Private Ezra Tebbets

Fifth Iowa Volunteer Cavalry

Private Ezra M. Tebbets was an 1859 graduate Harvard College when he rushed to join the Union army alongside his older brother Sergeant William Tebbetts. Although the entries in the Official Roster simply record the dates of his muster, reenlistment and death due to disease on October 30, 1864 at Millen, Georgia, we are fortunate to have a much fuller account of his life an service. The following excerpts from the Harvard Memorial Biographies provide much interesting information.

Ezra Martin Tebbets
Private Fifth Iowa Cavalry
First Lieutenant and A.I.G. (U.S. Vols.)
Died in prison at Millen, Georgia, October 30, 1864
of privation and exhaustion

Ezra Martin Tebbets was born at Lynn, Massachusetts, January 8, 1838… the eldest of seven sons, his mother having been left a widow before he entered college… He graduated at Harvard College, in the Class of 1859, among the first scholars in his Class, in mathematics ranking first. He afterwards went through the course of Engineering at the Lawrence Scientific School, and then engaged in the practice of his profession as civil engineer in Iowa. But the Rebellion which put the nation in jeopardy allowed him no rest in his quiet pursuits. With his brother he enlisted as a private in a corps designed to become a part of Fremont's guard, and which, after several changes, was designated as Company E of the Fifth Iowa Cavalry. He was employed in the dangerous service of guarding Tennessee against the guerillas and marauders then infesting that Border State. In this capacity he was a daily witness of the truth of his own delineation of the horrors of civil war, in a college theme:

"War, even where the opposing parties are of different nations, has evils enough--the widows and desolate orphans, burning villages, and fertile fields laid waste, bringing want and misery to hundreds. But when a civil war breaks out, the evil is increased a hundred-fold; then all the ties that unite men are broken, brothers raise their hands against brothers, and fathers against sons, in deadly combat."

With no means of distinguishing friends from enemies, at one hour the Union forces might be engaged in deadly conflict with hidden foes, among the forests and mountains, and in the next hour might enter a town to meet the same citizens under the Union flag, welcoming them to their hearths and their homes. Of this fact they were often assured by the negroes, who could give the names of men who had returned from a hot skirmish with the Iowa Cavalry, had hastily stabled their horses, washed themselves, and come forth to meet and welcome the men with whom they had just been in mortal combat. In conflicts of this discouraging character many months passed, in which, even in their victories, he could see nothing gained for the great objects of the war. On every side he witnessed the reverse of all he had hoped to find. He expected to meet an honorable enemy in fair fight, but he was compelled to witness the violation of the fundamental principles of civilization in the conduct of those who but carried the principles of secession to their legitimate result.

In one of his letters he writes:" A year's residence at the South would convince any sensible man that the Rebellion is but the natural result of the state of society prevailing here. The speech of Charles Sumner on the barbarism of slavery is the truth, and nothing but the truth. I would rather help end the war in one big fight, than wander about here in search of guerillas, who will shoot at one from behind fences and trees. Some of them have been troubling our camp guard. One had two fingers cut off by a man who approached his post at night; a second had a ball put through his arm, and a third had his hat shot off."

Such was the singleness of his own purpose, that he witnessed with strong indignation the false patriotism that had secured honorable positions for peculation and fraud. He writes: "Many of the newspapers have much to say of the inefficiency of our cavalry. If you had seen the last lot of horses sent to our regiment the other day from St. Louis, you would have been surprised. Of the ten drawn by our company, not one was fit for the service; one would not eat, another could scarcely walk, and the remainder will be in the bone-yard before the month is out. If the government will furnish us with such horses as Morgan steals, we will ride as fast and as far as his band."

…Of the sanitary provision for the army he writes: "There is more truth than poetry in an article in the Atlantic Monthly on the sanitary condition of the army. Our company entered Benton Barracks with one hundred and one men. One man has been lost in action, three have died from disease, and one has been drowned. There are fifty-two left. Where are the rest? Discharged from the service for disability. If a soldier has a severe fit of sickness, his chance for recovery is rather small. The hospital under present management contributes little to his recovery. It would be far better policy for the government to cure and keep the enlisted men than to offer large bounties for recruits to fill their places."

…The utterly lawless condition of affairs in Tennessee, the want of discipline pervading both armies, the prevalence of intemperance, the growth of vicious habits of every description, at times produced in him a feeling of despondency, almost of discouragement; and he wrote, December 12, 1863: "I never had any taste for army life, and what I have seen since I enlisted has increased my dislike. I am not sorry that I enlisted when I did; but when my term of enlistment expires, I think I will leave the army."

…After his reenlistment, at his last visit to his home on furlough, when a friend earnestly remonstrated with him on his indifference to promotion, representing that the country needed the exercise of his higher, rarer talents, which qualified him for any position in the corps of engineers, his reply was, "The country needs men, not officers; and though as an officer I should associate with men of a higher rank, they would not be men of higher integrity and virtue." He obeyed his convictions, and gave to his country a man. He again shared in the danger, toil, and privation of his old company, of whom one who knew them well writes, " There was not an evil man among them."

…In the expedition from Atlanta, under Generals Stoneman and McCook, the Fifth Iowa Cavalry was attached to the command of the latter. The two columns marched southeasterly in divergent lines, having arranged a junction after two days. While McCook's column were engaged in tearing up the rails of the Macon Road at Lovejoy's Station, they were assailed by a superior force, and retreated towards Newnan on the West Point Railroad, where they met and were hemmed in by another body of Rebels, through whom the main body of the Union forces cut their way, and reached Atlanta with the loss of five hundred men. Tebbets was captured at a point remote from the main body, whither he had ridden in haste to warn a friend on picket, who, without his knowledge, had but a few minutes previously been captured. This was on the 30th of July, 1864.

The following is an extract from a letter written by Mr. B.H. White, the friend above mentioned, dated Nashville, October 30, 1864, after his escape from the enemy: "Our captors took from us whatever they wanted. Afterwards we were searched three times, the last time at Andersonville. There we were compelled to remove our clothing, which they examined piece by piece, and everything they found they kept, even photographs and letters. Those who were lucky enough to keep thus far extra clothing or a blanket were here relieved of it, and we were turned loose into the stockade with what we happened to have on our backs. But for some reason they left me a blanket and Martin a piece of canvas. Of the six hundred that were put into the stockade that day, at least half were without boots or shoes, and many without hat or coat… "There were confined in this stockade about thirty-two thousand men. Their condition I will not attempt to describe."

A brief journal was kept by Tebbets during his imprisonment at Andersonville…
July 30, 1864
Captured by the Rebels near the town of Newnan, Coweta County, Georgia. They took my hat, money, &e, and marched me, with fifty others, to town…
August 1
Searched today, but nothing was taken from me. At ten o'clock received a piece of bread as large as my two fingers. Took the cars and travelled twenty-three miles to Eastport, where we stopped all night till five o'clock, A.M. Searched again.
August 19
Very hot day. Stayed in my tent most of the day; very weak like the rest of the boys, can hardly carry a bucket of water.
August 22
Played chess. Some prisoners brought in, but not enough to equal the number of those that die.
August 24
Had a long talk on the chance for exchange; still hope for one this fall.
August 25
Hot day. Feel a little down-hearted once in a while.
August 27
Great excitement about exchange. All to be exchanged in two or three weeks. Wish it were true.
September 2
Sherman reported flanking Hood. In hopes we may be recaptured some time this month.

…The best account of the intervening epoch is to be found in the narratives of his fellowsoldiers. Mr. White's account, quoted above, continues as follows: "On the 19th of September, eleven hundred were taken from the stockade to be exchanged for Rebel prisoners in the hands of General Sherman. Martin and I were among them; but when we arrived at the point of exchange, a place about twenty miles southof Atlanta, on account of some disagreement between the commissioners, only five hundred were exchanged; we were not of this number. I never saw such a disappointed, disheartened body of men as the seven [six] hundred who were turned back. Many burst into tears…"

The subsequent events of his unhappy experience are related in the following extract from a letter written by Mr. Lot H. Carley after his exchange, dated Annapolis, December 5, 1864: "Martin, being lame, fell back to the rear. White made his escape. The next morning the sick, Martin among them, were detached and put into the cars, reached Macon, where they remained two days, then started for Savannah. When about twenty-five miles from Macon he jumped from the car. The guard supposed he was falling, and attempted to catch him; he did get hold of him, which eased his fall very much; but as it was, he injured one leg badly by spraining his knee-joint. The guard on the top of the cars fired at him, but without effect. He started off into the woods and swamps, sometimes in water up to his knees, subsisting wholly upon green corn and such vegetables as he could find, for five days, when he found his strength was failing, and concluded he could never get into our lines; he therefore went to a house, and gave himself up as a prisoner. He was taken back to Camp Sumter… There was soon an opportunity offered him of going into the hospital; but he concluded that the stockade was as good, if not better, than the hospital, and he preferred staying with those he knew. He seemed to hold his own very well, and perhaps improved a little while we remained at Savannah...We all did everything in our power for Martin, but he seemed to fail very fast, for no medicine of any kind could be obtained. He continued to fail until the 30th of October, when he died in the morning about sunrise... The day before his death we had a long conversation; he appeared confident of getting home by Thanksgiving. I was to go round to his home with him, and we imagined what a feast we would have."

Thus he died, of privation and exhaustion--almost of starvation--after twice enlisting as a private in the ranks because "the country needed men, not officers." His letter of appointment as First Lieutenant and Assistant Inspector-General of Volunteers in the Army of the Cumberland had reached regimental head-quarters two weeks after his capture, and he never saw it. He was the last of eight classmates who died in the service, and the only Harvard graduate who breathed his last amid the horrors of a Rebel prison.

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