"A Regiment of Fighting Men" View of New York City from Brooklyn, 1824 aquatint by Carl Fredrik Akrell after a drawing by Axel Leonhard Klinkowström. Wikimedia Commons.
Augustus van Horne Ellis was born on May 1, 1827 in New York City. He was the first child of Dr. Samuel C. Ellis and Eliza van Horne Ellis, who went on to have seven more children over the next fourteen years. Little is known about his early life, but clearly Ellis showed strong academic ability, or his family had great connections, as he entered Columbia University at a young age, becoming a member of the class of 1844. After leaving Columbia, Ellis took on a wide variety of jobs, both in New York and elsewhere. He spent time as a lawyer, a sea captain, and a tax commissioner in California in the 1850s, for example. One story claims that he traveled to Hawaii and became a personal friend of King Kamehameha III. Kamehameha allegedly offered Ellis overall command of the Hawaiian navy, but the New Yorker declined due to the navy not having any steam ships. He had returned east by 1859, as on March 22 of that year, he married Julia Miller at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in New York City. The couple took up residence in New Windsor, a town bordering the city of Newburgh in Orange County, New York. Their new life together, though, would soon be interrupted by the outbreak of war.
In April of 1861, Augustus van Horne Ellis answered President Lincoln’s call to arms and enlisted to serve in the Union Army. He joined the 71st New York State Militia on April 19 at New York City. Despite his frequent travels during the previous years, Ellis evidently still held sway as a prominent community leader, being elected captain of the regiment’s Company I on May 3. His apparent determination and strength as a leader gained from his various career experiences likely also helped him achieve this honored position. Ellis never wrote down his reasons for joining the cause, but multiple possibilities stand out. At least two of his brothers also enlisted in 1861, including one, Julius, in the same regiment; perhaps the family had strong patriotic beliefs, or maybe he felt the need to watch over his younger brothers as the eldest sibling. Ellis’s pre-war career indicates a strong sense of adventure and willingness to embrace new experiences, so perhaps the excitement raised by the idea of going off to war served as a motivating factor for him. Whatever the reasoning, Ellis and his comrades enlisted for three months, then joined the gathering Union Army under Irvin McDowell. The regiment was a part of Ambrose Burnside’s brigade, which led the way in McDowell’s flanking march that catalyzed the First Battle of Bull Run. The regiment saw battle action on the morning of July 21, 1861 on Matthews Hill. Though the Union won the Matthews Hill fight, Ellis and his comrades still would have been stunned by the ferocity of the day’s combat, particularly that which ensued in the afternoon on Henry Hill. Many Union soldiers had believed that the Civil War would be an easy victory, over after one battle, but the experience of Bull Run proved that this would not be so. Ellis also suffered a personal tragedy at Bull Run; his brother, Captain Julius Livingston Ellis, died after receiving a mortal wound during the fight. The loss of a brother surely brought great sorrow to Ellis, but it did not dampen his resolve to serve the Union. He reenlisted to serve again following the expiry of his initial three-month term, remaining a captain in the 71st NYSM. The following months, though, would change Augustus van Horne Ellis’s military experience forever.
In the fall of 1861, the State of New York decided to recruit more regiments of volunteers for the Union cause. Representative Charles H. Van Wyck spearheaded the organization of one of these regiments, the 56th New York, in Orange and Sullivan Counties, and he called on Captain Ellis to train the new recruits. Ellis evidently had acquired a reputation as a strong disciplinarian, and he molded the young regiment into a finely-drilled outfit. Ellis expected to receive command of the regiment in exchange for his services, but felt dismayed when Van Wyck kept the position for himself. The captain’s chance for advancement would have to come the next year.
After the debacle of the Peninsula Campaign, New York once again issued a call for volunteers on July 1, 1862. This time, a seven-man committee met in Orange County and selected Augustus van Horne Ellis to command the newly-raised 124th New York Volunteer Infantry. Eager for the opportunity to move up, Ellis resigned his commission in the state militia and returned to Orange County once again, this time to help recruit. He had to contend with rising Copperhead sentiments in this region of New York, which made attracting men to the regiment difficult at first. Yet, Ellis knew exactly what he wanted, saying to his future officers:
I want, for subordinate officers, men who will not only be able in pushing forward the organization, but most likely to render efficient services at the front – for those who follow me to the field may rest assured that they will never, if I can prevent it, have reason to complain of being kept in the rear. A regiment of men is one thing. A regiment of fighting men is another thing. The country needs, and I want, the latter.
