Struck by a Fired Ramrod, Part 3: Who Shot Major Ellis?

Major William Ellis (USAHEC)

This is part three of a three-part series. Part one. Part two.

For decades after William Ellis’s death, his story concluded for all but his mother. Later that month, August 1864, the already widowed Catharine Ellis began the process of obtaining a pension for her own support. The fifty year old woman secured testimony from several of William’s former comrades who stated that the deceased officer had sent large sums of his army wages home to care for his mother. Catharine herself testified. “That from the time he [William] was sixteen years old up to the time of his death he has contributed to my support all his earnings except what was absolutely necessary for his own support and that what he has contributed to my support has been necessary and that I have relied upon his assistance to enable me support myself.”[1]

The major’s story was reopened in the 1880s. George Norton Galloway, veteran of the 95th Pennsylvania Infantry, began writing extensively about his wartime experiences and continued through the decade. His articles appeared as a brief regimental history and in the pages of the Philadelphia Weekly Times and Century Magazine, the latter of which was republished as Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. In 1895 Galloway would be awarded the Medal of Honor for his demonstration of extraordinary heroism at Alsop’s Farm at Spotsylvania on May 8, 1864, when he voluntarily held an important position under heavy enemy fire.

Galloway’s articles indeed focused on the Overland campaign and triggered a wave of responses from Confederates. Private Thomas T. Roche, 16th Mississippi, wrote an article about the Bloody Angle for the Philadelphia Weekly Times in which he noted three instances of observing bravery displayed by Union officers who were ultimately shot by the southerners. For the last encounter, he wrote:

Suddenly, a large, fine-looking officer, whom I think was a captain, stepped briskly forward and came upon the works, remarking, “Well boys, I suppose you have all surrendered!” Receiving a negative reply, he asked for the commanding officer. Major Council, of the Sixteenth, stepped up and said: “I am, sir.” When the officer again remarked, “Well sir, I suppose you have all surrendered?” Major Council replied, “No, sir; we have not surrendered, but consider yourself a prisoner.”

Then the officer boldly and firmly answered, “I’ll die first!” and turning on his heel slowly and deliberately attempted to return to his own lines, as coolly as though there was no enemy in ten miles of him. He was repeatedly called on to halt or he would be shot, but he paid not the slightest attention, when some one shot him. He fell about thirty paces in front of our works. The courage and daring of this brave but rash man I think has never been equaled during the war. Will some of the Federal survivors at that point give his name? For one who could be so insensible to fear should have his name inscribed in the temple of fame. Probably Mr. Galloway recollects the incident, as he says that his (Upton’s) brigade occupied the position. Many of the Mississippians, and none more than the writer, regretted the fate of that brave spirit. But after learning our weaknesses on the right it would have been self-destruction to have permitted him to return to his own lines. When the fatal shot was fired it was the signal for the musketry to break forth in all its fury, which never ceased till next morning.[2]

“The gallant officer to whom Mr. Roche referred was doubtless Major Ellis of the Forty-ninth New York,” responded Galloway. “His arm was pierced and badly bruised with a ramrod, shot away either in the exciting moment of loading and firing, or in a spirit of haste to get a quick shot at one offering so good a target.” However, the Pennsylvanian claimed that Ellis was “shot upon the parapet of the Confederate works, and there was not at that time so great a space as that alluded to by Mr. Roche.”[3]

The Mississipian’s description also did not match earlier descriptions, but he did provide two other instances that could perhaps reference the New York major’s mortal wounding:

“At 9 o’clock A.M. the Federals made a second charge and advanced in fine style until near the works, when they began to waver, but their officers undaunted, sprang forward with sword in hand, actually springing upon our works, cheering and imploring their men to follow them, when the brave fellows were shot down. Such examples are seldom equaled for courage and daring. I heard several of our men say on that day that it was a pity to sacrifice the lives of such gallant men.”

