Private Nicholas Orris—The Face of Another Unknown Soldier

Pvt. Nicholas Orris, Co. H, 47th PA Vols_c. 1863_head bwA native of the great Keystone State, Nicholas Orris began life in Perry County—a region of Pennsylvania that was still a largely rural one during mid-19th century America, but was one which was surrounded by communities that were being transformed by Industrial Revolution inventions as tanneries, iron companies and furnaces in and beyond the county modernized and expanded their operations. According to Harry H. Hain in his History of Perry County, Pennsylvania:

When Perry County was formed from Cumberland, in 1820, the population was 13,162. Its growth was slow and gradual until 1880, when it showed its largest population, 27,522.

Formative Years

Ickesburg, PA, c. 1922_H.W. Flickinger_Hain's History of Perry County

Ickesburg still retained its rural character when this photo was taken in 1922 by H. W. Flickinger (Hain’s “History of Perry County, Pennsylvania,” public domain).

Born sometime around 1840, Nicholas Orris was a son of Dauphin County, Pennsylvania native George Orris (1799-1872) and Perry County, Pennsylvania native Sarah (Shull) Orris (1804-1848). When he was just eight years old, his world was upended when his mother died at the age of 43 on 16 August 1848 in Saville Township, Perry County, where he and his family had been living. His mother was subsequently laid to rest at that township’s Buffalo Cemetery, which is located in the community of Ickesburg.

But by 1850, 10-year-old Nicholas Orris had likely regained a sense of stability because his father had remarried—to Elizabeth (“Betsy”) Hench (circa 1806-1872), who was a daughter of Chester Springs, Pennsylvania native John Hench (1785-1831) and New Hanover, Pennsylvania native Anna Maria (Yohn) Hench (born in 1785).

Still residing in Saville Township, Perry County that year, but now living with his father and new stepmother, Nicholas Orris was a member of a large household that included his older and younger siblings: Friedrich Orris, a 24-year-old laborer who was listed on the 1850 U.S. Census as “Frederick”; Jeremiah Bitner Orris (1830-1915); shoemaker Henry Shull Orris (1832-1901); Elizabeth A. Orris (1832-1913); Samuel H. Orris (1835-1910); George William Orris (1838-1930); and John Milligan E. Orris (1843-1905). The value of his father’s real estate holdings was $1,000, according to that year’s census. Also residing with the family was 20-year-old Sarah Rouse.

Another sibling—half-brother Robert C. B. Orris (1852-1913)—arrived on 2 April 1852.

* Note: Nicholas Orris was a grandson of Heinrich Orris (1770-1833), a native of Heidelberg, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, who was more commonly known as “Henry” and whose surname was originally spelled “Arras,” and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania native Anna Maria (Eichelberger) Orris (1770-1831), who was more commonly known as “Polly.”

Heinrich Orris’s son, George Orris (1799-1872)—the father of Nicholas Orris, was born on 22 October 1799 and baptized on 2 June 1800, according to records of the Zion German Lutheran Church in Harrisburg, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. In 1824, George Orris married Sarah Shull (1804-1848), who was more commonly known as “Sally” and was a daughter of Phebe Ann (Hartman) Shull (1774-1860) and Captain Frederick Schull (1767-1831), a veteran of the War of 1812. George Orris then remarried sometime after Sally’s August 1848 death and before the mid-September 1850 U.S. Census, which documented that his second wife, Elizabeth, had been born in Pennsylvania circa 1806. That second wife (Nicholas Orris’s stepmother) was Elizabeth (“Betsy”) Hench.

Additional members of the Orris family who descended from Nicholas Orris’s paternal grandfather, Heinrich (“Henry”) Orris, included Henry’s grandsons: George W. Orris (1827-1854); American Civil War veteran David Clark Orris (1836-1918), who was affectionately known as “Cap”; and the Rev. Prof. S. Stanhope Orris, P.h.D, L.H.D. (1838-1905), a renowned professor of Greek language, literature, and philosophy at what is now Princeton University. All three were cousins of Nicholas Orris—the subject of this biographical sketch. [George W. Orris, Captain David C. Orris, and Professor Stanhope Orris were sons of Adam Orris (1804-1852)—a younger brother of Nicholas’s father, George Orris (1799-1872).]

One of the traits of Orris family members that becomes clear upon reading the life stories of Nicholas and Stanhope Orris and their many cousins is that the pursuit of education was viewed as an admirable undertaking for children and adults. According to the Portrait and Biographical Album of Washington County, Iowa, Jeremiah Bitner Orris (Nicolas’s older brother) “was born in Perry County, Pa., June 23, 1830 … the son of George and Sarah (Shull) Orris, who were also natives of Pennsylvania … [and] “was reared on a farm and educated in the public schools of his native State.”

It is important to note that this land where the cousins of Nicholas Orris and his father resided was contested land, having been sold to the Orris family by the Nicholsons, a family of White settlers who had had violent encounters with Native Americans living in the area. Per Hain:

The Nicholson lands which passed in later years to the Orris family, lay north of Ickesburg. The roads which now [in the 1920s] meet near ‘the gap’ at an earlier day met there. This was the scene of the Indian skirmish of 1763 [during which five White men were killed]. The first Orris was Adam, who was the father of three sons, his son Adam attaining possession of the homestead. He also had three sons, Captain D. C. Orris succeeding to the title of the home. Of his other sons, H. O. became a physician at Newport, and Solomon Stanhope Orris became a college professor and one of the greatest Greek scholars then known.

Ellis and Hungerford’s History of that Part of the Susquehanna and Juniata Valleys provides further details:

A tract of land lying north of Ickesburg, on the way to Run Gap, now in possession of D. C. Orris, was formerly the Nicholson lands. The roads that now meet nearer the gap, in earlier days met at this place. It was here that the skirmish occurred in 1763. The spring mentioned was near the foot of the hills. The property later came to Adam Orris, whose sons, George, Adam and Samuel, settled below, and at his death the sons of Adam came into possession. Of these sons, D. C. Orris is on the old homestead, one is a professor in Princeton College, another [H. Orand Orris] is a physician at Newport.

