Friday, June 6, 2014

The 48th/150th: Agnes Allison's Sacrifice. . .The Story of the Allison Brothers of Port Carbon

The Allison Brothers
(from Schuylkill County in the Civil War)
150 years ago. . .In homes throughout Schuylkill County, tears were shed as the families either received the letters of company commanders or read in the newspaper that their son, husband, brother, father had been killed in action in far-away Virginia, near a place called Cold Harbor.
But few--very few--throughout the entire nation, perhaps, would shed more tears or mourned as deeply as Mrs. Agnes Allison of Port Carbon, Pennsylvania.
On June 3, 1864. . .150 years ago. . .she laid to rest her son, George, who had been mortally wounded at Spotsylvania. On that very same day, as she watched the coffin containing George's body be lowered into the ground within the confines of the Presbyterian Cemetery in Port Carbon, and over a hundred miles away, her son James Allison was killed in action while serving with the 48th Pennsylvania at Cold Harbor.
James Allison would be the fourth son Agnes Allison lost in the Civil War.  . . . .

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The small community of Port Carbon, situated along the Schuylkill River two miles northeast of Pottsville in the anthracite rich coal regions of east-central Pennsylvania, boasts a proud Civil War history. Founded in the early 1800s and incorporated as a borough in 1852, Port Carbon grew quickly from a few sparse settlements to a thriving market town of nearly 2,000 inhabitants by 1860. The site of the first lock on Schuylkill Canal, Port Carbon flourished from the shipment of coal extracted from the many mines surrounding the town. The canal and the coalmines offered plenty of work, especially for the thousands of western European immigrants who flocked to Schuylkill County during the antebellum years, seeking a better life. And when the war did break out, many of these immigrants were quick to take up arms in defense of their adopted country, joining and fighting alongside the thousands of Schuylkill County natives who also responded to their country’s call. From Port Carbon and its neighboring coal patches alone came no fewer than 513 volunteers who donned the Union blue from 1861-1865. 

Port Carbon Soldiers' Monument
To honor the services of these men, Port Carbon, in 1904, erected a tall soldiers’ monument on the summit of Goat Hill, a high eminence that rises above the town. Consisting of a twenty-two-foot zinc pedestal with a bronze, six foot bronze statue of a soldier on top, standing at parade rest, this soldiers’ monument is quite typical of those one can still find standing in hundreds of small towns across the nation, in both the North and the South.

But in Port Carbon there stands another Civil War memorial, one not so typical. Though more modest and much smaller in size, this memorial stands in the Presbyterian Church Cemetery over the grave of Agnes Allison. Known locally as the Mother Allison Memorial, this monument was placed there not to pay tribute to soldiers, but to honor the sacrifice of Agnes Allison, an immigrant from Scotland, who, during the course of the conflict lost four of her sons, all killed in action.

Born in 1807, Agnes was twenty-one-years-old when she married Andrew Allison in Aragask, Scotland, in 1828. Over the next eighteen years, Agnes gave birth to six sons before her husband Andrew’s death in August 1845. A local history of Port Carbon notes that upon her own death in 1883, Agnes Allison had been a resident of the community for thirty years, meaning that she and her sons had emigrated from Scotland and settled in Port Carbon sometime in the early 1850s, after Andrew’s death. Several of Agnes’s sons found work as boatmen on the Schuylkill Canal while another, Alexander, found gainful employment as a blacksmith. With the outbreak of civil war, however, the Allison boys were quick to leave their civilian occupations behind to take up arms in defense of their adopted country.

Twenty-six-year-old Alexander Allison and his older brother James were first to march off to war, as members of two local militia companies that had been raised in response to President Lincoln’s April 15, 1861, call for 75,000 men to serve a ninety-day enlistment. Witnessing no action during this three-month stint, both Alexander and James reenlisted in the summer of 1861, signing up this time to serve for “three years, or the course of the war,” whichever came first. James Allison now entered the ranks of Company M, 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry, while Alexander enlisted as the First Sergeant in Company C, 96th Pennsylvania Infantry. He was joined in the 96th by his brother John, who at age twenty-one, was the youngest of the four Allison boys to serve. The oldest was George Allison who enlisted in February 1862 as a thirty-two-year-old private in Company K, 56th Pennsylvania. The widow Agnes Allison’s anxiety must have been great as she watched four of her six sons answer the call and depart for war.
The 96th Pennsylvania Infantry
Recruited largely from Schuylkill County
Alexander and John Allison Served in the 96th PA
(from the Library of Congress)

The first of the Allison brothers to fall were John and Alexander, who were both struck down on May 3, 1863, during the Battle of Salem Church. The two had served side-by-side in the 96th since the summer of 1861 and had survived the worst the war threw at them during the Seven Days’ Battles and at Crampton’s Gaps, where the 96th suffered particularly heavy losses. Alexander Allison was among the wounded at Crampton’s Gap but he had recovered in time to rejoin the regiment for the spring 1863 Chancellorsville campaign. On May 1, 1863, Alexander was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant; his younger brother John, by this time, had worked his way up to corporal. Just two days after Alexander’s promotion, the 96th was again called into action, and again the regiment suffered heavily. Emerging from a woodlot just south of Salem Church, the 96th came under a galling fire from the Alabamians of Cadmus Wilcox’s brigade, sparking a bitter stand-up fight between the two sides. “Volley after volley was fired,” remembered Captain Jacob Haas of the 96th, but the regiment “could not break the rebel position.” Haas remembered seeing the newly-minted Lieutenant Allison repeatedly ordering his men to load and fire, before a bullet slammed into his right side, dropping him to the ground. In the chaos of this battle, Alexander’s younger brother John was also struck down. Noted Haas, “It’s not known whether John Allison was killed before Alex was wounded. But during this heavy fire fight with minnie balls flying in every direction, John was dropped and instantly killed. . . .”