Roche also claimed that at 9:30 when “the Federals made their third desperate charge on our front… two gallant Federal officers seized a stand of colors, one a large blue starry flag and the other the Stars and Stripes, and calling on their men to follow their colors, sprang upon our works and while in the act of planting them in the embankment were shot off.”[4]

Though the exchange between the Pennsylvanian Galloway and Mississippian Roche could not definitely place the timing and condition of the New York major’s wounding, Galloway’s 1887 article in the Century Magazine caught the eye of Richard T. Owen, once a second lieutenant in the 12th Mississippi Infantry, Harris’s Brigade. After reading about the unusual nature of Ellis’s wound, Owen set about to track down a former comrade, Sergeant John G. Darrah (or Derrah). It took him some time, but eventually he determined a New Orleans address and wrote:

Well, old fellow, I have found your ramrod, or at least the one you shot at the Yanks in the battle of Spottsylvania Courthouse; just as you caught that minie ball in the head. If you remember just before you fell you loaded your gun with one of the loose ramrods lying around and remarked to me that you had been in every battle our regiment had been in up to that time, and had fired as often as any one else, but you never knew that you had killed any of the enemy and that if one of them was found with a ramrod in him he was your man. You were struck just as you fired your gun.

In looking over an account of the battles of the wilderness campaign under Grant, published in the June number of the Century Magazine of 1887, I find in the description of the federal historian of the Sixth Corps that just in front of the ‘bloody angle’ at the point occupied by Harris and McGowan’s brigades, Major Wm. Ellis of the Forty-ninth New York Volunteers, was killed by a ramrod piercing his breast and right arm. Of course it brought to my mind the scenes enacted on that bloody day, and which I would not forget were I to live a thousand years. On reading it I remarked to a friend that I intended hunting you up and letting you know the result of your last shot. I want you to write and let me know if you recollect the incident, as you were ‘knocked out of the box’ so completely at the time I doubted your recollecting the conversation with me.[5]

The New Orleans Times-Picayune published the letter on March 23, 1890, and other newspapers, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, immediately ran the thrilling story under the headline, “His Last Shot. An Incident at Spottsylvania Recounted by a Confederate Soldier.” A Mrs. A.F. Fay, now a resident of the city, read that article and forwarded it home to her brother, Joseph E. Rogers, a former private in the 49th Infantry, now living in Chautauqua, New York. Rogers responded directly to the editor of the Post-Dispatch to correct that Ellis had not been killed and Darrah would have to look elsewhere for his ramrod:

I was somewhat amused in reading in your paper of March 23 an account of “His Last Shot,” a letter by Mr. Owen, the dashing young Lieutenant, who belonged to the famous Twelfth Mississippi Volunteers, to John G. Darrah of New Orleans, who was in the same company, telling him that he had found his ramrod, which was his last shot at Spottsylvania, and that Maj. Ellis of the Forty-ninth New York Volunteers was killed with it. I beg leave to correct that statement. I happened to be there, and was shot through and through at Spottsylvania and I was with Maj. Ellis in the Lincoln Hospital, and in the same ward in Washington. He was wounded with a ramrod, but it did not kill him. He pulled it out of his side and sent it back where it came from. After his recovery from this wound he joined his regiment and died at the battle of Fort Stevens, August 4, 1864. Please give this room in your paper, as I should like to have Mr. Owen know that he has not found his ramrod.[6]

Rogers’s version, however, incorrectly claimed that Ellis died in battle, though it provided the sensational detail that Ellis returned the ramrod “where it came from.” The editor of the Post-Dispatch meanwhile on the home of Mrs. Fay for more detail. She incorrectly identified the wounded officer as Daniel Bidwell and understandably spoke more of her brother’s experience:

I wish I could tell you more about this incident, but I married nearly twenty years ago and have not lived at my old home since, so I do not know much about these incidents of the war which my brother has told at home. I remember his speaking of this, however, but I do not recall any more than that an officer of the regiment was shot with a ramrod. I was under the impression that it was Col. Bidwell. My brother was wounded at Spottsylvania and received there a wound that has made him quite noted in Washington. From the effects of it he lost three inches of his backbone, and the Pension office in Washington has pronounced him the worst wounded man in the United States who stands on both feet. He can walk without a cane, but he cannot bend over or do any work on account of this wound. He received his wound about the same time that the officer was shot with the ramrod and, as he says, they went to the hospital together.[7]

