The title of this blog, Opera Cum Fidelitate, is the motto of Georgia Military College, my Alma Mater. The center piece of campus is the Old Capital Building, which was the seat of the state government prior to the Civil War. My time there always made me feel connected to history. Service With Faithfulness could also be the motto of my family, so I thought it was an appropriate title for a blog that explores the history of my ancestors.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Poker and Pistols

James Lawton Hillhouse, my 2nd great grandfather playing a friendly game of cards some time around 1900.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The 5th Florida 5 at the Battle of Gettysburg

Imagine for a moment, that it is early July, 1863. You are a Private in the Army of Northern Virginia. Specifically, you are one of the members of the Florida Brigade. Your brigade is the smallest in the Army, and you don’t always get the credit you deserve for your actions on the battlefield, but you have given just as much hell to the enemy as any other outfit. You have been whipping the Yankees on the battlefield in victory after victory. Your spirits are high. You are on the enemy’s turf, Pennsylvania. It is definitely the furthest that you have ever been from home, and you miss your family terribly. You know that if you can continue this series of battlefield successes just a little longer, you’ll be going home soon.

As you march deeper into enemy territory, your brigade has been given the task of being the rear guard for the entire Army. This is not always the most pleasant, nor the most glorious assignment, but you grin and bear it. You are approaching a town called Gettysburg. You haven’t been eating much. Your boots are worn out and some of your friends are even barefoot. You have been marching for a month. Your rifle, however, is in tiptop shape, and you are eager to smash the enemy and be done with it.

This is the scene on July 1st, as the biggest battle in the history of the Western Hemisphere is about to take place. The Florida Brigade will not take part in the fighting on the first day. By the time that they reach the fight, it is already dark. They moved up into a wooded area at the center of the line and laid there under heavy fire throughout the night.

Let me take a moment to describe the part of the battlefield where these men will spill their blood over the next two days. As I said before, they are laying in a wooded area, in a north/south line that is facing east. As you step out of the woods, there is a gently rolling open landscape in front of you for about a mile, and then the land rises up onto a ridgeline. This ridgeline is called Cemetery Ridge. In the middle of this open space is a road that bisects the battlefield, which also runs north/south, thus paralleling the line of battle. This road is called the Emmitsburg Road and it sits atop slightly higher ground than the rest of the open area. To your front right, at about your 2 o’clock, Cemetery Ridge terminates in a wooded hill that has a dominant view of the landscape. This is Little Round Top. To your front left, at about your 10 o’clock, is the town of Gettysburg itself. As day 2 begins, the Union forces are arrayed in this open field, facing west towards the woodline where the Confederates are taking cover.
The view northeast from a tower that is positioned just south of the lines of the Florida Brigade. This pictures looks towards the Peach Orchard. Cemetery Ridge is in the background. Fall 2015.
As dawn breaks, it is hot. The Florida Boys aren’t fighting just yet, but they know that soon they will be participating in an attack and the anticipation is wearing on them. James Johnson, the adjutant of the Fifth Florida, described it this way, “We knew there was desperate fighting ahead of us and chafed at the delay. Some of the men spent the time in playing cards.”

The Florida Brigade is also known as Perry’s Brigade after their commanding general, but General Perry is sick, so during the Gettysburg Battle, Perry’s Brigade will be commanded by Colonel David Lang.

Colonel Lang, in the early hours of the morning on July 2nd, moves his brigade up to the edge of the woodline, behind a stone wall. This position offers them a view to the east of the battlefield. They would wait there until about 5 PM, while the battle rages.

Finally, late that afternoon, General Longstreet’s brigade, which is on the right of Perry’s Brigade is making progress and advancing towards Little Round Top. The Floridians and Wilcox’s Alabamians are ordered to move forward and support this assault.

As Lang’s men finally step out into the open, the Union Forces open up on them with a withering artillery bombardment.

Lang describes it this way: “About 5 P. M. we were ordered to
charge the enemys positions, and away we dashed across an open field 1 1/2 miles wide every foot of which was swept by the enemys artillery and musketry. Coming up with their infantry we drove them back in disorder to their breastworks on the heights, capturing a large number of cannon. After arriving just under the enemys stronghold they threw forward a heavy column of infantry on our right which was not properly supported and succeeded in turning the right of Wilcox's Brigade (which was on our right) and thus forced us to fall back and leave all that we
had gained. Thus ended the second days fighting.”

As reported by Colonel Lang, the Brigade was forced to withdraw after the Alabamians on their right collapsed. They made their way back towards the woodline from whence they came, giving up the ground that they had just fought so hard to conquer. They were understandably frustrated.