Ellis was clearly appealing to the sort of martial masculinity that men of the Civil War era prized in this statement, and men of this type who enlisted to serve surely felt good about having a like-minded commanding officer. Through a mixture of public meetings and offers of bounties, the ranks of the new regiment had filled by August 26, 1862. The women of Orange County presented the unit, nicknamed the “American Guard” by Ellis, with their regimental colors, and the regiment left New York for Washington, D.C. on September 6. They soon joined the Union Third Corps in the Army of the Potomac, truly beginning their wartime experience. Ellis’s personal charisma and talents had clearly aided in the process of raising the regiment, and now he would have the opportunity to lead it.
The 124th New York participated in two major engagements prior to the bloodletting at Gettysburg. The unit largely sat in reserve at Fredericksburg, avoiding the carnage of Marye’s Heights. However, Ellis and his men would have surely heard of the bravery displayed by those who charged towards the stone wall there, and they must have felt a great pressure to acquit themselves similarly in their first combat experience. Chancellorsville, then, proved to be the regiment’s true baptism of fire. The regiment suffered heavy casualties when the battle turned on its head and put the Union on the defensive, but it fought bravely as well. Colonel Ellis urged his men onward in a counterattack, calling them his “Orange Blossoms.” This nickname would stick with the regiment through the rest of the war, and men would tie orange ribbons in their buttonholes as a mark of their unit’s identity. Ellis’s regiment suffered grievously at Chancellorsville, losing 28 men killed, 161 wounded, and 15 missing, for a total of 204 casualties out of 550 engaged. According to Charles Weygant, who authored the regiment’s history after the war, the unit felt that it had been let down by the poor generalship of Hooker, rather than by any personal mistakes. Ellis and his men evidently still carried great personal pride, and they must have felt determined to prove themselves once again under better leadership from above. The 124th New York had fought well in its first major test, but as the armies turned north, they knew that even more would be required of them and their valiant colonel to achieve a much-needed victory.
Bravery Among the Boulders “The Men Must See Us Today” by Don Troiani
Colonel Ellis led the 124th New York into the fields around Gettysburg late in the evening of July 1, 1863. The regiment camped near Little Round Top that night, but they would not remain in that position. The next afternoon, Major General Daniel Sickles, commander of the 3rd Corps, decided to move his men forward, without authorization, to take up a position on higher, though more exposed, ground that he deemed better suited for defense. Sickles almost certainly had the events of Chancellorsville on his mind, where his men took heavy losses after being ordered to abandon high ground. Along with the rest of J. Hobart Ward’s brigade, Ellis and the 124th New York occupied a new line around a mass of forbidding boulders known as Devil’s Den. The brigade made up the far-left end of Sickles’ line, and its flank lay dangerously exposed. July 2, 1863 now stood poised to be a desperate day for the 124th New York, and the final day in the life of Colonel Augustus van Horne Ellis.
Around 3:30 p.m. that afternoon, Confederate artillery opened fire on Sickles’ position, including Devil’s Den and its defenders. Ellis’s men especially felt the force of this barrage, as they occupied a position directly adjacent to Captain James Smith’s 4th New York Independent Battery. The intense artillery duel ceased after about half an hour, and soon the New Yorkers saw their adversaries of the day emerge from the woods on Seminary Ridge–men from Texas and Georgia, from Major General John Bell Hood’s battle-hardened division. Massive lines of gray with battle flags fluttering struck awe, as well as fear into the New Yorkers as they watched the formidable scene unfold as Ellis worked to keep his men ready for the coming fight , having them load and lie down for protection. The Confederates advanced quickly across the fields in front of the 124th, while Smith’s battery delivered volley after volley to halt their progress. Ellis ordered his men to fix bayonets, but otherwise hold their fire, allowing the Texans to come closer so that his men’s volley would have a more devastating effect. When the Confederates had closed to within fifty feet, he finally gave them the order to stand up, and Ellis’s men delivered a withering fire into the ranks of the enemy. The Orange Blossoms inflicted severe casualties, but the Confederates continued forward nonetheless. The famous Rebel Yell would have reverberated through the air as the sweeping lines of gray surged onward, likely filling Ellis and his men with doubt as they desperately sought to repel their determined foe. More drastic measures would be necessary for Ellis and the 124th to hold their position .
While the New Yorkers kept up their fire into the advancing enemy lines, the regiment’s major, James Cromwell, approached Colonel Ellis, asking permission to charge against the Texans. Ellis initially denied Cromwell’s request, perhaps believing that advancing off the high ground would be foolish, but the major returned twice more to inquire again. On the third occasion, Cromwell mounted his horse in preparation, simply saying to Ellis “[T]he men must see us to-day.” Cromwell knew the significance of officers leading by example in combat, and the colonel recognized this as well. Finally, Ellis assented with a nod, and Cromwell wheeled his horse about, ordered the regiment forward, and started down the slope of Houck’s Ridge. The colonel, “mounted on a large, iron-gray horse,” waited a moment, “look[ing] on as if in proud admiration of both his loved Major and gallant sons of Orange, until the regiment [wa]s fairly under way, and then rushe[d] with them into the thickest of the fray .”
The 124th New York surged forward across a triangular field and slammed into the 1st Texas, breaking their front line. As Major Cromwell celebrated this success, the Texans’ second rank fired a volley of their own, dropping the Major. Equally as horrified by Cromwell’s wounding as his men, Ellis desperately sought to rally and re-focus his panicked men, shouting above the din. “My God! My God, men! Your Major’s down; save him! Save him.” Confederate fire continued to rip through the 124th’s ranks, and the regiment’s lieutenant colonel fell wounded as well. Weygant remembered what happened next , in a passage that keenly demonstrates how Ellis inspired and left a mark on his men as a leader by placing himself into the very jaws of death:
But our brave Ellis yet remains, now seen in bold relief, now lost amid the clouds of powder smoke. A moment longer the central figure, he directs his regiment. Again the rebel line begins to waver and we see his proud form rise in his stirrups; his long sharp sword is extended upward, a half uttered order escapes his lips, when suddenly his trusty blade falls point downward, his chin drops on his breast, and his body with a weave pitches forward, head foremost among the rocks…
Augustus van Horne Ellis died instantly, a single bullet tearing through his brain. The colonel had exemplified the picture of a leader in battle up to his final breath, fearlessly directing the 124th through the chaos of the triangular field and inspiring them onward with his personal displays of bravery and martial duty. His Orange Blossoms rallied long enough to recover their fallen leader before retreating to their original position. Ellis’s body lay with Cromwell’s on a boulder behind the regiment, “in plain sight of all those remaining in our battle line, who chanced to look that way.” This was surely a sobering image for any soldiers who looked upon it, but it also may have motivated them to keep up the fight to ensure their leaders had not died in vain. The 124th New York put up a desperate struggle as more and more Confederates surged into the area, but ultimately, they could not hold out under the sharp volleys of their foe. Brigadier General Ward ordered them to retreat to the rear as reinforcements arrived, and with the remains of their fallen leaders in tow, they finally fell back to safer ground. The regiment suffered grievously that day, losing 10 out of 18 officers and 85 of 220 enlisted men killed or wounded. Ellis and his men had proven their mettle at Devil’s Den, yet many, including the colonel, had paid for it with their lives.
A Valiant Leader Remembered Colonel Ellis stands tall atop the 124th New York monument. Photo by the author.
On July 3, regimental adjutant H.P. Ramsdell began the difficult process of returning the remains of Augustus van Horne Ellis to his family. Ramsdell and a small party of men accosted a local farmer and attempted to purchase or rent a horse and wagons. The farmer refused, causing the adjutant to order him, “emphasized . . . with the sharp end of my saber,” to convey the bodies of Ellis and Cromwell to Westminster, Maryland, where a carpenter made pine boxes for the bodies. Though clearly Unionists at heart, even Gettysburg’s civilians were not spared from the interference and demands of an occupying “friendly” army upon their soil.