A moderate combing of regimental and newspaper records revealed no further information about Ellis’s wound. Several modern sources reference the story. Historian Wiley Sword first identified the letter Stevens wrote to his wife on August 4, 1864. He included a vignette on the major’s service through the pain in Courage Under Fire: Profiles in Bravery from the Battlefields of the Civil War:

Yet the pain threshold varies from person to person, as evidenced from confronting a dentist’s drill or playing injured in a sporting event. That some individuals have been able to rise above extreme pain and perform effectively is food for thought. Is it courage of the mind, or endurance of the body? Is there a method, or is it a matter of will? To tough it out may involve a matter of seconds, minutes, or hours. But protracted endurance of extreme pain is a matter of dire experience, and in the case of a few individuals, it involves the height of courage, both physical and mental…

Ellis had endured what they supposed others could not, and continued to do hard, active duty. Given a hero’s funeral in which the entire division participated, Ellis was later laid to rest in New York, the victim of a bizarre wound and fate, but one of the nation’s most profound if unheralded heroes: a man whose courage extended far beyond the ordinary through the threshold of pain to a level that few could even imagine.[8]

Formal memorialization of the 49th New York’s service at Spotsylvania meanwhile occurred in October 1902. A thousand Union veterans traveled to Fredericksburg that month as part of a Grand Army of the Republic reunion. Fifty former members of the 49th New York had a special reason for their attendance. On October 9th, they dedicated a monument to those who died at the Bloody Angle. Captain French W. Fisher and nine other men spoke before the veterans and their guests ate lunch and toured the battlefield. According to historian Don Pfanz, “The speakers addressed themes common at such events: the history of the regiment, the sacrifice of those who fought, and the reconciliation between North and South.”[9]

The twelve foot tall monument sits just ten feet north of the Bloody Angle. It cost $500 to construct the granite shaft and base, adorned by the VI Corps’ Greek Cross at the top of all four sides and four granite cannonballs resting at the top. The names of five officers and thirty-four enlisted men scroll down the north side of the monument. Only those killed in action are listed so Ellis’s name is not included. “49th N.Y. Inf’y 3d Brig. 2d Div. 6th Corps. Held this position May 12, 1864” is the inscription that faces south. If the monument fell in that direction it would land inside the Confederate lines, near, perhaps, where Ellis received his ramrod wound.

49th New York Infantry Monument at Spotsylvania


[1] William S. Bulls, Statement, May 12, 1865, Theodore P. Samo, Statement, May 12, 1865, and Catharine Ellis, Statement, June 28, 1865, William Ellis Pension, NA.

[2] Thomas T. Roche, “The Bloody Angle. A Participant’s Description of the Fiercest Combat of the War,” Philadelphia Weekly Times, September 3, 1881.

[3] G. Norton Galloway, “Annals of the War, Chapter of Unwritten History: Capture of the Salient,” Philadelphia Weekly Times, November 18, 1882.

[4] Roche, “The Bloody Angle,” Philadelphia Weekly Times, September 3, 1881.

[5] “A Witness of Death. The Story of a Ramrod Fired by a New Orleans Confederate During the War,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, March 23, 1890.

[6] “The Story of a Ramrod. Sergt. Darrah Fired It at the Federal Forces. It Struck Maj. Ellis, Who Drew It from His Side and Returned It to the Confederate Side—How the History of That Ramrod Has Come to Light,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 6, 1890.

[7] “The Story of a Ramrod,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 6, 1890.

[8] Wiley Sword, Courage Under Fire: Profiles in Bravery from the Battlefields of the Civil War (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007), 99-101.

[9] Donald C. Pfanz, “History through Eyes of Stone,” revised September 2006, FRSPNMP.

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