DescriptionUnion Surgeon John Avery Archive comprised of over one hundred and thirty letters and other related documents, including a hand-drawn map of Chattanooga and a hand-written essay spanning the years 1861 through 1876, the overwhelming majority of which are war-dated.
Dr. John Avery (1824-1914) had practiced medicine for fifteen years before enlisting as a surgeon in the 21st Michigan Infantry Regiment on August 26, 1862. Avery wrote home often and provided his family with detailed descriptions of the sick and wounded which filled the hospitals. He also provided first-hand accounts of the Battles of Perryville, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, and Bentonville, Sherman's March to the Sea, and an emotional look at the state of the Union army following the death of President Lincoln.
Dr. Avery had just arrived in Louisville, Kentucky, on October 1, 1862, when he wrote home to his wife saying, "...this Division of our Army is moving off. And I suppose the whole army is in motion south." One week later, Avery and the men of the 21st experience their first taste of combat at the Battle of Perryville: "October 10, 1862...Day before yesterday I witnessed the first battle of my life and one of the severest of the war...I was in imminent danger for about an hour, but received no harm...The Battle commenced at day brake [sic], and lasted until dark. Our position was in the center and our Brigade supported a Battery...The enemy twice attempted to carry it but were repulsed with tremendous slaughter. Our regiment did not suffer much, only five wounded, but all severely." In addition to his own men, Avery tended to the rebel wounded as well: "I dressed a good many wounded rebels. They were mostly intelligent men. And all seemed perfectly satisfied of the hopelessness of their cause. One of them remarked that it was of no use to raise a storm to meet a Hurrycane [sic]." The following day, he writes that he is "...in charge of the wounded of this Division...I have already seen more service than I expected when I left home...and the prospect now is that I shall see much more." The fighting continued "...with what result I am unable to say...The general impression is, that [Gen. Braxton] Bragg is in a tight place, and will do well if he gets out with a whole hide. Lew Wallace's army is certainly in his front, and [Gen. Don Carlos] Buel[l] is in his rear. But Rebels have a wonderful faculty of slipping away from our folks, and Bragg may get away."
In early November, Avery was transferred to Danville, Kentucky, where he is posted to one of the army's hospitals. He received orders to head to Nashville in "the Sunny South," but remained in Danville until December 16. In the meantime, orders were received from the colonel of his regiment to head south or he would "...report me to the Govenor [sic], if I do not report immediately to the Reg. The Medical Director here refuses to let me go, and so informed the colonel..." Having spent some time in Kentucky, he feels confident in commenting on her allegiance: "The loyalty of Kentucky is as doubtful as ever...if it were not for the presents [sic] of our Army that she would go out of the Union before the first day of January next. The Louisville Journal is as much a sesesh [sic] paper as the Richmond Enquirer." By the end of the year, he found himself back with his regiment and on the march through Tennessee, encountering resistance along the way: "There has been constant cannonading along the whole line of march."
Writing home on Jan 5, 1863, he relates the particulars of his "capture" at the recent Battle of Murfreesboro: "The new year found me a prisoner in the hands of the rebels...Sheridans Division lost about 100 men. On Wednesday morning...the enemy commenced a furious assault upon our right flank and succeeded in turning it; and drove our forces steadily back...capturing our Hospitals, Surgeons, wounded & nurses. The fighting was terriffic [sic] all day." He soon found himself in the thick of the fighting: "When our forces fell back in the Hospital...I was between the two fires. A cannon shot passed through the building killing four men. We were ordered to leave - but as the 21st were posted near the house and the wounded men coming in I did not leave, until it became impossible to get nurses to the field. I then went to the nearest hospital...Hardly had I arrived at the Hospital before the rebels charged past [sic] it with cheers. Several men and horses in the yard were killed & wounded...I had the honor of making the acquaintance of [Confederate] Gens [William J.] Hardee & [Benjamin F.] Cheatham...As soon as their lines passed I went back to the Hospital we first established...The rebels retreated during Saturday night, and Sunday morning found us in the hands or our friends." Also included is a second letter to his wife, dated two days later, where he gives a detailed description of the battle itself.
Dr. Avery stayed near Murfreesboro until the latter part of June, when the regiment was back on the move, slowly heading south toward Alabama, the rebels having "...contented themselves so far in annoying our advances, destroying bridges, felling trees &c. At Tullahoma we expected a fight, as the place was strongly fortified...But they gave us very little trouble." By August 2, they had crossed "...the mountains on the line between the States of Alabama & Tennessee," and were soon occupying the town of Bridgeport.
The month of September 1863 finds them at Chattanooga, Tennessee. In an undated letter home, Avery sent a hand drawn map of the city of Chattanooga and the surrounding area, denoting the positions of both the Union and Confederate armies. On the verso, he has written: "On the other side I send you a rough drawing of our position at this place. The point of Lookout Mountain near the river is where the Rebels have a Battery. The Rail Road runs between it and the river. Hooker holds Lookout Valley, the river and the rail road as far as the Pontoon Bridge. You see the Rebels yet hold the river above and below us."
On September 19 and 20, they engaged the Confederate army outside of Chattanooga at the Battle of Chickamauga. In a letter written during the last day of the battle [September 20], Avery gives an account of the fighting and the desperation felt by the Union army: "We have had two days of terrific fighting. Our army is slowly falling back on Chattanooga. The enemy is contiously [sic] following...Sheridans Divin was engaged both days and has suffered terriably [sic]." After listing the dead and wounded officers, he says, "We are preparing for a desperate stand at this place - the result of which you will know before this reaches you. Gen. [William H.] Lytle commanding our Brigade is [?] killed. I can hear heavy firing on our left. God knows who will be the next to fall." Avery survived the fighting at Chickamauga, writing again four days later, providing his wife a more detailed account of the particulars of the battle. On November 26, he gives a report of the Battle of Lookout Mountain, "...another three days battle, and...a glorious victory. The 21st was not engaged..." He and his regiment remained in Chattanooga for the rest of 1863 through November 1864, having been placed in the Corps of Engineers.
A year later, in late October-early November 1864, the regiment was "...assigned to the 2d Brigade, 1st Division & 14th Army Corps..." accompanying General William T. Sherman on his March to the Sea. During the march, Avery writes from outside of Cartersville, Georgia, on November 12 that "Every thing is being destroyed along the line of this road - Houses Barns & villages." One month later, on December 15, he writes again, now in front of Savannah: "We are now east of the city about four miles with Rebels in our front...Rebel shells and musket balls pass harmlessly over our heads every few moments. There is no time of day or night but that we can hear the sound of cannon and musketry on some part of our line...We hold the River and all the Rail Roads leading into Savannah and the fall of the city is only a question of time." The city surrendered on December 21, as Avery relates in a letter two days later: "The rebs left the city on the night of the 20th, and we entered in the morning of the 21st...The Rebels crossed the river into South Carolina. Gen. Foster is now after them..."
Avery stayed in Savannah until the end of January, when the regiment began the move north. He returned briefly to the city, "...in charge of the sick of the 14th Corps...," and rejoined the regiment on the march in early February. By mid-March they had reached Fayetteville, North Carolina, and found themselves engaged against General Joseph E. Johnston and his Army of Tennessee at the Battle of Bentonville, March 19-21, 1865: "Soon after leaving Fayetteville we met Gen Johnson [Johnston] with his rebel army...A sharp battle ensued in which Johnson was driven off...On the 19th inst we found him again...He attacked the 1st Div. 14th A. C. and forced it back...he was disappointed as the 2nd Div. and one Brig. of the 20th corps came up in time to save us...The next day was occupied in concentrating our army...and on the 21st we attacked and drove him off in considerable disorder."
Still in North Carolina, the regiment received welcome news "...of Grants terrible fight in front of Petersburgh [sic], and also a dispatch stating that our forces were in possession of both Richmond & Petersburgh...The army here was wild with enthusiasm over the glorious news." On April 9, Avery writes home that he has spied a telegram from Grant to Sherman, reading, "I am pressing Lee hard, and shall continue to do so until the end Press Johnson [sic] at the same time and let us finish up this job at once." The joyful news continues regarding the surrender of Lee, "We entered Raleigh on the 14th inst...News of Gen Lees surrender reached us the day before," but hope comes quickly to an end. "April 19th 65...In the midst of our rejoicing at the prospect of an early peace, comes the terrible news that our beloved President is murdered. The feeling in the army is too deep for utterence [sic]- between sorrow for his death and fear for its consequence...I dread to see this army move again, under the terrible and suppressed feeling of hate this act of the Assassin has created."
Following Johnston's surrender to Sherman, the 21st is back on the move, this time toward home: "...before this letter reaches you [his wife], you will have heard of the surrender of Johnson's [sic] army, and the march of Gen. Sherman's homeward. We are to be in Richmond by the middle of May, and in Washington the last of the month or the first of June. But for the terrible gloom which hangs over us, caused by the death of our beloved President, our joy would know no bounds."
Avery returned to Detroit, Michigan, via Richmond and Washington, D.C., where he mustered out of service in June 1865. He returned home to Otisco and resumed his medical practice. In 1868 he was elected to the Michigan state legislature.
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