective January 22, 1862. This resignation officially ended his time with the 1st Kentucky.
This document creates as many questions as answers. Why did they need such an order so long after the war? Did someone forget to note his formal resignation/discharge at the time it happened? If so, how did they realize it was missing? Maybe it came up while researching his pension application. (One tidbit which might be interesting only to me is that all documents in his file were handwritten except for this later form, which was typed. This is a sign of the spread of typewriting technology in the post-war years. Technology did not stop advancing after the war.)
Perhaps this eventual honorable discharge indicates charges were not pursued, or at least he was not convicted and drummed out of the service. Why his resignation was not effective until January 22 is another curiosity and raises more questions. Was he trying to get the charges dropped? Were his superiors trying to resolve the issue and retain his services? Was it typical bureaucratic red-tape slowness? Did he physically remain with the regiment from October through January?
The intriguing part of that letter from Lieutenant-Colonel Enyart is that the judge advocate who received it was Maj. R.B. Hays (sic), who was future President Rutherford B. Hayes. Finding a future President associated with this obscure story was certainly unexpected. It is fascinating that a story about an unknown Lieutenant can connect to a future President of the United States.
Rutherford B. Hayes, as Major-General, courtesy americancivilwar.com
Despite these rather unpleasant experiences in the 1st Kentucky, Gilbert’s patriotism had, remarkably, not yet evaporated. In 1864, he joined company K of the 131st Ohio Infantry, a 100-day (National Guard) regiment which mustered in at Camp Chase in May. It immediately traveled east, arrived in Baltimore and served on garrison duty at various forts in the area, presumably allowing the troops normally in those defenses to head to the front lines, likely in U.S. Grant's Overland Campaign. This unit, including Gilbert, served its time and mustered out at Camp Chase in August.
Not as much is clear about the rest of Gilbert’s life. His wife Frances survived the early-war scare, but still passed away early, dying in 1865 per findagrave.com.
The 1890 Veterans' Census shows he lived at the National Soldiers' Home in Dayton at that time. Records on ancestry.com show that he entered the home July 25, 1889. He apparently had remarried as paperwork for the Soldiers’ Home listed his closest relative as his wife Harriet, and also shows he was living in Cincinnati. His occupation was “molder,” he was a Protestant, and paperwork shows he could not read or write at this time. The 1890 census showed he had no disability when he initially entered the home, but military home paperwork shows he had suffered “war bronchitis.” As he entered the home, he stood 5'9" tall, with a fair complexion, gray hair and gray eyes. He was discharged from the home on June 18, 1891. The writing on one form explaining why is, unfortunately, mostly illegible, but appears to say "G.H. for insane.” Might that mean “government home” for the insane?
Apparently it does, as he moved back into the home on February 1, 1893, and a second form shows he came from the central branch of the government insane asylum. His mental health issues may have been why he apparently was now illiterate. He was later discharged again, this time on January 1, 1898. Again, the writing (on the first form) is mostly illegible, but it may say "improved." If so, any improvement may not have been substantial, as he passed away on April 9, 1898. He is buried at Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum in Dayton.
Courtesy findagrave.com, with “T” as his middle initial
Rest in peace, Lieutenant Gilbert W. Ely.