A plaque found on the Emmitsburg Road, describing the fighting on July 2nd.

The next day, the Confederates were in desperate straits. They needed to do something quick and decisive to break the Union. General Lee decided to go all in, with a full frontal assault against the Union center. This attack is known as Pickett’s charge, and was supported on the right by the Floridians and Alabamians. This is possibly the most famous moment of the entire war, and is known as “the High Water Mark of the Confederacy.”

Lang describes the assault: “On the morning of the 3rd all of our artillery was placed in position, and at a given signal concentrated their fire upon the enemys strong position. The cannonading was terrific. More than 300 cannon were being discharged as fast as they could be loaded & fired, and the noise was so great that one could not carry on conversation with his nearest neighbor. After this had continued for near two hours, another charge was ordered. This charge was made in the centre by Picket's division. They went in, in splendid order but were unable to carry the position and fell back badly cut up. As soon as they had retired, our brigade & Gen. Wilcox's, together numbering about 1200, men were ordered to charge the same position from which this whole division had just been repulsed. Our men went into it gallantly to within a short distance of the enemy's entrenchments when they were again outflanked & compelled to retire. Our loss was tremendous, of the whole number (700) which I carried in I now have 220 for duty. The remainder are killed, wounded and captured. This ended the 3rd days fighting in the centre.

As described by Colonel Lang, Pickett’s Charge had already been broken when they were ordered to attack the same position. This order to attack has been described as the most futile waste of lives in the entire battle.

That evening, as a Union soldier was picking his way across the battlefield, he came across a young Confederate who was weeping. The man in blue asked the man in grey why he was crying. His response is heartbreaking: “Because General Lee always puts the Fifth Florida in front.”

So far, I have found five ancestors of mine that fought at Gettysburg. (For my purposes, I tend to count people from whom I am directly descended and their siblings as ancestors.) All of them were soldiers in the same unit: Company F, 5th Florida Infantry. Two of them are in my Cribbs line: Hansford Herndon and his brother James Perry Herndon. The other three are up the Hillhouse branch of my family tree: Henry Avriett, Jeremiah Avriett, and Barton Nelson Hillhouse. Of those five ancestors, one would make it out of Gettysburg to fight another day, three would be captured, and one would die there on that hallowed ground.

The Herndon brothers in this story, Hansford and James, were brothers of my fourth great grandfather from the Cribbs line, Levy Hancel Herndon. Five of the Herndon brothers fought for the Confederacy, with Hansford and James serving with the 5th Florida. In early 1862, Hansford was 29 and James was 23. Their father had died 10 years previously. James was living in Echols County, Georgia, just across the state line from Hamilton County, on the farm of Mr. Ransom Prescott, who does not seem to be of any relation. He was illiterate. Hansford was also living in Echols County, next door to his older brother Charles. He was also illiterate, married to Nancy, and had four children ranging from 5 months to 9 years old. Both men were farm laborers. War documents describe James as being 5’ 10”, with blue eyes and dark hair.

Hansford Herndon enlisted in the 5th Florida Infantry on May 7th, 1862, in Hamilton County, Florida. He battled illnesses, like many of the men in the Civil War did. At Antietam, he was shot in one of his ankles. Then, about a year after he enlisted, he was shot in the hand at Spotsylvania. At Gettysburg, Hansford received another gunshot wound to an ankle. We know that this one was his right ankle because of Union Hospital Records. He was captured there, and was sent to Fort Delaware as a Prisoner of War. On January 27th, 1864, at 31 years old, Hansford succumbed to a disease of the lungs and died. It was cold, they were on starvation rations, and many of the men fell to smallpox and other diseases. He left behind his wife and four children.

James Perry Herndon enlisted on March 14th, 1862, at Jasper, Florida. On May 9th, 1863, he was wounded in the hand near Spotsylvania. The fact that this wound appears in the service records of both men makes me wonder if both brothers really were wounded in the hand during the same battle, or if a note was mistakenly put in Hansford’s file. James was more likely to have been the one injured if it was a mistake, as there are stories in other places of him losing several fingers. He was captured in Gettysburg just like his brother, and sent to Fort Delaware. There he watched his brother die, but managed to survive himself, being paroled on June 10th, 1865.

Another pair of brothers were part of the 5th Florida 5. Henry Avriett and Jeremiah Avriett. There names are spelled many different ways on different documents, which is probably because they were both illiterate and didn’t know how to spell their own names. Henry is my fourth great grandfather on my Hillhouse side. Jeremiah is his brother. They were both born in Georgia, but Henry’s enlistment records list Jasper, Florida, as his place of residence at the time of his enlistment.

