Background posts: A Quaker in Gray, York Fairgrounds during the Civil War
Isaac Erwin Avery was the 34-year-old colonel of the 6th North Carolina State Troops during the Gettysburg Campaign. With the wounding of Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke at Chancellorville in May, Avery had assumed temporary command of the North Carolina Brigade in Major General Jubal Early’s veteran division. He and his men camped in downtown York on Sunday, June 28, 1863, split between the U.S. Army Hospital on Penn Common, the York Fairgrounds, and the market houses in Centre Square. Unknown to Colonel Avery, it would be his last Sunday on earth, for the bachelor would be mortally wounded on Thursday, July 2 in an attack on Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg. Two of his brothers would also perish in the war, an additional tragedy for his anguished parents, who had seen 6 of their 16 children die in infancy or childhood.
For the most part, Avery’s men adored him. Private John J. English of Company E of the 6th NCST wrote a letter to his aunt and uncle on July 9 during the Confederate army’s retreat. In it, the young Confederate infantryman honored his fallen colonel, as well as commenting on the women of Pennsylvania that he had met, including presumably the ladies of York.
The semiliterate 21-year-old English was happy to have survived the deadly attack on Cemetery Hill that claimed 32 of the 56 men in his company. He write about his beloved regiment / brigade commander, “I thought I had bin wher graps [grapeshot] & cnister & Mineys [Minie balls] flew but I never was in a place like this our loss was hevier than it ever was but our gratest loss was Col Evrey he was wounded one Eavening and died the nest night I am very Sory that he got killed for I liked him beter than any body I ever was under but he is gone now he was acting Brigadier General & a braver man than lived.”
English then turned his attention to the civilians he met in the brigade’s sojourn in the Keystone State, “…we staid in Pennsylvania some thing over too weeks the women Seemed like they wer scared to death we dident have to pay for nothing much to pay for for they dident want our money.” The Tar Heel added in his postscript, “…we saw fine times while we wer in Pa.”
“Fine times” indeed, until the bullets and canister starting flying on the evening of July 2, and a lot of men and boys who had visited downtown York were killed and wounded. More than a third of I. E. Avery’s 1,200 men who camped here were casualties at Gettysburg.