Elijah Morrison had a small farm in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, outside the rural community of Talking Rock, Georgia.
It was beautiful country. Good soil, clean water, and the woods were heavy with game. It was the type of place a man would fight to stay, not leave to fight.
But by the winter of 1862 the war had drained most of the young men from the county and calls for more volunteers came daily.
“To Arms! To Arms!” read the recruiting posters. “Rally Young Men! To War!”
Elijah was hesitant. At 36, he was older than most who initially joined, and he was bound to the land, a poor farmer who worked it alone, and food was becoming scarce. He would have to leave his wife, Esther, to run the farm alone with their three children – 12-year old Julia, 11-year old Emma, and his son, 7-year old Montgomery.
Politicians said the war would be over by then, anyway. But it was now nearing its 20th month and the newspapers told of horrific battles in places like Shiloh, Manassas, and Sharpsburg. The death toll kept rising and the call to arms kept sounding. Many of his friends had already answered, and the Union Army kept marching closer, ever closer, to Georgia.
So finally, on his 37th birthday – December 1, 1862 – Elijah bid a sad farewell to Esther and his children and walked off to enlist in the 36th Regiment, Georgia Infantry.
If it’s any consolation (and it’s not), Elijah’s was a short war.
With little training and few supplies, his regiment marched across Tennessee and joined the ranks of the Army of Mississippi. Within three-months of leaving home, Elijah found himself part of the force defending Vicksburg, a fortress-like city that commanded the last Confederate-held portion of the Mississippi River.
Elijah’s first taste of war came on May 16 at the hands of Major General Ulysses S. Grant, who sent the Army of Mississippi fleeing behind the city’s many fortifications.
The Siege of Vicksburg had begun, and it was a poor thing. Already low on stocks and weakened, those trapped inside the city were quickly down to eating mules, dogs, cats, and even rats. Clean water was rare, and medicine nonexistent.
In the middle of all this, Elijah managed to have a letter smuggled to Esther.
He told her how slow the army’s march had been, how distant the soldiers felt from their generals, and about when to plant crops and who in town would give a good price for the coming harvest.
“Such eating we get here isn’t fit for a dog,” he also wrote. “I don’t like this place at all.”
He wouldn’t be staying much longer.
The siege ended when Confederate forces surrendered on July 4th, but relief didn’t come quickly enough to Elijah. Sickness, starvation, and dehydration had left him near death. He and others like him were ferried down river to New Orleans and then on to the many makeshift hospitals dotting the coastline from Louisiana to Florida.
Elijah was let off at Point Clear, along the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, and carried inside the hospital that had once been the Grand Hotel.
Sometime later, Esther received a letter from a hospital volunteer named Mrs. E.A. Scott of Mobile.
“The boat came loaded with sick and wounded which brought your husband to this place,” she wrote. “He was almost dead when they brought him here.”
She then detailed Elijah’s final days, writing, “he assured me that he was ready to live or die as the Lord’s will might, but his only regret was leaving his family.”
Elijah died on July 23, 1863, just under eight months after enlisting. Trenches were hastily dug in nearby Point Clear Cemetery, and his body was placed in a mass grave with approximately 300 other soldiers from the Vicksburg campaign.
“There was so many sick and so few to do anything that marking graves was neglected,” Mrs. Scott wrote.
Esther grieved and kept the letter close for her entire life. She remained in Talking Rock and lived to be 88-years old, but never remarried. Julia and Montgomery stayed in Georgia while Emma moved to Haskell County, Texas. All were married and had children.
Elijah’s descendants are now spread across the country, from Florida to California, and have become businessmen, teachers, doctors, pastors, farmers, and attorneys, even politicians. One of his grandsons served in the U.S. Navy during World War I, and two of his great-grandsons served in World War II, one receiving two Bronze Stars.
His descendants have helped build, and defend, our nation.
Elijah Morrison would lie under unmarked earth for 136-years until members of a nearby camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans used ground-penetrating radar to successfully map the precise location of the mass graves in Point Clear.
My story about their efforts ran in a January 1999 edition of the Mobile Register and was republished across the South. It found its way into the newspaper serving Adairsville, Ga., just 30-miles from Talking Rock. There, Elijah’s great-great grandson, James Burrell, read the article and knew this must be the same “Point Clear” that the nurse mentioned in the letter, now a treasured family heirloom.
Records were checked and verified, and a stone marker supplied by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was finally set above Elijah’s final resting place.
Elijah Morrison was a farmer. He was a husband. He was a father. And, for a brief time, he was a soldier. He went when he was called, did his duty as best he could, and then died a miserable, lonely death, leaving behind a widow and three orphans to struggle through Reconstruction alone.
Children and grandchildren who never knew where their loved ones were buried eventually erected memorials across the South, like the one outside of the Madison County Courthouse in Huntsville that protestors recently demanded be removed, and the one at a downtown park in Birmingham that the mayor just had covered with plywood. You may have seen the one in Durham, N.C., hauled down and smashed to pieces earlier this month.
Is this how Americans remember dead soldiers?
These aren’t statues of Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee. They’re memorials to simple soldiers and sailors, many of whom lie in unmarked graves, and by now we should be able to separate them, as men, from the cause for which they fought.
Say what you want about the politicians and generals who led him, but Elijah Morrison and those like him deserve to be remembered and honored.
Anything less and we forget who we are, and dishonor ourselves.