Henry Avriett enlisted in the 5th Florida Infantry on March 14th, 1862. He battled illnesses throughout the conflict. There is a record of a bout of dysentery that took him out of the action for February and March of 1863. At Gettysburg, Henry is the lucky one. He made it out alive and, as far as we know, unscathed. In the fall of the next year, the war became too much for Henry and he deserted. He fled to Washington, DC, and swore loyalty to the Union under the name Henry Everett. He survived the war. His widow would later file for his Confederate pension, but the request would be denied due to Henry’s desertion.

Jeremiah Avriett enlisted on May 3rd 1862 and enlistment records show his residence at that date to be Jasper, Florida. He was captured at Gettysburg on July 3rd and taken to Fort Delaware along with the Herndon brothers. He wouldn’t be there long, however, as he was returned to Confederate forces during a prisoner swap on March 3rd, 1864. Jerry would fight for the rest of the war, and as far as I can tell, he was still with the 5th Florida on the day that they surrendered. At some point during the war, a gunshot blew off the top of his left foot. He lived with pain and stiffness from that injury for the rest of his days.

Jeremiah Avriett
Photo from
Finally, the story of Barton Nelson Hillhouse remains. He was born on the 25th of March, 1836. In 1860 he was living on the Hamilton County, Florida, estate of a George Washington Cooper. When he enlisted on March 14th, 1862, in Jasper, he was 26 years old. He was captured at Hagerstown, Maryland, on September 12th, 1862. Somehow, either through escape or a prisoner exchange, he was back with his unit by March, 1863. During the battle of Gettysburg he was shot in the gut, a horrifically painful wound, while fighting in the Peach Orchard, probably during the back and forth struggle on the second day. He died on July 4th, 1863.

Me standing in the Peach Orchard at sunset. This is the spot where Barton Nelson Hillhouse received his mortal wound. Fall 2015.
Thus ends the story of the 5th Florida 5 at Gettysburg. I’m still exploring why the revelation of my familial connection to this moment in our history is so significant to me. In search of that answer, I recently traveled to the battlefield. I stood on the spots where these men fought and bled and died. As a Soldier myself I ask, “Did I have it? Would I have been able to do what they did?” I’ll never know.

The inscription on the Florida Monument at Gettysburg reads:

Floridans of Perry’s Brigade, comprised of the 2nd, 5th, and 8th Florida Infantry, fought here with great honor as members of Anderson’s Division of Hill’s Corps, and participated in the heaviest fighting of July 2 and 3, 1863. The Brigade suffered 445 casualties of the 700 men present for duty.

Like all Floridians who participated in the Civil War, they fought with courage and devotion for the ideals in which they believed. By their noble example of bravery and endurance, they enable us to meet with confidence any sacrifice which confronts us as Americans.”

Me standing next to the Florida Monument at Gettysburg, Fall 2015

Civil War Service Records on

Waters, Zack C., and Edmonds, James C.. Small but Spartan Band : The Florida Brigade in Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Tuscaloosa, AL, USA: University Alabama Press, 2013. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 11 November 2015.

Civil War Letters of Colonel David Lang

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Olustee Sharp Shooter: Covington Cribbs

Covington Cribbs was the brother of Solomon Brannick Cribbs, my fourth great grandfather. He was born around 1829, and died on June 30th, 1900. He was a native of Hamilton County, Florida, which is pretty much the ancestral homeland of my mother’s family, from the early 1800s up until the present day. He was wounded at Olustee, the only significant engagement between Union and Confederate forces in the North Florida area during the war and the site of childhood field trips for any North Florida native. He went on to be wounded again in Virginia, and to suffer frostbite that left him scarred. After the war he resumed his life as a farmer, and when he was too old to perform manual labor, filed for a Confederate Pension from the State of Florida in 1899. When he died the next year, his widow Mary Ann filed to have the pension continued in her name, so that she would be supported in her old age.

At the commencement of the war, Covington was living in Hamilton County with Mary Ann and their child. He intended to join the Confederate Army and fight in the “Hamilton Blues,” an outfit being assembled by Captain Henry Stewart of the 2nd Florida Infantry. On the way up to Virginia, Captain Stewart granted Covington ten days leave so that he could take his wife and child to stay with her brother in Calhoun County, Georgia. I like to think of this as a benevolent gesture by his Commander.

