Pvt. Elijah P. Blankenship
57th Virginia Infantry Regiment, Co. E, CSA
Saturday, May 17, 2003, 1 p.m.
Old Auxvasse Cemetery
At Old Auxvasse-Nine Mile Presbyterian Church
2982 Co. Rd. 156, Callaway County
Though gravely wounded, Private Blankenship was one of the few survivors of the "stone wall" at Pickett’s Charge, Battle of Gettysburg, July 3, 1863
Co-sponsored by: The Old Auxvasse Cemetery Association
& Elijah Gates Camp 570, Sons of Confederate Veterans
Special Guests: Ladies of the Jubal Early Chapter No. 553,
United Daughters of the Confederacy, Rocky Mount, Va.
Order of Service
11 a.m. - 1 p.m.: Changing of the Guard (re-enactors)
12:50 p.m.: Arrival and Seating of Families and Virginia Guests; musical prelude
1 p.m.: Call to Service
Invocation: Noel A. Crowson, Chaplain, Elijah Gates Camp No. 570, Sons of Confederate Veterans
Welcome: John Payne Harrison, President, Old Auxvasse Cemetery Association
Acknowledgment of Guests: Richard D. Williams, Commander, Elijah Gates Camp SCV
Historical Remarks and Eulogy: Martin Northway, Lt. Cmdr., Elijah Gates Camp SCV
Unveiling of Military Headstone & Flag Raising
(Reading from William Faulkner)
Sentiments from Virginia: Mrs. Linda Nezbeth, Registrar, Jubal Early Chapter No. 553, United Daughters of the Confederacy
Fired Salute by Color Guard
Flag Presentation by Color Guard
Music, "Amazing Grace": Old Auxvasse-Nine Mile Presbyterian Church Choir
Benediction: Noel Crowson
Farewell & Dismissal: Martin Northway
Eulogy by Martin Northway, Lt. Cmdr.
Elijah Gates Camp No. 570,
Sons of Confederate Veterans
Remarks Copyright 2003 Martin Northway
Memorize this day, ladies and gentlemen. In our modern times it is uncommon to see so many drawn together to commemorate the life of a common soldier who died almost a century ago. But maybe we are here to share this day because we suspect he was not so common after all. Maybe we are impelled to re-examine the persisting riddle of courage--of how it is common people are moved to do uncommon things.
Modern life seems not to offer many chances to be courageous, but still we would like to find the strength to be brave when we need to be. Maybe the story of this common soldier will provide us with some clue about how to do that.
Look at the flags fluttering from the soldiers’ stones. With so many warriors around us, how can we not think about the price of war at the same time we reflect upon the lessons of the Prince of Peace?
Memorize the faces around you--the faces of friends and family, maybe those of friends you will make today. We cannot help but be drawn together by the interconnectedness of this place. With both life and death around us, a living, historic community, we are moved to think about where we’ve come from, how we relate to one another, and where we are going.
John Payne Harrison [president, Old Auxvasse Cemetery Association] … the rest of us can only imagine what it must be like for you to be in a place surrounded as you are by so many past generations of kin. You have many family here, among them the longtime pastor of this place, John F. Cowan, resting near the center there. He was pastor for 53 years, including the troubled times of our War between the States.
Look up toward the church. Notice the old spruce tree planted more than 125 years ago. Bob Guthrie [longtime church member] … I’m told you have shinnied up that tree many times since you were a boy, most recently in 1999. Be careful up there! I’m told you would spin around on its top and take in this surrounding countryside, including this view across Auxvasse Creek.
Of course you could clearly see the old Boonslick Trail, which after Daniel Boone and his sons, brought tens of thousands of settlers into the Boonslick heart of our Little Dixie region. Some of them stopped and stayed right here, in this Old Auxvasse community. Many of us here today are descendants and kin of these same people, and by being here we both recall them and implicitly seek their counsel.
Many of those people came from the Old South, both before and after the war. Bob, if you were several decades older, from your perch up there you might have seen coming down that road the young soldier we are honoring today, just in his twenties and healing physically and mentally from his hard service in the Confederate army. A Virginian like so many of our ancestors, he may have been fleeing from the ill effects of Reconstruction in Old Virginia, but escaping toward the hope offered by friends and family who made their homes here. As a Confederate veteran, he found a lot of company here in Callaway.