In his History of Perry County, in Pennsylvania: From the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, Silas Wright reported that the Native Americans involved in this particular skirmish were members of the Shawnee Nation—a statement he based on White settlers’ accounts of the clash. During this time, however, there were Delawares (Lenni Lenape) and other Native Americans residing in this region who spoke dialects of the Algonquian language that was used by the Shawnee; therefore, the account presented by Wright may have been incorrect.

But if Shawnee were involved, then these accounts by Wright, et. al. are one-sided at best. Per historian Colin Calloway in his The Shawnees and the War for America, “[e]ven their enemies grudgingly acknowledged the Shawnee’s tenacity and courage—‘a brave little Tribe,’ according to one account.”

For more than sixty years, they stood in the front lines, waging a war of territorial and cultural resistance that ranged across the present-day states of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and Missouri. As one Shawnee leader told the British, “We have always been the frontier.”

Still residing with their parents in Saville Township when the census taker arrived in 1860, Nicholas Orris and all of his siblings were likely very aware of the history of the lands they and their cousins now inhabited. The Orris family’s patriarch, George, was documented that year as a farmer whose real and personal estate holdings were valued at $1,650 (roughly $52,657 in 2021 dollars).

Civil War

Camp Curtin (Harper's Weekly, 1861)

Camp Curtin (Harper’s Weekly, 1861; public domain).

On 20 August 1861, 21-year-old Nicholas Orris enrolled for Civil War military service at Ickesburg in Saville Township, Perry County, Pennsylvania. He then officially mustered in for duty at Camp Curtin in Harrisburg, Dauphin County on 19 September as a private with Company H of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Company H, the final company of the regiment to muster in, was led by Captain James Kacy, a 44-year-old merchant and resident of Elliottsburg, Pennsylvania who had served as a railroad postal clerk for the United States government in the mid-1850s during the administration of President Franklin Pierce. Supporting Kacy as an officer Company H was 1st Lieutenant William Wallace Geety, a 29-year-old who had been a practicing dentist in Harrisburg.

Military records at the time described Nicholas Orris as a farmer residing in Ickesburg who was 5’7” tall with blue eyes and a light complexion with light hair. The day after mustering in, he joined his fellow 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers in boarding a train at the railroad station in Harrisburg, and headed for Washington, DC where, beginning 21 September 1861, they were stationed at “Camp Kalorama” on the Kalorama Heights near Georgetown—about two miles from the White House.

The next day, C Company Musician Henry D. Wharton penned the following update for his hometown newspaper, the Sunbury American:

After a tedious ride we have, at last, safely arrived at the City of ‘magnificent distances.’ We left Harrisburg on Friday last at 1 o’clock A.M. and reached this camp yesterday (Saturday) at 4 P.M., as tired and worn out a sett [sic] of mortals as can possibly exist. On arriving at Washington we were marched to the ‘Soldiers Retreat,’ a building purposely erected for the benefit of the soldier, where every comfort is extended to him and the wants of the ‘inner man’ supplied.

After partaking of refreshments we were ordered into line and marched, about three miles, to this camp. So tired were the men, that on marching out, some gave out, and had to leave the ranks, but J. Boulton Young, our ‘little Zouave,’ stood it bravely, and acted like a veteran. So small a drummer is scarcely seen in the army, and on the march through Washington he was twice the recipient of three cheers.

We were reviewed by Gen. McClellan yesterday [21 September 1861] without our knowing it. All along the march we noticed a considerable number of officers, both mounted and on foot; the horse of one of the officers was so beautiful that he was noticed by the whole regiment, in fact, so wrapt [sic] up were they in the horse, the rider wasn’t noticed, and the boys were considerably mortified this morning on dis-covering they had missed the sight of, and the neglect of not saluting the soldier next in command to Gen. Scott.

Col. Good, who has command of our regiment, is an excellent man and a splendid soldier. He is a man of very few words, and is continually attending to his duties and the wants of the Regiment.

…. Our Regiment will now be put to hard work; such as drilling and the usual business of camp life, and the boys expect and hope an occasional ‘pop’ at the enemy.

Chain Bridge Across Potomac above Georgetown Looking Twd VA, 1861 (The Illustrated London News, public domain)

Chain Bridge Across the Potomac Above Georgetown Looking Toward Virginia, 1861 (The Illustrated London News, public domain).

On 24 September, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers became part of the federal service when the regiment officially mustered in for duty with the U.S. Army. Three days later, they were assigned to Brigadier-General Isaac Stevens’ 3rd Brigade, which also included the 33rd, 49th and 79th New York regiments. By that afternoon, the 47th Pennsylvania was on the move again. Ordered onward by Brigadier-General Silas Casey, the Mississippi rifle-armed 47th Pennsylvanians marched behind their regimental band until reaching Camp Lyon, Maryland on the Potomac River’s eastern shore. At 5 p.m., they joined the 46th Pennsylvania in moving double-quick (165 steps per minute using 33-inch steps) across the “Chain Bridge” marked on federal maps, and trudged on for roughly another mile before being ordered to make camp.

The next morning, they broke camp and moved again. Marching toward Falls Church, Virginia, they arrived at Camp Advance around dusk. There, about two miles from the bridge they had crossed a day earlier, they re-pitched their tents in a deep ravine near a new federal fort under construction (Fort Ethan Allen). They had completed a roughly eight-mile trek, were situated near General W. F. Smith’s headquarters, and were now part of the massive Army of the Potomac. Under Smith’s leadership, their regiment and brigade would help to defend the nation’s capital from the time of their September arrival through late January when the men of the 47th Pennsylvania would be shipped south.