Covington set out with a wagon, but soon things went sideways. It rained. Anyone from the South knows the kind of rain that I am picturing, the one that turns all of the dirt roads to muck. It is no surprise then, that Covington's wagon would break down, and it did. I can imagine him, with his wife and crying baby, soaked to the bone, stranded on a remote dirt road surrounded by tall pines and saw palmettos. I don’t know how long they were stuck there, but the delay was long enough for his ten-day pass to expire before they had reached their destination.

Now he was stranded in Georgia without any papers. Was he panicking about being accused of being a deserter? Maybe he was just mad that he was missing the war!

He was quickly conscripted into a Georgia unit, and was mustered into Captain S. A. Townsley’s Company of the 64th Georgia Infantry Regiment. Ironically, this unit was being raised for the defense of North Florida! He was mustered into the outfit at Macon, Georgia, and they immediately marched south. Covington had set off from Florida to fight in Virginia, but was now headed back home as a member of a Georgia outfit to defend his Florida home.

Lithographic Print of the Battle of Olustee By Kurz and Alison [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. It is largely inaccurate as the artist knew little about the battle. The Olustee battlefield was much more heavily wooded than the picture depicts, and neither side fought from behind fortifications.
In Florida, the 64th served under Colonel John W. Evans at the Battle of Olustee. During this battle, Covington served as a sharpshooter. While he was fighting, probably lying on his stomach taking aimed shots, a Union cannonball blew the top off of a pine tree. The crown of this tree came crashing down on Covington’s left leg, knocking his left hip out of joint and splitting his left femur. He managed to hobble his way to the rear of the lines, using a pair of muskets as makeshift crutches. A fellow soldier would later testify to having seen Covington hobbling off of the field of battle this way. At the Battle of Olustee, the 64th suffered 107 casualties out of 800 soldiers, including 17 killed, 88 wounded, and 2 missing.

The day after the battle, Covington was sent to the hospital at Monticello. Soon after, he was granted a hearing before the Board of Physicians at Lake City and was granted a wounded furlough. A young man named George Mills gave Covington a lift home to Hamilton County, which was just on the far side of the Suwanee River from Lake City.

After only a month at home, Covington’s wounded furlough had expired. He set out to rejoin his unit at Camp Finnigan, which was a large camp just west of Jacksonville. Today, the site is near the intersection of I-10 and I-295 on the city’s west side. Later, Covington said this, “The Board advised me not to go, as my wound could excuse me from duty if I cared to avail myself of the opportunity.” I can’t help but feel pride as I read that, knowing that he went anyway.

The 64th marched north to Virginia, where it served under several commanders and fought in many engagements. Late in the war, Covington was wounded again in the left leg, just above the ankle, this time by an exploding shell. Finally, while serving picket duty during the Siege of Petersburg, Covington suffered such severe frostbite that he was hospitalized for the rest of the war.

In regards to the injuries that he incurred during the war, Covington said this, “[I was] wounded on my left hip and knee and at Petersburg, Virginia, received a wound on my left foot about the 18th of July, 1864, and in November or December in the State of Virginia while on picket duty was exposed to cold and became truly disabled and was sent to the hospital and remained there until the surrender of the Confederate army.”

A doctor named C. W. Tompkins examined Covington for the purposes of his pension application and testified to the following, “[I found] scars on both shoulders and both elbows said to have been caused by having been frozen in Virginia while serving in Confederate service and which has left him unable to straighten either arm and with very little strength in shoulders. Also, find scar and injury to femur just above knee joint said to have been caused by gunshot wound, also hip was thrown out of joint by tree trop (cut off by cannon ball) falling on it while on duty as sharp shooter. Also scar on head on left parietal (?) bone, which has caused deafness in left ear with [cottonball?] discharge especially in wintertime. All causing complete disability to perform manual labor.”

When I read the different sources and my mind fills in the blanks about this ancestor, I picture a hard man. In many ways he had to be, and he had probably already acquired that grit before the war, growing up on that unforgiving southern frontier. He answered the call of his homeland, but God intervened through rain and a broken down wagon. His feet were set back upon the path to Florida, where he was wounded confronting the enemy at the gates of his home. He didn’t malinger, nor even accept the out that he could have legitimately taken, given to him by his wound. He went north with his comrades to Virginia, were he fought for the rest of the war, until he finally succumbed to the brutality of the elements. Frostbite is a fitting enemy to defeat a Florida boy.

The majority of the information for this post was gathered from the Florida Memory Confederate Pension Application Database. Covington's pension documents can be viewed here: