Monday, August 19, 2013

Coming to Terms with History - Musings on Ellis's Service in the Civil War

Ellis Bickerstaff, my great-great-grandfather, was a soldier in the 157th OVI.  During his hundred days of service during the summer of 1864 he served as a guard at Fort Delaware where prisoners of war were held.

Whenever we family historians research our families, we must realize that there may be some discoveries that place an ancestor's character and/or actions in a questionable, even unfavorable, light.  We never know what research will uncover....  Do we ever really know the truth of events in history when we weren't there, when only the actions and outcomes are recorded, and not necessarily objectively?

The Civil War was one of the bloodiest on American soil.  Emotions ran high.  Allegiances were sometimes lethal.  Wives lost husbands, mothers lost sons, brothers lost brothers:  so much sorrow, sadness, pain.  Homes, hearts, families, and lives were torn asunder, sometimes destroyed.  And for four long years neither side would give in.  Both thought themselves right in their beliefs.

Sometimes a soldier is placed in a situation in which he must follow orders and cannot choose his actions for himself....  But the soldiers of the 157th were given free rein with their actions toward the prisoners of war.  Fort Delaware was the most feared of the Union prison camps.  And Ellis's regiment, the 157th OVI, was the most hated of all who guarded there.

Ellis is not specifically mentioned in any of the memoirs I've read or singled out for inclusion in reports of activities of the regiment.  Some men were.  I'm thankful he wasn't.  There's no way to know all the details or gain a full, objective account of his time there telling exactly what he did, how he behaved.

Ellis was born in 1840.  He was 24 years old when he served.  He'd been married less than 3 years and had a 17-month old daughter when he left for the war.  A son was born that year, his wife pregnant or with a very young baby while he was gone.  When he enlisted he probably didn't know where he would be sent or what his duties would be.  Had he known would he have made a different choice?

I wasn't there at Fort Delaware.  I didn't see Ellis's actions.  I can't, I shouldn't judge....  Perhaps Ellis was a mild-mannered man who did only what was essential and performed no acts of violence against prisoners.  No matter how he behaved, when he came home from the war, what he saw could not be erased from the depths of his memory. 

I feel sorrow for the suffering experienced by the prisoners at Fort Delaware and for all who lived and died during the Civil War.  I feel sorrow for Ellis.  He was three times a husband and twice a widow.  He committed suicide in 1907.  We'll never know why but after learning about where he served in the War, I wonder if memories haunted him.

War is ugly.  War ruins lives.  Yet when people and nations cannot come to terms and make peace, sometimes war is the only way to preserve a standard, an ideal, a freedom.  The fact is, though, that not one of us can change history.  We can only come to terms with what we believe we know.  And until we learn specifics about an ancestor's behavior and actions, we don't really know much.  Because I am Ellis's great-great-granddaughter I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Probably more than anything else, the haunting melody of "Ashokan Farewell" speaks to me of the sorrow, misery, and loss of the Civil War.

Previous posts in this series
The Hundred-Days Men of the Civil War
Ellis and the 157th Ohio Volunteer Infantry
Fort Delaware Prison and the 157th Regiment OVI in the Civil War



  1. I watched "Lincoln" this weekend. The scene of the men dumping a cart-load of amputated legs into an open pit goes along with your observation that our ancestors saw a lot of horrible things whether on the battlefield, in the prison camps, or in the field hospitals. Most soldiers were not trained soldiers, just militia following orders. No matter which side they were on, they were living in the standards and beliefs of the times.

  2. Nancy,

    I can't imagine what our ancestors went through during the Civil War. And I agree. We can't judge them. We weren't there and didn't experience what they experienced. And we don't know what emotions they were feeling.

    I want you to know that your blog post is listed in today’s Fab Finds post at

    Have a wonderful weekend!

    1. Thank you, Jana, for including this post in your Fab Finds this week. I appreciate it.

  3. It is very hard to look back with 20/20 hindsight and judge this one or that one for what they did (or didn't do) during the civil war. It's hard for me to even imagine brother fighting brother. War is ugly, it was ugly then and is still ugly now. Very heartfelt post- thank you for sharing!

    1. I agree, Terri. I wonder if sometimes, from the perspective of 150 years, think we understand better or can be more objective about the war but I really don't think we can. I just think how awful to be guard or prisoner, soldier, doctor, or wife.

      Thanks for visiting and sharing your thoughts.


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