Once again, Company C Musician Henry Wharton recapped the regiment’s activities, noting, via his 29 September letter home to the Sunbury American, that the 47th had changed camps three times in three days:

On Friday last we left Camp Kalorama, and the same night encamped about one mile from the Chain Bridge on the opposite side of the Potomac from Washington. The next morning, Saturday, we were ordered to this Camp [Camp Advance near Fort Ethan Allen, Virginia], one and a half miles from the one we occupied the night previous. I should have mentioned that we halted on a high hill (on our march here) at the Chain Bridge, called Camp Lyon, but were immediately ordered on this side of the river. On the route from Kalorama we were for two hours exposed to the hardest rain I ever experienced. Whew, it was a whopper; but the fellows stood it well – not a murmur – and they waited in their wet clothes until nine o’clock at night for their supper. Our Camp adjoins that of the N.Y. 79th (Highlanders.)….

We had not been in this Camp more than six hours before our boys were supplied with twenty rounds of ball and cartridge, and ordered to march and meet the enemy; they were out all night and got back to Camp at nine o’clock this morning, without having a fight. They are now in their tents taking a snooze preparatory to another march this morning…. I don’t know how long the boys will be gone, but the orders are to cook two days’ rations and take it with them in their haversacks….

There was a nice little affair came off at Lavensville [sic], a few miles from here on Wednesday last; our troops surprised a party of rebels (much larger than our own.) killing ten, took a Major prisoner, and captured a large number of horses, sheep and cattle, besides a large quantity of corn and potatoes, and about ninety six tons of hay. A very nice day’s work. The boys are well, in fact, there is no sickness of any consequence at all in our Regiment….

Unknown Regiment, Camp Griffin, Virginia, 1861 (public domain, U.S. LOC)

Unknown regiment, Camp Griffin, Virginia, Fall 1861 (U.S. Library of Congress, public domain).

Sometime during this phase of duty as part of the 3rd Brigade, the 47th Pennsylvanians were moved to a site they initially christened “Camp Big Chestnut” in reference to the large chestnut tree located within the camp’s boundaries. The site would eventually become known to the Keystone Staters as Camp Griffin,” and was located roughly 10 miles from Washington, DC. Posted not far from their home state, members of the regiment occasionally had the good fortune to receive personal visits from family members.

On 11 October, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers marched in the Grand Review at Bailey’s Cross Roads. In a letter home in mid-October, Captain John Peter Shindel Gobin (the leader of C Company who would be promoted in 1864 to lead the entire 47th Regiment) reported that companies D, A, C, F, and I (the 47th Pennsylvania’s right wing) were ordered to picket duty after the left-wing companies (B, G, K, E, and H) had been forced to return to camp by Confederate troops:

I was ordered to take my company to Stewart’s [sic] house, drive the Rebels from it, and hold it at all hazards. It was about 3 o’clock in the morning, so waiting until it was just getting day, I marched 80 men up; but the Rebels had left after driving Capt. Kacy’s company [H] into the woods. I took possession of it, and stationed my men, and there we were for 24 hours with our hands on our rifles, and without closing an eye. I took ten men, and went out scouting within half a mile of the Rebels, but could not get a prisoner, and we did not dare fire on them first. Do not think I was rash, I merely obeyed orders, and had ten men with me who could whip a hundred; Brosius, Piers, Harp and McEwen [all of Company C] were among the number. Every man in the company wanted to go. The Rebels did not attack us, and if they had they would have met with a warm reception, as I had my men posted in such a manner that I could have whipped a regiment. My men were all ready and anxious for a ‘fight.’”

Captain Gobin had been referring to Brigadier-General James Ewell Brown (“J.E.B.”) Stuart, commanding officer of the Confederate Army of the Potomac (later known as the Army of Northern Virginia), under whose authority the 4th Virginia Cavalry (“Black Horse Cavalry”) fell. Stuart’s Fairfax County, Virginia home had been commandeered by the Union Army and used by the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers and other Union regiments as the base of operations for their picket lines in that area. Among the Civil War-related papers of H Company’s 1st Lieutenant William Geety at the U.S. Army Military History Institute, are a photograph and other items taken from Stuart’s Union-occupied home.

In his letter of 13 October, Henry Wharton also described their duties and their new home:

The location of our camp is fine and the scenery would be splendid if the view was not obstructed by heavy thickets of pine and innumerable chesnut [sic] trees. The country around us is excellent for the Rebel scouts to display their bravery; that is, to lurk in the dense woods and pick off one of our unsuspecting pickets. Last night, however, they (the Rebels) calculated wide of their mark; some of the New York 33d boys were out on picket; some fourteen or fifteen shots were exchanged, when our side succeeded in bringing to the dust, (or rather mud,) an officer and two privates of the enemy’s mounted pickets. The officer was shot by a Lieutenant in Company H [?], of the 33d.

Our own boys have seen hard service since we have been on the ‘sacred soil.’ One day and night on picket, next day working on entrenchments at the Fort, (Ethan Allen.) another on guard, next on march and so on continually, but the hardest was on picket from last Thursday morning ‘till Saturday morning – all the time four miles from camp, and both of the nights the rain poured in torrents, so much so that their clothes were completely saturated with the rain. They stood it nobly – not one complaining; but from the size of their haversacks on their return, it is no wonder that they were satisfied and are so eager to go again tomorrow. I heard one of them say ‘there was such nice cabbage, sweet and Irish potatoes, turnips, &c., out where their duty called them, and then there was a likelihood of a Rebel sheep or young porker advancing over our lines and then he could take them as ‘contraband’ and have them for his own use.’ When they were out they saw about a dozen of the Rebel cavalry and would have had a bout with them, had it not been for…unlucky circumstance – one of the men caught the hammer of his rifle in the strap of his knapsack and caused his gun to fire; the Rebels heard the report and scampered in quick time….

On Friday, 22 October, the 47th engaged in a morning Divisional Review, described by historian Lewis Schmidt as massing “about 10,000 infantry, 1000 cavalry, and twenty pieces of artillery all in one big open field.” In late October, according to Schmidt, the men from Companies B, G and H woke at 3 a.m., assembled a day’s worth of rations, marched four miles from camp, and took over picket duties from the 49th New York:

Company B was stationed in the vicinity of a Mrs. Jackson’s house, with Capt. Kacy’s Company H on guard around the house. The men of Company B had erected a hut made of fence rails gathered around an oak tree, in front of which was the house and property, including a persimmon tree whose fruit supplied them with a snack. Behind the house was the woods where the Rebels had been fired on last Wednesday morning while they were chopping wood there.

Around this same time, Capt. Kacy divided H Company into four squads, by tent grouping, each under the leadership of a sergeant “whose duty it shall be to see that the arms and accoutrements are kept in good order.”

That the men keep their tents clean, that they are clean in their person, and that they wash their hands and faces and comb their hair every day. That the men keep order in their quarters and report all damage to arms, want or waste of ammunition, and all disorderly conduct.

Kacy followed that order with another specifying mealtimes (breakfast: 6 a.m., dinner: noon, supper: 6 p.m.) and duty schedules (7 a.m., 1 p.m., 7 p.m.). In early November, Kacy directed that “while in camp, no permits or washing will be given on any other days than Monday, Wednesday, or Friday.

All washing must be done in the forenoon. No permits or leaves of absence from company will be given on any days but Monday and Friday. Sutler tickets will be given only in the morning between the hours of 7 and 9.

It was also during this phase that H Company suffered another early casualty when Private Daniel Biceline died from “Febris Typhoides” (typhoid fever) at Camp Griffin on 5 November 1861. In his letter of 17 November, Company C’s Henry Wharton revealed additional details about camp life:

This morning our brigade was out for inspection; arms, accoutrements [sic], clothing, knapsacks, etc, all were out through a thorough examination, and if I must say it myself, our company stood best, A No. 1, for cleanliness. We have a new commander to our Brigade, Brigadier General Brannen [sic], of the U.S. Army, and if looks are any criterion, I think he is a strict disciplinarian and one who will be as able to get his men out of danger as he is willing to lead them to battle….

The boys have plenty of work to do, such as piquet [sic] duty, standing guard, wood-chopping, police duty and day drill; but then they have the most substantial food; our rations consist of fresh beef (three times a week) pickled pork, pickled beef, smoked pork, fresh bread, daily, which is baked by our own bakers, the Quartermaster having procured portable ovens for that purpose, potatoes, split peas, beans, occasionally molasses and plenty of good coffee, so you see Uncle Sam supplies us plentifully….

A few nights ago our Company was out on piquet [sic]; it was a terrible night, raining very hard the whole night, and what made it worse, the boys had to stand well to their work and dare not leave to look for shelter. Some of them consider they are well paid for their exposure, as they captured two ancient muskets belonging to Secessia. One of them is of English manufacture, and the other has the Virginia militia mark on it. They are both in a dilapidated condition, but the boys hold them in high estimation as they are trophies from the enemy, and besides they were taken from the house of Mrs. Stewart, sister to the rebel Jackson who assassinated the lamented Ellsworth at Alexandria. The honorable lady, Mrs. Stewart, is now a prisoner at Washington and her house is the headquarters of the command of the piquets [sic]….

Since the success of the secret expedition, we have all kinds of rumors in camp. One is that our Brigade will be sent to the relief of Gen. Sherman, in South Carolina. The boys all desire it and the news in the ‘Press’ is correct, that a large force is to be sent there, I think their wish will be gratified….

On 21 November, the 47th participated in another morning divisional review, which was overseen by the 47th’s founder, Colonel Tilghman Good. Brigade and division drills were subsequently held that afternoon. According to Schmidt, “each man was supplied with ten blank cartridges.” Afterward, “Gen. Smith requested Gen. Brannan to inform Col. Good that the 47th was the best regiment in the whole division.” As a reward—and in preparation for bigger things to come, Brigadier-General John Milton Brannan obtained brand new Springfield rifles for every member of the 47th Pennsylvania.

As winter arrived and deepened, Privates Robert Fry and William Dorman were discharged, respectively, on Surgeons’ Certificates of Disability on 16 December and New Year’s Eve. Captain Kacy of H Company was also granted leave, and was able to spend a brief period of time with his family at home in Perry County over the holidays before returning for duty in early January.

1862

The opening days of the New Year proved to be as difficult for the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers as the old of the prior year. On 8 January 1862, Jacob R. Gardner became another of the unfortunates who died, and on 19 January, Private John Keim was discharged on a Surgeon’s Certificate.

Fort Taylor, Key West, Florida

Rendering of Fort Taylor, Key West, Florida (Harper’s Weekly, 1864, public domain).

Next ordered to move from their Virginia encampment back to Maryland, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers finally left Camp Griffin for good on Wednesday, 22 January 1862. Departing at 8:30 a.m., they marched through deep mud with their equipment for three miles in order to reach the railroad station at Falls Church. Transported by rail to Alexandria, they then sailed the Potomac via the steamship City of Richmond to the Washington Arsenal, where they were reequipped before marching off for dinner and rest at the Soldiers’ Retreat in Washington, DC. The next afternoon, the 47th Pennsylvanians hopped cars on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and headed for Annapolis, Maryland. Arriving around 10 p.m., they were assigned quarters in barracks at the Naval Academy. They then spent that Friday through Monday (24-27 January 1862) loading their equipment and supplies onto the steamship Oriental.

During the afternoon of 27 January, they boarded small steamers and were ferried to the Oriental with the officers boarding last. Per the directive of Brigadier-General Brannan, they steamed away for the Deep South at 4 p.m. toward Florida which, despite its secession from the Union, continued to be strategically important to the Union due to the presence of Forts Taylor and Jefferson in Key West and the Dry Tortugas.

In early February 1862, Private Nicholas Orris and his fellow 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers arrived in Key West, where they drilled daily with heavy artillery as they garrisoned Fort Taylor. A few short days later, Private Frederick Watts was dead, having succumbed 13 February 1862 to a “brain fever” that had developed after he had caught the measles on board the Oriental. Concerned that disease might decimate the ranks yet again, Captain Kacy of Company H ordered that:

Sgt. R.S. Gardner will have under his command tents #1 and 2 and will be held personally responsible for the clean up of the men in person, clothing, arms, accoutrements, and quarters. Sgt. James Hahn will have under him tents #3 and 4 and be held responsible the same as #1 and 2. Sgt. Lynch will have under his control tents #5 and 6 and will be likewise held responsible. The Sgts. Gardner, Hahn and Lynch will have the men of the company on the parade ground at 5:30 AM and when one of them is on guard, the other two will attend to this drill duty and divide the squad between their respective commands.

During this phase of duty, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers also felled trees, helped to build new roads, and strengthened the fortifications in and around the Union Army’s presence at Key West and, during the weekend of Friday, 14 February, they made their presence known to Key West residents by parading through the streets of the city. That Sunday, a number of the men also attended services at local churches.

From mid-June through July 1862, the 47th Pennsylvania was stationed in South Carolina. Making camp initially on Hilton Head Island, the regiment was ultimately based in the Department of the South’s Beaufort District. Picket duties north of the 3rd Brigade’s camp were commonly rotated among the regiments present, putting soldiers at increased risk from sniper fire. Private Jeremiah Smith became one of those to die while stationed there—although his foe was not a human one. He succumbed to fever complicated by dysentery on 9 August 1862.

According to historian Samuel P. Bates, during this time, the men of the 47th “received the highest commendation from Generals Hunter and Brannan” for their “attention to duty, discipline and soldierly bearing.”

Conquest and Carnage

Battery on Saint John's Bluff Taken by Our Forces (J.H Schell, 1862)

Earthen works surrounding the Confederate battery atop Saint John’s Bluff along the Saint John’s River in Florida (J. H. Schell, 1862, public domain).

Sent on a return expedition to Florida as September 1862 waned, Private Nicholas Orris and his fellow 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers saw their first truly intense moments of service when they participated with other Union regiments in the capture of Saint John’s Bluff from 1 to 3 October.

Commanded by Brigadier-General John M. Brannan, the 47th Pennsylvanians disembarked with a 1,500-plus Union force at Mayport Mills and Mount Pleasant Creek from troop carriers guarded by Union gunboats. Taking point, the 47th Pennsylvanians then led the 3rd Brigade through 25 miles of dense, pine forested swamps populated with deadly snakes and alligators. By the time the expedition ended, the Union brigade had forced the Confederate Army to abandon its artillery battery atop Saint John’s Bluff, and had paved the way for the Union Army to occupy the town of Jacksonville, Florida. Along the way, two companies from the 47th Pennsylvania (E and K) also helped capture the Gov. Milton, a Confederate steamer that had equipped the bluff and surrounding Rebel troop placements with men and supplies.

That same day and ten days later (5 and 15 October 1862, respectively), several formerly enslaved Black men from the Beaufort, South Carolina area enlisted with the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers.

Charleston & Savannah Railroad (Harper's Weekly, 1865)

The challenging environment of the Charleston & Savannah Railroad was illustrated by Harper’s Weekly in 1865.

From 21-23 October, under the brigade and regimental commands of Colonel Tilghman H. Good and Lieutenant-Colonel George W. Alexander, the 47th engaged Confederate forces in and around Pocotaligo, South Carolina. Landing at Mackay’s Point, the men of the 47th were placed on point once again, but they and the 3rd Brigade were less fortunate this time.

Harried by snipers en route to the Pocotaligo Bridge, they met resistance from an entrenched, heavily fortified Confederate battery which opened fire on the Union troops as they entered an open cotton field. Those headed toward higher ground at the Frampton Plantation fared no better as they encountered artillery and infantry fire from the surrounding forests.

The Union soldiers grappled with the Confederates where they found them, pursuing the Rebels for four miles as they retreated to the bridge. There, the 47th relieved the 7th Connecticut. But the enemy was just too well armed. After two hours of intense fighting in an attempt to take the ravine and bridge, depleted ammunition forced the 47th to withdraw to Mackay’s Point.

Losses for the 47th were significant. Two officers and 18 enlisted men died, including Privates Peter Deitrick, J. T. Robinson, Henry Stambaugh, and Jefferson Waggoner. All four fell during the fighting which raged near Frampton Plantation. An additional two officers and 114 enlisted from the 47th were wounded, including H Company’s 1st and 2nd Lieutenants, William Geety and William Gardner, 1st Sergeant George Reynolds, Corporals Daniel Reeder and P. W. Stockslager, and Privates Samuel Huggins, Comley Idall, Cyrus Johnson, and R. R. Kingsborough.

Geety’s survival was nothing short of miraculous; his condition and resulting medical care were recounted in reports by his physicians and described repeatedly in newspapers in later years. Following his recovery, he was assigned to recruiting duties for the 47th Pennsylvania and as quartermaster at Camp Curtin. Reeder, who lost an arm due to his battle wounds, and Stockslager, Johnson and Kingsborough all also survived. Rather than continuing their service, however, they were discharged and sent home on Surgeons’ Certificates of Disability. Kingsborough was released on 26 October while Reeder, and Stockslager were discharged on 24 November; Johnson departed on 16 December 1862. Private Alexander Biger was also discharged on a Surgeon’s Certificate—on 8 November 1862, signaling that he, too, had likely been a casualty of Pocotaligo.

But Idall, Reynolds and Huggins were less fortunate. Idall died eight days after the battle from “Vulnus Sclopet”—a gunshot wound—while undergoing care at the Union Army’s post hospital at Hilton Head, and Reynolds also succumbed to complications there on 8 November. Private Huggins, who had sustained a wound to his leg (also described on his Army death ledger entry as “Vulnus Sclopet”), died there from his wounds on 16 December 1862.

On 23 October, the 47th Pennsylvania returned to Hilton Head, where it served as the funeral Honor Guard for Major-General Ormsby McKnight Mitchel, the commander of the U.S. Army’s 10th Corps and Department of the South who had succumbed to yellow fever on 30 October. Men from the 47th Pennsylvania were given the high honor of firing the salute over his grave.

On 1 November 1862, the 47th Pennsylvania then helped another young Black man to escape slavery by adding 30-year-old Thomas Haywood to the kitchen staff of Company H.

1863

Fort Jefferson, Dry Torguas, Florida (interior, c. 1934, C.E. Peterson, photographer, U.S. Library of Congress, public domain)

Fort Jefferson, Dry Torguas, Florida (interior, c. 1934, C.E. Peterson, photographer, U.S. Library of Congress, public domain).

By 1863, Captain Kacy and the men of H Company were once again based with the 47th Pennsylvania in Florida. Having been ordered back to Key West on 15 November of 1862, much of 1863 was spent guarding federal installations in Florida as part of the 10th Corps, Department of the South. Companies A, B, C, E, G, and I garrisoned Fort Taylor in Key West while Companies D, F, H, and K garrisoned Fort Jefferson in Florida’s Dry Tortugas.

During this phase of duty, disease was a constant companion and foe. Privates William J. Simonton, Henry Bollinger, and Michael C. Lynch were discharged on Surgeons’ Certificates on 13 February, 19 April, and 30 June, respectively.

The time spent here by the men of Company H and their fellow Union soldiers was notable also for the men’s commitment to preserving the Union. Many who could have returned home chose instead to re-enlist in order to finish the fight. Private Nicholas Orris became one of those veteran volunteers when he mustered out from his regiment at Fort Jefferson on 19 October, and then officially mustered in again at the same fort as a private with the same company—the 47th Pennsylvania’s H Company—on 22 October.

1864

19th U.S. Army Map, Phase 3, Battle of Sabine Cross Roads/Mansifled (8 April 1864, public domain)

19th U.S. Army Map, Phase 3, Battle of Sabine Cross Roads/Mansfield (8 April 1864, public domain).

On 25 February 1864, H Company men and their fellow 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers set off for a phase of service in which the regiment would truly make history. Steaming for New Orleans via the Charles Thomas, the 47th Pennsylvanians arrived at Algiers, Louisiana on 28 February, and were then shipped by train to Brashear City.

Following another steamer ride—to Franklin via the Bayou Teche—the 47th joined the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division of the Department of the Gulf’s 19th Army Corps, becoming part of the only Pennsylvania regiment to serve in the 1864 Red River Campaign of Union Major-General Nathaniel Banks.

From 14-26 March, the 47th Pennsylvanians passed through New Iberia, Vermillionville, Opelousas, and Washington while en route to Alexandria and Natchitoches. Often short on food and water, they encamped briefly at Pleasant Hill the night of 7 April before marching on the next day, trudging along until mid-afternoon.

Rushed into battle ahead of other regiments in the 2nd Division, 60 members of the 47th were cut down on 8 April during the volley of fire unleashed in the Battle of Sabine Cross Roads. Private William Barry of H Company was one of multiple 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers killed in action. The fighting waned only when darkness fell. Exhausted, those who were uninjured collapsed beside the gravely wounded. After midnight, the surviving Union troops withdrew to Pleasant Hill.

Battle of Pleasant Hill, Louisiana, 9 April 1864 (Harper's Weekly, 7 May 1864, public domain).

Battle of Pleasant Hill, Louisiana, 9 April 1864 (Harper’s Weekly, 7 May 1864, public domain).

The next day, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers were ordered into a critically important defensive position at the far right of the Union lines, their right flank spreading up onto a high bluff.

By 3 p.m., after enduring a midday charge by the troops of Confederate General Richard Taylor (a plantation owner and son of Zachary Taylor, former President of the United States), the brutal fighting still showed no signs of ending. Suddenly, just as the 47th was shifting to the left side of the massed Union forces, the men of the 47th Pennsylvania were forced to bolster the 165th New York’s buckling lines by blocking another Confederate assault. As with the previous day’s battle, the fight raged for most of the day.

Following what some historians have called a rout by Confederates at Pleasant Hill and others have labeled a technical victory for the Union or a draw for both sides, the 47th fell back to Grand Ecore, where the men resupplied and regrouped.

But that march was not to be for Private Nicholas Orris because he was among those members of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry who had been killed that day at Pleasant Hill.

* Note: Sadly, the final resting place of Nicholas Orris has still not been found as of this writing. While it is possible that his remains were exhumed and reinterred as one of the unknowns at the Alexandria National Cemetery in Pineville, Louisiana or at the Chalmette National Cemetery in Chalmette, Louisiana (also known as Monument Cemetery) as part of the national cemetery reburial of federal soldiers, it is also likely that he still rests where he fell that terrible day. According to several historians who have researched the battles of the Red River Campaign, missing soldiers from both sides were often hastily interred on or near battlefields by fellow soldiers or local residents—often times placing former enemies side-by-side for eternity.

It is also equally possible, however, that the remains of Nicholas Orris were destroyed. In 1996, L.P. Hecht, in his Echoes from the Letters of a Civil War Surgeon, reported the disturbing news that wild hogs had eaten the remains of at least some of the federal soldiers who had been left unburied as the Union Army made its retreat toward New Orleans.

What Happened to the Family of Nicholas Orris?

By the time that the federal census taker arrived at the Orris family farm in Saville Township, Perry County, Pennsylvania in 1870, the household had shrunk to just three—parents George and Elizabeth, aged 70 and 61, respectively, and their youngest son, Robert, a 17-year-old who continued to help his father work the farm, which generated a substantial portion of the $3,600 in real and personal estate holdings confirmed for George Orris on 20 July of that year (roughly $72,791 in 2021 dollars). Just two years later, the family patriarch was dead, having passed away on 12 June 1872 at the age of 72. George Orris was laid to rest at the same cemetery where his first wife had been interred nearly a quarter of a century before—the Buffalo Cemetery in Ickesburg.

Henry Shull Orris (1832-1901), an older brother of Nicholas, re-settled in Illinois, where he married Emma Porter in 1857, and welcomed the births of sons Willis Orris, Robert Porter Orris (1860-1933), George Albert Orris (1862-1926), Fred G. Orris (born in 1864), Lyle E. Orris (1867-1951), and Ulysses Orris (born in 1868), and daughters Isabel M. Orris (1870-1944), a teacher in the Council Bluffs public school system, and Etta Elizabeth Orris (1877-1944)—both of whom had been born in Williams, Iowa, where Henry had relocated his family sometime during or prior to 1870. Having lived to witness the turn of the century, Henry Shull Orris died at the age of 69 on 17 August 1901 in Glidden Iowa, and was laid to rest at that community’s West Lawn Cemetery.

John Milligan E. Orris (1843-1905), a younger brother of Nicholas, married and had three children with his wife, Mary E. Orris (1845-1911): John N. Orris, who died before reaching the age of three; George W. Orris (1869-1956); and Harry Newton Orris (1883-1949). John M. E. Orris died at the age of 61, and was laid to rest at the Eshcol Cemetery in Perry County, Pennsylvania.

Samuel H. Orris (1835-1910), another younger brother of Nicholas, grew up to become a painter. After initially resettling in Bellefonte, Centre County, Pennsylvania with his wife, Mary Isabella Orris (1841-1992), he and his wife became the parents of George Philip Orris (1867-1942). The young family subsequently relocated to the Centre County community of Milesburg, where they welcomed the births of daughters Mabel Orris (1875-1970), who later wed James W. Campbell; Elizabeth Orris (1878-1950), who later wed W. Frank Campbell and was more commonly known as “Bess”; and Madge Audrey Orris (1881-1960), who later wed Samuel B. Baird. On 7 November 1910, at the age of 75, Samuel H. Orris suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Completely paralyzed, he died two days later, shortly after noon, in Centre County. His death certificate noted that he been suffering from arteriosclerosis, that he was a son of George and Sarah (Shull) Orris, and that he was laid to rest on 12 November at the Curtin Cemetery in Milesburg (known today as the Eagle Cemetery).

Elizabeth A. (Orris) Blackburn (1832-1913), the older sister of Nicholas, went on to marry Robert Blackburn on 14 December 1860, but had no children to survive her. Widowed by her husband in 1904, she lived to be eighty even though her health had declined. According to her obituary in the People’s Advocate and Press of New Bloomfield, Pennsylvania:

The deceased was born in Saville Township, Perry County, and was baptized in the Christian faith by Rev. Kline, February 18, 1883 and confirmed in the faith of the Reformed church at Buffalo, more than fifty years ago by Rev. Charles Linebach, in which faith she died…. Since the death of her late husband, who died about six years ago, she has been a confirmed invalid, being confined to her room all the time until about a year ago, when she received a paralytic stroke which rendered her completely helpless and confined her to her bed all of the time, and eventually caused her death. She always took an active interest in the social and religious affairs of her community. She was a zealous and consistent church worker, and as long as she was able to walk, never missed a church service unless prevented by sickness. She was always ready and willing to contribute her portion to all the needs of the church and made a provision for the continuance of this work in her will…. The funeral services were held in the Reformed church on Friday at 10 o’clock A.M. and interment in Buffalo Cemetery.

Nicholas Orris’s other younger half-brother, Robert C. B. Orris (1852-1913), married Amanda J. Simonton (1852-1931) in 1872 and, together with her, welcomed the arrival of seven children: Rufus Scott Orris (1874-1952); Clara Belle Orris (1876-1941), who went on to wed James Mack Sutch; Annie Elizabeth Orris (1879-1946), who went on to wed John Wickie Leonard; Jessie May Orris (1882-1933), who went on to wed Harry Andrew McCoy; Edward Leroy Orris (1887-1967); Albert Orris (1888-1889); and Harry Garfield Otis (1889-1976). Tragically, the life of Robert C. B. Orris was cut short in 1913 when he died two weeks after sustaining injuries during a fall while painting a barn near Landisburg, Pennsylvania; he was also interred at the Buffalo Cemetery in Ickesburg, Pennsylvania. According to his obituary in The News of Newport, Pennsylvania:

Robert Orris of Ickesburg died At Harrisburg Hospital on Tuesday

Much Respected Robert Orris, who fell about 22 feet on May 7 while painting a large barn for James Gibony, about a mile South of Landisburg, died at the Harrisburg hospital on Tuesday between 1 and 4 p. m., of cerebral hemorrhage. Both bones of both legs were broken between the ankles and knees, in probably seven or eight places. Local physicians had adjusted the fractures several times, as it seemed impossible for the bones to knit without slipping from their proper place.

Tuesday morning he was taken to Harrisburg by his sons, Scott and Ed, and Dr. K. K. Wolff. He had conversed pleasantly with them, and assured them that he was getting along all right, which had been his manner throughout his illness. The sons had left the hospital, and Dr. Wolff was about ready to leave, but returned to Mr. Orris’ room for a parting word and while there Mr. Orris said, ‘It is all over now, but it’s all right,’ which were the last words spoken by him. It is probable that had not his internal injuries complicated the case he would have recovered, but under the circumstances his vital organs were not equal to the strain.

Mr. Orris was born in Saville township 65 years ago and was a son of George Orris, deceased. Forty years ago he married Amanda Simonton, who with the following children survive him. two children having died in infancy; Scott, Ed, Harry, Mrs. Clara Sutch, Mrs. Jessie McCoy, all of Saville township, and Mrs. Annie Leonard of this place. He is survived by a brother, William Orris of Mendota, Ill., his sister, Mrs. Elizabeth Blackburn of Ickesburg having died last winter. His body was brought here yesterday afternoon and undertaker Samuel Myers took it to Ickesburg where funeral services will be held at his late home on Saturday at 10 a. m. conducted by his pastor … of the Reformed church, of which he was a devout member. He had been a life long resident of Saville township, and had followed the painting trade for over 10 years, but the accident which was indirectly the cause of his death was the first he had ever received. He was beloved by his family and was honored and respected by a large circle of friends, his quiet manner having endeared him to all whom he met. He was superintendent of the Newport cemetery for some time having resigned and returned to Ickesburg several years ago.

Two years after the deaths of his younger brother and sister, Jeremiah Bitner Orris (1830-1915), passed away in Ainsworth, Iowa on 11 November 1915 at the age of 85, and was interred at that community’s Campground Cemetery. According to the Portrait and Biographical Album of Washington County, Iowa, on “reaching his majority” in Perry County, Pennsylvania in 1851, he had “turned his face westward, crossed the Father of Waters, and settled in Louisa County, Iowa, where he remained until 1865, and then removed to his present place of residence” in Oregon Township in 1887, where he farmed and raised stock on 156 acres of land.

Mr. Orris was married, in Washington County, this State, in 1856, to Mary J. Hulick, a native of this county, born in 1838. Ten children have blessed this union, of whom eight are now living: John D. [1857-1933]; Henry T. [1860-1925], who married Nellie Willey; Sarah, the wife of William Pearce [1858-1919]; William, a prominent school teacher [1865-1935]; Samuel K. [1867-1953]; Jeremiah H. [1868-1956], Cyrus [1870-1922] and Alden B. [1872-1948]. Mrs. Orris died in 1871.

He was the second time married, in 1875, to Emily Mills, who was born in Fulton County, Ill. By this marriage there is one child, Lucy [1877-1901].

On coming to Iowa Mr. Orris was in very limited circumstances, and that which he now owns has been accumulated by hard work and close attention to business. He and his wife are prominent members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, of which he has been a Class-Leader ever since coming to Washington County. As a citizen he is ever ready to do his duty, and has given much of his time to advance the interests of his township, serving in various township offices. By his friends and neighbors he is held in high esteem. He is a kind and indulgent husband and father.

Following Jeremiah’s death, George W. Orris (1838-1930) became the last surviving sibling of Nicholas Orris. Married to Susan A. Jacobs (1855-1922), he had re-settled in Illinois, where he welcomed the births of three children: Eva U. Orris (1881-1882); Fred V. Orris (1886-1887); and Ora Orris (1892-1972), who went on to wed Leonard Thorsen. Having lived a long, full life, George W. Orris died at the age of 92 on 15 November 1930 in DeKalb County, Illinois, and was interred at the Precinct Cemetery in LaSalle, Illinois, where his wife and infant children had previously been laid to rest.

 

Sources:

1. Bates, Samuel P. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5, Vol. I. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: B. Singerly, State Printer, 1869.

2. Calloway, Colin. The Shawnees and the War for America, p. xxiv. New York, New York: Viking, 2007.

3. Elizabeth A. (Orris) Blackburn (obituary). New Bloomfield, Pennsylvania: People’s Advocate and Press, 5 February 1913.

4. Elizabeth “Betsy” (Hench) Orris (ancestral files for the stepmother of Nicholas Orris). Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (accessed by various researchers between 1987-present and published by various authors, including: Lee O. Hench and Bernard L. Hench via CB Hench Family Publishers, and the Kohler Family via RootsWeb’s WorldConnect Project).

5. Ellis, Franklin and Austin N. Hungerford, ed. History of That Part of the Susquehanna and Juniata Valleys, Embraced in the Counties of Mifflin, Juniata, Perry, Union and Snyder, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Vol. 1, pp. 226, 304, 414, and 490, and Vol. 2, pp. 931-934, 1034, 1037. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Everts, Peck & Richards, 1886.

6. Heinrich Ares, A. Maria, and George (birth and baptism of George Orris, father of Nicholas Orris). Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Zion German Lutheran Church, 1799-1800 (via “Historic Pennsylvania Church and Town Records, reel 691.” Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, retrieved online 6 May 2021).

7. George Orris and Sarah Shull (marriage record data), in “U.S. and International Marriage Records, 1560-1900 [database online: source no. 387.000; submitter code: REI].” Provo, Utah: Ancestry.com Operations Inc., 2004.

8. Gevinson, Alan. Which Native American Tribes Allied Themselves with the French?, in Teachinghistory.org. Fairfax, Virginia: Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University, retrieved online 3 May 2021.

9. Hain, Harry Harrison. History of Perry County, Pennsylvania. Including Descriptions of Indians and Pioneer Life from the Time of Earliest Settlement, pp. 562-563, 565-568, 577, 765-766, 1048-1049, and 1056. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Hain-Moore Company, 1922.

10. “J. B. Orris,” in Portrait and Biographical Album of Washington County, Iowa, Containing Full Page Portraits and Biographical Sketches of Prominent and Representative Citizens of the County, pp. 348-349. Chicago, Illinois: Acme Publishing Company, 1887.

11. Orris, Nicholas I., in “Civil War Veterans’ Card File, 1861-1865.” Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State Archives.

12. Orris, Nicholas, in “Registers of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865 (47th Regiment: Company H), in “Records of the Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs,” Vol. 3. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State Archives.

13. Orris, Nicholas, George Orris, Elizabeth Orris, et. al., in U.S. Census (Perry County, Pennsylvania: 1850, 1860, 1870). Washington, DC: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

14. “Samuel H. Orris” (death certificate file no.: 111678, registered no.: 25, filed 10 November 1910). Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Bureau of Vital Statistics, 1910.

15. Schmidt, Lewis. A Civil War History of the 47th Regiment of Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers. Allentown, Pennsylvania: Self-published, 1986.

16. “Succumbed to Injuries of Fall” (obituary of Robert C. B. Orris). Newport, Pennsylvania: The News, 22 May 1913.

17. Warren, Stephen. Worlds the Shawnees Made: Migration and Violence in Early America. Chapel Hill North Carolina: UNC Press Books, 2014.

18. Wright, Silas. History of Perry County, in Pennsylvania: From the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, pp. 21-29, 96, 100, and 206. Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Wylie & Griest, Printers, Bookbinders & Stereotypers, 1873.