He came here just two years after the war, in 1867, the same year his wife-to-be, Miss Fannie English, came here with her family from their same native Franklin County. Her young husband was generally called not by his first name, that of the Old Testament prophet Elijah nor by his middle name Peter but by the kinder, gentler nickname "Pleasant." According to our research, he could not sign his name--he just made his mark--not uncommon in those days. A farmer by trade, clearly he was not an educated man.
His obituaries suggest the normal life of a man experiencing both peace and tragedy. His first wife died in 1882. Later he wed Miss Margaret Nipp, or Knipp. They were married at the home of John Ford, four miles east of Calwood, by the Rev. J.W. Mardesty.
Years later, as a man nearing 70, it was his hope to attend the 50th anniversary of the battle that had so influenced his life, the battle of Gettysburg. But perhaps he had been living on borrowed time all along, because ill health kept him from that July 1913 gathering. He died a few months later at the age of 69.
Funeral services were here at Old Auxvasse with the Reverend Cowan presiding. Among the survivors besides his wife were three grown children of the Calwood neighborhood, Peter and Thomas Blankenship and Mrs. Laura Smith.
Let us talk about the shape of his war record from official documents. We will add bone and blood later. He started fighting in his teens, and by the time he was 21 the war was over.
In his 17th year in Virginia, he joined the Confederate army. On April 22, 1862, he enlisted in Co. E, the Pigg River Greys, of the 57th Virginia Regiment in Robert E. Lee’s great Army of Northern Virginia. His brother William Jefferson Blankenship served with the 58th Virginia. The Pigg River Greys served with Lewis Armistead’s brigade of General Pickett’s division, and saw action at the Seven Days, Gaine’s Mill, Second Bull Run, bloody Antietam, Fredericksburg, and most notably at the pivotal and critical battle of Gettysburg, where this common soldier was grievously wounded in that furious, desperate and fatal attack forever known to history as Pickett’s Charge.
It is telling, I think, that after spending time in a Union prison and being exchanged home, he rejoined his old unit from April to October 1864, nearly to the end of the war. It says something, I think, that after what he had gone through he returned to join his comrades. It speaks well of the common soldier buried here, now resting under this new soldier’s stone, under this flag of the common Confederate soldier. Ladies and gentlemen, Private Elijah Peter Blankenship.
[Color guard removes from the stone the flag of the 57th Virginia Regt. And the captain of the guard, CSA Cavalry "Lieutenant Colonel" Mark White, posts the colors.]
Mark this, ladies and gentlemen, this is the flag under which Pvt. Elijah Blankenship fought. It is not the flag of segregation, it is not the flag of slavery--it is the flag of the common Confederate soldier. We proudly display it here today. There is no opportunistic politician to tell us we can’t. We reserve the right to fly it anywhere, at any time.
2. These words from William Faulkner:
"For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out … and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin. …"
It is the third day of the battle of Gettysburg in the midst of General Lee’s invasion of the North. It is his hope and that of Confederate President Jefferson Davis that the Army of Northern Virginia will destroy or at least mortally wound the Army of the Potomac so that they will be able to bring the terrible civil war to a conclusion and the Confederate States of American can endure in peace.
But the Union army is dug into a strong position on the heights around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and Lee’s fighters have taken heavy casualties in attacking both the right and then the left of the Union line. The final option is the Union center, where infantry and artillery are anchored on Cemetery Ridge. Confederate artillery and infantry including General Pickett’s division, among them Private Blankenship’s Co. E, the Pigg River Greys in General Armistead’s brigade, are arrayed just over a mile away on parallel Seminary Ridge. Between them lies an open field of fire. And Lee has ordered that General Pickett and other assigned troops, about 11,000 in all, are to take Cemetery Ridge by direct frontal assault.
There is a period engraving of Pickett’s men huddled behind the fence in the timber at the brow of Seminary Ridge. The men are huddled and hunkered down, covering their ears, as more than 300 Confederate and Union cannon engage in the biggest artillery duel in the history of North America. This was well reenacted in the film "Gettysburg." Hoping to soften the Union center, the Confederate guns belch fire and shot for more than an hour, and the Union artillery responds in kind.
These Confederate soldiers have plenty of time to ponder what will happen soon. We don’t know what Elijah Blankenship is thinking, but it’s likely he’s thinking about home. He probably feels a lingering hope that the whole thing will be called off. He likely hopes that if he "sees the elephant," as they refer to combat in this war, that he will be brave--that he will be there for his friends, and that he will not embarrass himself or his family.
Drawn from their communities, organized around families and friends and neighbors, like our own Missouri regiments, these Virginia regiments fight with the ardor of Highland clans. They know they carry the fortunes of their friends, their families, and their communities on the points of their bayonets. Finally there is a lull in the bombardment, and the order to attack is given. Urgent drumbeats summon the infantrymen out of the woods, where they rapidly assemble and form into ranks. Their officers order them to fix bayonets and they begin to move forward at a quick walk. Never is this coordinated charge to become a run, because it is important for all to arrive together, to deliver their blow together, to make the enemy reel from a host and not a hasty few. They carry single-shot rifles, and a single volley is likely all they will be able to expend, so the issue is to be decided by the bayonet.
As Pickett’s legions move down Seminary Ridge, they pass between the still-smoking Confederate cannon. The gunners cheer them: "Go get them, Virginians! Give them cold steel!"
Then they move out into the open. There is almost an eerie calm except for the rustling and clinking of their movement, as they survey the valley that stands between them and the Union troops. When they get only about 300 yards into the field--within just three of four minutes--the Union artillery begins to pour forth solid shot and then the personnel-killing fragments called canister, ripping big holes in the ranks of the advancing infantry.
At intervals they pause, these men including 18-year-old Elijah Blankenship, pressing forward in a great charge within a great battle, shrunken down to the field of fire immediately in front of him, to comrades falling and others plunging onward with him, maybe feeling the adrenalin rush that deludes one into feeling physically all-powerful at the same time the mind tells you how very small you are in such a great event.
Their ranks thinning, they come under rifle fire, the Union infantry in their front protected by a stone wall, reloading and firing as fast as they can. The Confederates fall faster and faster, but the survivors plunge on. They are stopped briefly by a rail fence, and help one another scramble over it, tumbling in masses on the other side.
As they re-form, they quicken their pace a little, leaning against the bulleted wind of death, their bayoneted weapons on their shoulders. Now staring into the cannons’ mouths, the faces of Federal infantry visible through the smoke of battle, they drop their bayonets to charge, perhaps fire a round.
But now there are only a few. The remnants of Co. E and other soldiers of Armistead’s brigade charge into the intersection of stone walls known now as the Bloody Angle and there they come bayonet to bayonet with the enemy. Cannon rip giant holes in their ranks now, killing Union soldiers as well as Confederates. To urge his men on, General Armistead puts his hat atop his saber, waves it over his head, shouting, "Follow me, boys!" and steps over the stone wall, where he is shot away.
Perhaps 300 make it over the wall. Almost all who do are killed. Private Blankenship and a comrade somehow get through the first mass of Union fighters and run forward several yards before the companion collapses dead and Blankenship drops with four or five bullet wounds.
After this, the "High Water Mark of the Confederacy," the Confederacy’s brave, noble failure, has ebbed and Lee’s army prepares its retreat back to Virginia, burial details find amongst the heaps of dead at least one who is living, barely. This young man, Pleasant Blankenship.
We cannot know what this young man was thinking during this fateful attack. Did he feel fear? Probably. Did he think about running back, or of simply drifting away with other companions hauling wounded friends back to their own lines? Maybe. Did he pause or hesitate? We cannot, we do not, know.
What we do know is that he did not stop. What we do know is that he charged across that fatal ground, and that he did not stop. He did not stop until he could charge no farther. That is what this common soldier did, and that was uncommon. Let us not forget his example. Memorize it, ladies and gentlemen: Common people can do uncommon things.
We are pleased to have with us today three special guests from the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Jubal Early Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Join with me now in welcoming Mrs. Linda Nezbeth, here to participate in a special part of this ceremony.
