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Liberty Rider

Death Not Written In Blood

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Originally Published in The Atlanta Journal, 12 Apr 1931

 

"Major, tell my father I died with my face to the enemy. I. E. Avery."

This message, one of the most stirring ever written, is displayed in the Hall of History, the museum of the North Carolina Historical Commission, in Raleigh. It was penned with the life blood of Colonel Isaac Erwin Avery, of the Sixth Regiment, North Carolina State Troops, who was mortally wounded in the late afternoon of the second battle of Gettysburg. His superior officer having already been wounded, Colonel Avery was commanding Hoke's Brigade in the charge up Cemetery Heights when he fell.

 

Shot from his horse and aware that he was dying far from his comrades, Colonel Avery's first thought was of his aged father, Isaac Erwin Avery, Sr., who lived near Morganton, N.C. The soldier's right hand was paralyzed from his wound, but, by using his left hand, he drew a scrap of coarse paper from his pocket. Plucking a twig from a nearby bush, he dipped it into his swiftly flowing blood, and scrawled the message, which was addressed to his friend, Major Samuel McDowell Tate. The note reached the elder Avery a week after his gallant son had been buried on the battlefield.

 

Thousands have gazed upon Colonel Avery's "message from the grave," and other thousands have received a surge of inspiration upon hearing it recounted in sermons and stories.

 

On the occasion of the unveiling of a statue to Sir Walter Raleigh, the Englishman for whom the North Carolina capital was named, Theodore Roosevelt, then President of the United States, stood before a distinguished gathering in the Hall of History. In his big, expressive hands, the President held the little scrap of yellow, blood-stained paper. Slowly he read aloud the almost illegible message. His hands trembled, his eyes filled with tears; he became almost speechless with emotion. Then as if the little paper were some holy thing, he passed it to Lord James Bryce, Britain's minister to the United States.

 

The English minister read the paper, studied it for a moment, and passed it back. "President Roosevelt," he said, "we have nothing to compare with this in the British Museum."

 

A great hush fell upon the audience for a moment, as silence paid tribute to a courage that rose far above sectionalism and beyond the bounds of nations. The two statesmen who stood reading this note saw only a youthful colonel leading his men into battle, dashing so far ahead of them that when he fell, dying, he found himself alone. They cared not whether he lived north or south, whether he was born American or English. They knew he lived a soldier and died a hero. They saw, without being told, that the ink he used was his own blood, and his pen some chance twig that lay in reach of the left hand, with which he laboriously wrote.

 

"Tell my father I died with my face to the enemy."

 

The simple little message, read aloud by the American President, burned its way into every pulsing heart. It is a sentence which sums up all of life's battles into one triumphant, grand Amen.

 

A week after the battle in which Colonel Avery was killed, an old southern gentleman sat alone on the porch of his country home in the Carolina hills, near Morganton He was thinking of his five boys, out on various battlefields, praying that all was well with them, when his thoughts were broken by a sudden excitement among the negroes. Lige, the body-servant of their young Marse Isaac, was approaching! But the cries of joy suddenly were hushed, for Lige was coming home alone.

 

The old man saw the servant at about the same time the negroes did, and he too, was straining for the sight of his great, tall son and namesake. But the negro was alone. The father shook himself to throw off an anxious thought. He hoped his son had just stopped somewhere on his way home, and was sending his man on ahead with a message. He could not know how true it was that the negro was bringing a message from his boy. As Lige slowly neared, the house, there was no mistaking his mission. His hesitating gait, his abject appearance, all too eloquently told the tragic story he was bringing. When he at last reached the porch, he made a deep bow to his aged master. Very quietly and simply he told how his young Marse Isaac had been killed at Gettysburg. The old man accepted the little note which had been found in the colonel's still hand; it was mute evidence of the struggle his son had made to bring comfort to his lonely heart. Then his boy's sword and watch were gently laid upon his knee.

 

The servant stood back, not willing to intrude upon the first moments of his master's sorrow. After what seemed an endless silence, Mr Avery looked up as if he had forgotten that Lige was there. A slow nod of his head indicated that he was now ready to hear the story.

 

"Old Marse," the man choked, "I did all I could for young Master. He called me to him the night before he was killed, and told me if anything happened to him in the charge the next day, I was to bring his sword and watch to you. He did look so grand the next day, when he rode away. But I am sure he felt he would never come back, for he was so particular about telling me good-bye. And then he turned back and called to me, saying, 'Remember my orders, Lige.'

 

"It was late in the afternoon when the message came back to headquarters that Marse Isaac had been killed. The battle was still raging, but I started right out to find him, hoping he had only been wounded. I hunted for hours, looking in every direction, until night came upon me. I was stumbling around, almost ready to give up, when I looked around and there he lay right by me, the moon shining on his peaceful face and in his hand this little note that I knew was meant for you.

 

"Marse Isaac had fallen nearer the enemy than any other man, Old Marse. He died leading his soldiers right into the face of the guns. Major Tate and me buried him there on the very top of Cemetery Heights, where he had fallen."

 

The last command of his young master obeyed, the negro Lige felt that his life's work was ended, and he never wanted to leave the old plantation. Through the long years that followed, his thoughts never wandered far from his "Marse Isaac," who had stood 6 foot 2 in his stocking feet, unmatched by any man in the section for physical strength.

 

"People from all parts of the world, " remarked the curator of the Hall of History, "have come to read this message. Besides Roosevelt, Presidents Taft & Wilson visited the hall to see it. Many and many a sermon has been preached on it."

 

"I died with my face to the enemy."

 

What more could any son say or any father wish to hear?

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