Ephriam Gaither Alburtis
Even serious students of the Civil War would be forgiven failing to identify the name of Captain Ephriam Gaither Alburtis. Some with a special knowledge of Jom Pelham will tell you that he was an elderly Martinsburg businessman who received command of the Wise Battery, a position for which he had no qualifications. Even this scant information is inaccurate; Alburtis was not "elderly," nor did he lack military experience.
Ephriam Gaither Alburtis was born in Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia) on July 6, 1817 and lived most of his life in that picturesque area. On December 30, 1846, he enlisted in the Independent Blues Battery which, as Company H, First Virginia Volunteers, saw active service at Matamoros, Camargo, Walnut Springs, Monterry, Buena Vista, and Saltillo in the Mexican War, with Alburtis as captain. He was discharged in July 1848, and returned to Martinsburg. In December 1842, he married 17-year-old Mary Catherine Swartz, eight years his junior, and together they produced by 1860 "a large family."
Little more can be said of the man personally. Milham described him as "somewhat pompous, important with...dignity," but Heros van Borcke, who had met him, found his company "delightful" (although he may have been thinking of his "amiable family" and "the agreeable ladies of his household").
In October 1852, Alburtis was elected Clerk of the Court, a position he held until September 1861. During this time he seems to have been associated with his brother, John, in publishing The Gazette, a local newspaper with strong Southern sympathies. Martinsburg was a town of severely divided politics. Although many citizens were converted to the Confederacy by Lincoln's call for volunteers, The Gazette's facilities would be destroyed by pro-Unionists, and the paper would never resume publication.
Although some sources say the Wise Battery was present at the capture of John Brown on October 9, 1859, more likely Milham is correct in stating that it was organized as a direct result of the action. Alburtis was reported to have led a group of volunteers to Harpers Ferry "armed as best they could be" to defend the town. In any case, doubtless because of his previous experience, Alburtis was elected Captain of the battery on November 19, 1859. The battery of four guns was first recruited from the Martinsburg area (a Samuel Alburtis was at one time a member).
The Alburtis Battery's first active service appears to have been at Charles Town at the time of Jom Brown's execution. Alburtis does not seem to have been with it when it was called into active service by Governor John Letcher on April 19, 1861, for it proceeded to Charles Town under its First Lieutenant, James S. Brown. From Charles Town, they proceeded to Harpers Ferry and were mustered into the state's service on May 3rd. By then, few of the original personnel from the 1859 battery remained. The battery suffered numerous desertions in April, with a few more in May and June. A muster for July and August showed that most of the men came fran Martinsburg, with some from Harpers Ferry, Winchester, Bunker Hill and other Virginia towns. In June the New York Times reported it reduced to 20 men through incursions of small pox and dysentery, but this was stoutly denied. On June 15, 1861, First Lieutenant John Pelham was "temporarily attached to the company by order of Genl Jos. E. Johnston," to act as drillmaster, with authority under Lieutenant Brown.
According to Milham, Alburtis, although initially annoyed by the action, virtually relinquished command to Pelham, with an apparent sense of relief. Whatever happened between the two men, Pelham must have conducted himself with incredible tact, for they remained on friendly terms a year after the end of their military association. A paper from Alburtis's hometown, the Virginia Republican, bluntly credited the young drillmaster with the battery's state of readiness, stating, "It is justl y regarded as amongst the most efficient components of the artillely Corps, for which it is deeply indebted to Lieut. John Pelham." In June 1861, the Wise Battery was officially designated "Company B, First Virginia Light Artillery," Colonel W. N. Pendleton commanding, and was attached to Colonel F. S. Bartow's Second Brigade, Army of the Shenandoah. On July 4th, B Company's training was interrupted by a call to Darkesville, but they saw no action. Then, on July 18th, orders were received to march to Manassas. Colonel Pendleton has recorded that the Rockbridge, Stanard and Alburtis (Wise) batteries reached Piedmont by dark of the 19th, and he personally led them on a fast march toward Manassas, where they arrived on the 20th, with only two hours rest enroute.
Alburtis ' s role in the battle is unknown. His family was always convinced that he commanded the battery in the fight at First Manassas, and even captured a Federal officer's sword, which became a treasured family relic. Historians have disputed the claim. As precise and correct an officer as Brigadier General T. J. Jackson, commander of the First Brigade, wrote an official report within days of the battle. He referred to the battery commanders by name, referring to the Alburtis Battery as "the battery under Lieutenant Pelham. " Fred R. Martin speculated that Alburtis may have commanded the battery early in the action but was compelled to yield command, perhaps by ill health.
Following the battle, B Company went into camp at Camp Bartow near Centreville, and there it remained through January 1862. Alburtis was not with them long, for he left on August 24, 1861 on detached service with the Second Brigade, Second Corps, leaving the company once again in charge of Lieutenant Brown. In September he was signing entries as "Clerk of the Court." Then, on January 12, 1862, he submitted the following letter to General Samuel Cooper, Adjutant and General Inspector of Confederate forces:
In consideration of the enclosed certificate and the fact that the Company which I now have the honour of commanding, will go out of service by reason of the expiration of the term for which they were mustered, on the 19th day of April, 1862, I beg leave herewith to terrier my resignation to take effect on the 20th instant.
I am induced to persue this course solely from inability to perform the duties devolving upon me and with a hope of retiring now, I may be enabled at an early period of again entering the service, if not in my present capacity, in some other, in which I may be enabled much better than at present, of rendering the State some service.
He signed this as "Capt., Co. B, 1st Va. Light Artillery." His resignation was endorsed by both the Assistant Surgeon of the Ninth Regiment and the Surgeon of the Second Brigade, Second Corps (Confederate) Army of the Potomac.
Even before Alburtis resigned, Pelham was transferred permanently to Company C. Wise's Battery continued in service, with James Brown as Captain. At Sharpsburg Captain Br