Salem Church

Alexander Allison was carried from the field and taken to a hospital at nearby Aquia Creek where he drew his last breath two days later, on May 5, his heart heavy knowing by this time that his younger brother had been killed. It must have been a profound blow for Agnes Allison later that month when word arrived in Port Carbon that two of her sons were now dead. The Miners’ Journal, the leading newspaper of Schuylkill County, took notice of their death, writing that “The death of Lieutenant Allison and his brother is deeply regretted. Their kind dispositions and fine soldiering qualities made many warm friends who mourn their loss.” The editors of the Miners’ Journal also noted that Agnes Allison still had two sons in the service, although at this time, one of them—James Allison—was just then back at home, recovering from what was a grievous injury.

The Grave of Lt. Alexander Allison
Fredericksburg National Cemetery  
(Brother John is most likely buried as an 'unknown' in the same cemetery)

While Alexander and John Allison had joined the 96th and older brother George served in the 56th Pennsylvania, James Allison enlisted instead in the mounted arm, serving as a private in the 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry. On January 15, 1863, however, James was discharged from the regiment. He had been thrown hard against the pommel of his horse’s saddle, resulting in an injury that required him to use catheters for the next four months. James was thus recovering at home when word of Alexander’s and John’s deaths arrived. Still, their deaths did not deter James from reentering the service. In late February 1864, while the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry was home in Schuylkill County on veteran’s furlough, James, a pre-war boatman on the Schuylkill Canal, signed up once more to fight, this time as a private in Company G of the hard-fighting 48th.

With its ranks replenished, the soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry once more departed their Schuylkill County homes in late March 1864, with orders to proceed to Annapolis where their fellow regiments of the 9th Army Corps were just then rendezvousing. Again, for the third time, James Allison was leaving home, no doubt leaving his mother behind with tears filling her eyes. Heavy combat lay ahead for the 48th at the Wilderness in early May but especially a week later at Spotsylvania where, on May 12, the regiment lost 26 men killed or mortally wounded, 92 men wounded, and 11 more missing in action. The price paid by the 48th that bloody Thursday at Spotsylvania was high, but James Allison emerged from this slaughter unscathed.

The same could not be said, however, for James’s older brother George, serving in the ranks of the 56th Pennsylvania. Even as James Allison and the men of 48th were attacking Harry Heth’s Confederate division on the Confederate right, George Allison and the 56th Pennsylvania were charging General Charles Field’s Confederate division well-positioned atop Laurel Hill on the opposite end of the line. It was a forlorn effort and the slopes of Laurel Hill were soon awash in a sea of blue and red. The 56th formed part of Edward Fowler’s brigade of Lysander Cutler’s Fifth Corps division. Cutler led his division forward, with two brigades up front, followed by two, including Fowler’s, in support. And while casualties were particularly heavy in the front line, those in the back suffered as well. Confederate general Charles Field acknowledged the bravery of the Federals in this attack, stating that their effort was a “determined” one, but, as he was quick to point out, they were “repulsed with great slaughter.” Thirty-three-year-old George Allison, who, like his brother James, was a boatman before the war laboring along the Schuylkill Canal, was shot down and mortally wounded that day. He clung desperately to life for the next eleven days before passing away on May 23.

The remains of George Allison were brought back to Port Carbon for interment. A grief-stricken Agnes Allison buried her oldest son in the graveyard of the Presbyterian Church on June 3. Three of her sons were now gone, leaving only James still in uniform. And even as she buried George, Agnes’s thoughts were no doubt turned to James, fighting in some far off field, over a hundred miles away from home. But what she could not then know—and as if the story of Agnes Allison and her sons were not tragic enough—on June 3, on the very same day George Allison was being laid to rest in Port Carbon and even as Agnes was returning home from the funeral, James Allison was drawing his last breath.

Private James Allison
Company G, 48th PA
Having survived the storm at Spotsylvania, James Allison and the men of the 48th Pennsylvania next found themselves heavily engaged at the Battle of Cold Harbor. It was during this fight on June 3 that James Allison received a mortal wound, dying just a few hours after being struck down.

The remains of James Allison were later buried in the Richmond National Cemetery; those of Alexander were interred at the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. Confederate soldiers buried the body of John Allison somewhere near Salem Church, though it is likely he was later exhumed and buried as an “Unknown” in the same cemetery as his older brother Alexander. Only the body of George Allison returned home to Port Carbon for burial.
The Grave of James Allison, 48th PA
Richmond National Cemetery

It is impossible to imagine the anguish and devastation felt by Agnes Allison, having lost four of her sons in the Civil War. Their deaths left a void in her life and in her heart as she did her best to continue to provide a home and bring up her two remaining sons, Andrew and David.

Peace finally came to Agnes Allison on April 3, 1887, when she passed away at the age of 80.   Her remains were buried next to her son George, already twenty-three years in the grave.

Agnes Allison may have taken some consolation after the war in knowing that the veterans of the local Port Carbon chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic honored the Allison brothers by naming their post after them. Indeed, it was this Allison Brothers Post of the G.A.R. that led the effort to have the soldiers’ monument placed atop Goat Hill in 1904. And it was this same post that three years later led the effort to place a memorial on the grave of Agnes Allison, to pay tribute to her and her great sacrifice.        
The Mother Allison Memorial in the Presbyterian Cemetery
Port Carbon, Pennsylvania
Agnes and her son George are buried here. . .

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. According to, the idea for "Saving Private Ryan" first came to a film writer in 1994 when he saw the Allison memorial in Port Carbon.