Monday, September 22, 2014


Note: I offer the following biographical sketch as an example of what can be done to make what could have been merely a dry recitation of dates into something that is (hopefully) much more interesting!


Benjamin Franklin Ellis was the son of Levi Ellis and Anna Johnson. He was born in Hampshire County, Virginia (later West Virginia) on December 17, 1846. The family moved to Stark County, Illinois (near Peoria) by 1854.

B. F. Ellis enlisted in the 47th Illinois Infantry Regiment, Company A, at Peoria on August 16, 1861. His brother, George Washington Ellis, also enlisted in the 47th Illinois Infantry, Co. K, on September 17, 1861. George died of disease (measles) while stationed at Jefferson City, Missouri on November 28, 1861, and was buried in the National Cemetery there. Several other brothers also served: Levi T. Ellis was a private in the 33rd Illinois Infantry Regiment, Co. H, and Thomas Jefferson Ellis served as a private in the 2nd Illinois Artillery Regiment, Battery A.

The 47th Illinois was initially sent to St. Louis, where it was equipped and received basic military instruction at Benton Barracks. It performed garrison duty at Jefferson City and later Otterville, Missouri, then was moved to Tennessee in mid-April 1862, shortly after the Battle of Shiloh. The 47th participated in the offensive against Corinth, Mississippi, in May-October 1862. Colonel William Thrush and Captain David De Wolf of the regiment were killed in action during the Battle of Corinth on October 3-4, 1862, while Captain Harmon Andrews was badly wounded and taken prisoner. The regiment lost 30 killed and 100 wounded in this engagement.

The 47th next took part in the Vicksburg campaign and siege. The men stood guard duty, loaded and unloaded steamers, and worked for a time on Grant's ill-fated canal. The regiment lost 12 men killed in a charge on the rebel works on May 22, 1863. After the fall of Vicksburg on July 3, 1863, the men were moved to Tennessee, where they guarded railroads and took part in operations against Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry.

The regiment was next part of the Red River campaign in Arkansas, losing 11 men in an engagement with General Marmaduke at Lake Chicot in June 1864. In July 1864, members of the regiment were given the option of receiving their discharge or re-enlisting in the Army. Enough regiment members did so (around one hundred of them) that they were allowed to form the 47th Consolidated Illinois Infantry Regiment. Men re-enlisting received $402 and a 30-day furlough. After a trip back to Stark County, B. F. Ellis took his place as a Corporal in Company A of the 47th Consolidated Illinois Infantry Regiment in August 1864.

Corporal Ellis was captured in September 1864 outside Memphis, Tennessee by Bedford Forrest's cavalry while the regiment was moving to Missouri via Tennessee and Arkansas to help repel Sterling Price's invasion of that state. During his capture, he received an injury to his left eye that resulted in the loss of sight in that eye.

He was sent to Cahaba Prison in Alabama, where he was confined until spring 1865. Cahaba Prison was located at Selma, Alabama, near the confluence of the Cahaba and Alabama Rivers. Prisoners were kept in buildings in which no bedding had been provided, so they slept on the cold stone floors. In mid-February 1865 the Alabama River overflowed its banks, and prisoners stood in waist-high icy water for four days. 3,000-5,000 prisoners were confined at Cahaba during its two years of operation. Each man was allotted about six square feet of space, at a time when not especially generous U.S. Army regulations required at least 42 square feet per man. While confined at Cahaba, B. F. Ellis contracted scurvy, which (along with continuous exposure to the elements) caused him problems for the rest of his life.

B. F. Ellis can be considered one of the luckier members of the 47th Illinois Infantry, however, in spite of his injury, prison experiences, and later health problems. The regiment lost five officers and 58 enlisted men killed and mortally wounded, and three officers and 184 enlisted men by disease (including B. F.'s brother, George), for a total of 250 men who never came home.

After a brief period of hospitalization, B. F. Ellis (who was promoted to Sergeant shortly after his return from Cahaba) was discharged from the Army on May 30, 1865, at Springfield, Illinois. He returned to Stark County, remaining there until 1868, when he moved to DePue, Illinois (Bureau County). He worked as a laborer for the railroad, and later as a janitor at the public school in DePue.

B. F. applied for a disability pension on March 4, 1887, basing his claim on the injury to his eye that occurred during his capture, and on the debilitating effects of the scurvy contracted and exposure suffered at Cahaba Prison. He was awarded a pension of eight dollars per month, which was increased several times before his death.

In spite of his health problems, B. F. lived a long life, dying finally at the age of 92 on December 3, 1939 at Hines Veterans Hospital near Chicago. He is buried just outside DePue, Illinois, at the village cemetery in Selby Township. As a boy I picked blackberries with my parents many times in the area near the cemetery.

Grave of Benjamin Franklin Ellis

I am descended from B. F.'s son, George Franklin Ellis. George died before I was born, but his wife, Louisa Giesey Ellis, my great-grandmother, lived until 1965, and I visited her numerous times at the nursing home she lived in at Princeton, Illinois. I never did ask her any questions about her father-in-law, B. F. Ellis, though, because I was eleven years old when she died, and at that point I knew little and cared less about my family history. I certainly wish now that I'd shown more interest.

Tom Pearson

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