The next leg of Ellis’s journey proved the most challenging. Ramsdell was forced to rely on wounded men to help him move the remains between different train cars en route to Baltimore. In the hectic city, an aide told the adjutant that “dead bodies were not important, compared to live ones, said there was no time to think about such things, and advised me to have my friends quietly buried, if I could.” No standardized system existed for the transportation of dead bodies even at this point in the war, and perhaps the aide harbored concerns about the impact that the grisly sight of such corpses might have on the living soldiers moving through Baltimore on their way to the front. Simple considerations concerning the efficient usage of transportation space may also have spurred the aide’s statement. Fortunately, Ramsdell did not give up easily, and he secured orders permitting him to take Ellis’s and Cromwell’s remains to New York City the next day. That day, he also secured two metal coffins from an undertaker, providing the slain officers with a more proper appearance fitting of their rank and class status than that accorded by the wooden boxes. After these myriad trials, the body of Colonel Ellis was finally on its way home.
On July 5, 1863, Ellis’s remains arrived in Jersey City, awaiting permission to cross the river into New York City. Meanwhile, Ramsdell sought out the colonel’s father, Dr. Samuel G. Ellis, to share the distressing news. Even if Ellis’s father could not have been present at the moment of his son’s passing, at least the family would have a body to mourn over, in accordance with the “Good Death.” The adjutant noted that he “performed my unpleasant duty as gently as I could” that day. Soon after, he had to perform that same unpleasant duty once again when he met with the colonel’s widow, Julia Miller Ellis. At that meeting, he “delivered some little things the Colonel had spoken of many times during his life, for he had often speculated of his death, and had so instructed me in case anything should happen to him.” Such preparations became commonplace in the Victorian era, as soldiers sought to leave behind final words or personal effects for their loved ones. These material objects assumed great significance for those left behind, as they provided family and friends with a tangible and highly personalized connection to the deceased.
It is impossible to know how exactly how Julia Ellis reacted to learning of her newfound status as a widow in the moment . However, thereafter she would have gone through the standard rituals of Victorian mourning, including dressing in black and decorating her home with black crepe for an extended period of time. She surely found herself in an unenviable position, especially when considering the gender role she would have been expected to play; she had lost her paternalistic caretaker, and she also had to take great pains not to mourn excessively, lest society frown upon her. Julia Miller Ellis largely faded from the historical record after the death of Colonel Ellis, but the heavy impact of loss at such an early stage in their marriage likely left deep scars on her memory. She filed for and was granted a pension in March of 1865, long after her husband had been buried in the Ellis family vault at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, in Manhattan. As was true in the instance of over 700,000 other soldiers, the death of Colonel Ellis brought the devastation of the Civil War home to the very doorsteps of those who knew and loved him best, but had otherwise been spared the grisly horrors of the battle front itself.
Colonel Augustus van Horne Ellis’s legacy has lived on in several manifestations since his death at a small triangular field nestled amongst the rolling farmlands of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Two years after the colonel’s passing, his brother, John Stoneacre Ellis, saw his wife, Julia Livingston Waterbury Ellis, give birth to a son. With his fallen brother still alive in his memory, John and Julia named their son Augustus van Horne Ellis in his honor. Additionally, in 1867, the U.S. Army outpost constructed near the fledgling town of Bozeman, Montana was christened as Fort Ellis, further honoring the slain New Yorker. Respect for his standout examples of inspirational and heroic leadership still lives on today; in 1999, the Sons of Union Veterans camp that serves four counties in upstate New York, including Orange County, named itself the Colonel Augustus van Horne Ellis Camp 124 in his honor. The ultimate recognition of Colonel Ellis, though, came in the dedication of the 124th New York’s monument atop Devil’s Den. The 124th was the first New York regiment to place a memorial on the Gettysburg battlefield, and theirs was largely financed by funds raised from the people of Orange County through the Regimental Association. Placed in 1881 and dedicated in 1884, a life-sized granite statue of Colonel Ellis, the only one of a regimental commander on the battlefield, stands atop the monument. His arms crossed in a stern but stoic look of command, Ellis gazes out over the field where he and so many of his Orange Blossoms gave their lives in the service of the Union, embodying the type of courage under fire necessary to inspire men to place their lives on the line for a cause higher than themselves. The New York colonel forever remains a key part of the Gettysburg battlefield landscape– a final testament to his bravery in the line of fire on July 2, 1863, and an inspiration for generations to come.
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Tucker, A.W. “‘Orange Blossoms:’ Services of the 124th New York at Gettysburg.” National Tribune, January 21, 1886. In Gettysburg Sources: Volume 3. Compiled by James L. McLean, Jr. and Judy W. McLean. Baltimore: Butternut and Blue, 1990.
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Narrative and map by Ryan Bilger, Gettysburg College.