A True Daughter of the Confederacy
By Kathryn Gray-White
Reprinted with permission from Athens Magazine, Athens, Georgia, l999
Martha Belle Elder Harris said that after her father returned to Clarke County from the War Between the States, he never referred to his conquerors as "Damn Yankees" like most other Southerners. Although he was shot through his right lung during the Battle of Gettysburg and imprisoned at notorious Point Lookout, for the next 57 years Joe Elder told his descendants that he was just thankful that those Yankees hauled him out of the mud near the infamous Cemetery Ridge.
Martha Elder Harris, now 87, is a True Daughter of the Confederacy, a title conferred by the United Daughters of the Confederacy on children of Confederate veterans. She is one of only 30 True Daughters left in Georgia.
Born in 1912 to 67-year-old William Joseph "Joe" Elder and his third wife, 44-year-old Alice Rachel Shelnutt, Martha is a direct link to firsthand accounts of what turn-of-the century Southerners simply called "The War." "One thing I can remember is that, as a child, I never felt negative toward Yankees because they saved my father's life," Martha said.
Southerners have a continuing interest in the Civil War, an interest that is growing in other parts of the country. The popularity of the fictional Cold Mountain and the continued publication of nonfiction books such as the Civil War Trust's Official Guide to the Civil War Discovery Traits attest to this interest. And Civil War buffs in the thousands stage various battle reenactments throughout the year. Last summer a reenactment at Gettysburg drew over 35,000 military and civilian participants and crowds estimated at 300,000, according to newspaper reports.
Confederate veteran Joe Elder left his youngest daughter, Martha, a legacy of war stories and a rich family history that dates back to another war, the American Revolution. The Elder family was one of the first settlers in 1807 near Big and Little Rose Creeks in what was Clarke and is now Oconee County.
Today Rose Creek still flows rapidly past the Elder Grist Mill and beneath the Elder Covered Bridge in Oconee County. This bridge is one of 10 covered bridges left in Georgia and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Nearby, the Elder Cemetery holds the remains of some of the family pioneers, but the original home place is gone. A portion of the land, however, is still owned by Martha.
She said it was appraised at $30 to $50 an acre when she inherited it in 1920 but today, because of the massive growth in Oconee County, it has been appraised as high as $6,000 an acre.
"I haven't had any income from it in years, but the taxes have gone up. And the thing I hear among the older people is that the changes have been so great and so rapid. I think everybody wants growth, but it came so suddenly. You used to know everybody," Martha said. "It was great to live in Oconee County, but now most local people can't even afford to retire here."
Martha, however, has no plans to sell this land, part of the original grant to her Revolutionary ancestor David Elder: "To me it's like a sacred trust. I'm holding it to pass it down to future generations."
Sergeant William Joseph Elder, CSA
One hot July day, Martha Harris talked about another hot day, July 2, 1863, the day her father was wounded and left for dead on the Gettysburg battlefield.
Virginia was where Joe Elder's great-grandfather, Scottish immigrant John Ephram Elder, entered America with great expectations for his family and his descendants. According to the History of the Elder Family, his son, John E. Elder 11, married Mary Mathews and produced two sons, Joshua and David. John 11 was a colonel during the Revolution, which he fought alongside his sons.
For his service in the Revolution, David was granted a large tract of land in Georgia. He moved here in 1807, and eventually David Elder was regarded as the "father of Oconee County."
Born in 1809, Doctor Williamson Elder was one of 15 children David fathered. The name David gave to his son has often been a subject of interest, for "Doctor" was his first name and does not indicate a medical degree.
Martha's father, Joe Elder, born on July 18, 1844, was one of 19 children raised by Doctor and Malinda Holloway Elder near Rose Creek.
Little is known about Joe Elder's early years on Rose Creek, but just two days after his 17th birthday, August 20, 1861, he joined the Clarke County Rifles and left Georgia to fight a war. The Clarke County Rifles, also known as Company L, Third Regiment, Georgia Volunteer Infantry, was comprised of Watkinsville area men. It eventually became part of the Army of Northern Virginia.
During his service Joe participated in numerous engagements, beginning with the Seven Pines battle in 1862. By June 1863, he marched with Brig. Gen. A.R.Wright's Brigade, R.H. Anderson's Division, in the Gettysburg Campaign.
According to the regimental history, early on the morning on July 2, Wright's Brigade took a position on Seminary Ridge (which should not be confused with Cemetery Ridge) behind a wall of loose rocks piled by another unit the night before. By midafternoon, the men heard the boom of artillery and musketry as Lt. Gen. James Longstreet fought to the right. Wright had been told that when the brigade to his right moved, he should move forward to attack.
When the Third Georgia Infantry advanced in the late afternoon, it was met with a solid wall of shot but managed to cross a rock fence on Cemetery Ridge and take possession of enemy artillery. However, the brigade to the right did not advance as far as the Third Infantry and the brigade on the left did not move at all. Wright's Brigade was driven into the Federal lines like a wedge. Trapped, the Third retreated and lost more men than in the advance. Exhausted and faint b because of the July sun, prisoners were easily taken.
Only 200 of the original 600 would live to fight again.
During the night of July 2, the dead and wounded were removed by their comrades. Pickett's Charge, led by Confederate Gen. George Pickett, took place on July 3, and it was said that by July 4 the train of wounded stretched 14 miles as Gen. Robert E. Lee withdrew his army.
Georgian Joe Elder, however, was left behind. As rain soaked the field the night of July 2, mud miraculously seeped into his wound, stopping the blood flow from the large hole through his right lung. Union stretcher bearers searching for their wounded lifted 18-year-old Joe from the mud.
"He lay on the battlefield about six hours," Martha Harris said. Taken to a surgical area where medical treatment was provided for both sides, he received a quick examination.
According to Martha, he overheard the doctors say not to bother with him because he was too near death. Then someone approached and requested the names of his next-of-kin for notification. This is when Joe spoke up and said, "Back home they say, 'Where there's life there's hope."'
Impressed with the young boy's courage, the doctors at Hammond General Hospital decided to treat him. Several months later the doctors were mystified that Joe continued to survive. The cavern where a minieball had torn through his lung and exited just under his right shoulder blade had still not closed. For months the hole through his body remained and made him a curiosity.
On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln was in Pennsylvania to dedicate the Gettysburg National Cemetery, where bodies of both Union and Confederate soldiers are buried. During his tour of field hospitals he heard the story of a Georgia boy with a hole through his lung. President Lincoln made his way to the bedside of Joe Elder, the dauntless Georgia Cracker.
The story goes like this: During the visit, someone suggested that the president hand his silk, handkerchief to Joe for a demonstration, one that the sportive boy may have performed before. Joe took the cloth and poked it through the opening in the front of his chest and then offered the president an opportunity to pull it out from underneath his shoulder blade in his back!
"Daddy had the handkerchief until it went to dust," Martha said.
After his treatment at the Hammond Hospital, Joe was transferred as a prisoner of war to Point Lookout. This POW camp, established after the Battle Of Gettysburg, was located five feet above sea level on 30 acres in St. Mary's County, Md. Surrounded by water on three sides, it was the largest Union prison camp and held military and civilian prisoners, including women and children.
Extremely cold and icy in winter and smoldering hot in the summer, the Maryland weather contributed to the death of many prisoners, malaria, typhoid fever and small pox epidemics were common. Rations were minimal, and there are stories of prisoners eating rats, raw fish and even washed-up dead seagulls.
Martha said she had heard tales of a guard at Point Lookout who deliberately rode down prisoners. Today, the prisoners who died at Point Lookout rest in a mass grave under a towering obelisk.
Lucky Joe Elder, however, was one of the last prisoners to be exchanged before One North resolved to abandon the exchange program. In March 1864 he returned home to Rose Creek. He would never again meet the requirements for combat, but he rejoined his old regiment anyway.
Joe appears on the Muster Roll in August 1864. He re-entered the war as a third sergeant and served as wagon master. That year his regiment fought in the Wilderness Campaign, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor. Joe was with the Army of Northern Virginia when Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. U.S. Grant on April 9, 1865.
"Dad said when Lee called them together they hadn't had anything to eat but parched corn. Lee said he couldn't ask them to endure any more hardships," Martha said.
Joe walked back to Georgia after the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. Martha said he often told her and others the details of the Surrender. It was the story he liked best: "Lee rode Traveler in; the men formed an honor guard -- two lines. Men formed a line on each side of Lee, and as he made it to the end of the honor guard the men in the back moved to the front again. Grant gave each prisoner a slip that guaranteed a safe return."