[Mrs. Linda Nezbeth, Hazel Davis, and Maxine Dickerson place soil from the Blankenship family plot on Private Blankenship’s grave. The color guard, consisting of the Missouri State Guard Engineers and elements of the 2nd Missouri Confederate Infantry Regt., appearing as soldiers of the 57th Virginia, march into firing position and fire a three-volley salute. The flag is lowered, folded, and the captain of the guard kneels and presents it with heartfelt words to the Virginia visitors.]
3. "What did you do in the war, Daddy, or Grandpa?" "Were you a hero?" Nearly every veteran hears that question in one form or another at some point. We do not know exactly where the Pigg River Greys stood in the pantheon of American combat units, but surely it ranked high among them.
In his book Band of Brothers Stephen Ambrose nominated for those ranks another Company E, World War II’s highly decorated Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, which fought with distinction at D-Day, Market Garden, and Bastogne at the Battle of the Bulge.
Came the time years later, when a survivor of that extraordinary combat unit heard the question from his grandson, and we can wonder if Private Blankenship had a similarly gracious answer.
"Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?" asked the boy.
His grandfather paused and then replied, "No, but I served in a company of heroes."
We will not disturb you further today, old Pleasant Blankenship. God bless you. And God bless us all as long as America is able to produce such uncommon common people.
[Note: The research contribution of Mark Douglas, historian of the Elijah Gates Camp, to the above remarks is gratefully acknowledged.]
SENTIMENTS FROM VIRGINIA
By Mrs. Linda Nezbeth, Jubal Early Chapter 553,
United Daughters of the Confederacy
To all who are assembled here today: I am honored to bring you greetings from the Jubal Early Chapter #553, United Daughters of the Confederacy, Franklin County, Virginia. My name is Linda Nezbeth, and I am a member of the Jubal Early Chapter. I would like to introduce two other members of my chapter who are also here today: Hazel Davis and Maxine Dickerson.
We are privileged to join you today in honoring Elijah Blankenship, a native of Franklin County, Va., who, like thousands of other brave sons of Franklin County, left his home and family to join the Confederate forces to repel the invasion of troops from the United States of America into his beloved Commonwealth of Virginia, part of a new nation called the Confederate States of America.
As members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, we honor all men and women who served, and those who fell in service to, the Confederacy. We are humbled by their bravery, amazed by their tenacity, in awe of their ingenuity, and forever proud of the strength, dedication, and determination of that gray line. We cherish the memory of men such as Elijah Blankenship. Through our stated goals of historical, educational, benevolent, memorial, and patriotic, we will ensure that the next generation, and all generations thereafter, will know and treasure their Southern birthright which is so rich in glory and honor.
Although Elijah Blankenship spent his postwar years in Callaway County, Mo., the remainder of his immediate family lived, died, and are buried in Franklin County. His parents and some of his siblings, including his brother, William Jefferson, who was a private in Co. E, 58th Virginia Infantry, are buried in the Blankenship family cemetery in Union Hall, Franklin County, Virginia.
Being native Virginians, we are sure that, although he came to love his adopted state of Missouri, there was always a special place in his heart for the beauty, tranquility, and majesty of the tall mountains, green valleys, and clear running creeks of Franklin County. In Virginia, we have our own version of a well-known saying: Southern by Birth, Virginian by the Grace of God. Being a Virginian is not only a birthright, it is a way of life. Although her sons and daughters may venture far away from her borders, Virginia’s ties are strong and everlasting.
To honor Elijah today, we have brought part of Franklin County, Va., with us, a gift to remain forever more with him. A gift to not only eternally bind Elijah with his native land, but also with his beloved family. We have with us some soil that we gathered from the Blankenship family cemetery, specifically from the gravesite of his brother, William Jefferson. It is with both heartfelt respect and love that we now sprinkle this Virginia soil on one of her own, a Franklin County soldier who so honored her with his valor. In memory of Elijah Blankenship, Private, Co. E, 57th Virginia Infantry, we now hereby commit this Virginia soil to him.
The Kingdom of Callaway Historical Society has reproduced the comments of Mr. Martin Northway and other speakers as delivered, unedited, without their digressions.