Back home, Joe worked the land that had been given to his Revolutionary ancestor. According to Martha, her family never owned slaves, but after the war four to six black families sharecropped on their property and some even took the Elder name.
One of the sharecroppers, however, Wes Davenport, was known to make moonshine. He was picked up for drunkenness and ended up in the historic Watkinsville jail. He sent word to Joe Elder to come bail him out. According to Martha, her father left his farmhand in the jail until the next day "to teach him a lesson." Yet for the rest of his life, Wes called Joe "his savior."
Joe had bailed Davenport Out just before the infamous June 29 lynching in Watkinsville. In 1905, all the prisoners in the old jail were removed by a large mob. Nine men, white and black, were tied to a fence near the jail and murdered by a volley of fire from rifles, Shotgun,, and pistols. Some had been charged with murder, but others like Wes Davenport had been imprisoned for lesser crimes like gambling or stealing a rifle.
While on leave during the war, Joe had married Eliza Ann Osborn, his stepsister. Five children were born to the couple before her death in 1889. He later married Cora L. Anderson, who died in 1896. Late in life, he married Alice Rachel Shelnutt, and they had one child, Martha Belle Elder Harris.
The only time Joe left his family and work at the Elder Grist Mill was to attend veterans' conventions and reunions of the Army of Northern Virginia in Richmond.
Because of his injuries, Joe had to avoid catching a cold for the rest of his life. The man who had managed to survive with one lung for 57 years died in 1920 during the worldwide influenza epidemic.
Alice Shelnutt Elder outlived her husband by 42 years. She drew her last $25 veterans pension check in 1962. Martha said: "When mother died we buried her in the Watkinsville Cemetery. It bothered me so. And my husband said, 'Why don't you move him [Joe]?'"
Joe Elder had been buried in the Elder Cemetery (which is being restored by Martha's son-in-law T. L. Vaughan) between his first two wives. After asking close family members for permission, Martha Harris contacted Bernstein Funeral Home to arrange the move. Thinking they would not find a vault, the workers brought with them a wooden box for the bones. According to Martha, they all were surprised to find that indeed Joe Elder rested in a vault, an unusual oval one made in Alabama. They brought in special equipment to take Joe Elder across Rose Creek one last time.
"At the time the government recognized Confederate States of America veterans and you could get a stone. So he has a Confederate stone shipped from Vermont over his grave. It's Vermont marble and not Georgia marble"' Martha Harris said of the irony.
Martha Belle Elder Harris
Joe and Alice Elder left Rose Creek and moved to Watkinsville in 1907. Born to the couple later in life, Martha captivated her father. "Some of the older ladies told me that, as a baby, when I was taken to church I would take my cap off and put it on him. People would get so tickled. But he would just sit there and never say a word."
Martha attended school in Oconee County and the University of Georgia. She left Georgia to work on a master's degree in English and religious education at Peabody College in Nashville. At Peabody she met her husband, James Franklin Harris; the couple lived in Tennessee until they returned to Georgia in the 1940s to be near her aging mother.
Martha and James had three children: Rachel jean Vaughan, Watkinsville; James Franklin Harris Jr., Williamsburg, Va.; and Patricia Ann Mize, Summerville, S.C. Martha taught school at Winder Barrow High School and Oconee County High School until she retired in 1979.
James, her husband of 52 years, died in 1986.
Martha is often visited by her former students, some of whom remember the assignment in her class to read The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. However, almost all of them remember her personal contribution to the discussions, the story of "Fighting Joe Elder."
She still teaches. And she has been told by her Sunday School class at the Watkinsville First Christian Church that if she stops teaching they will resign in protest.
Martha is a longtime member of the Laura Rutherford Chapter 88 of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Athens. And, according to Georgia UDC records, she is indeed one of the True Daughters living in Georgia.
Yet Martha said, "I'm proud of my father, but let him have the honors. I didn't fight in the Civil War!"
Kathryn Gray-White is assistant professor of American History at Truett McConnell College, Watkinsville, and recipient of the 1998 Faculty Excellence Award. She also works as a freelance writer and photographer specializing in articles on Georgia history.