|(Photos courtesy of Ely family)|
Sharon Ely grew up as proud descendants of four brothers who came to the
colonies only decades after the Mayflower Pilgrims landed on the shores of
they could trace their family’s long American history to English ancestors who
settled in Boston and Connecticut, it was only as young adults that they
learned the full story of perhaps the most famous Ely of them all.
Clark Ely, an Ohio schoolteacher, was among about 1,200 passengers – most of them
Union soldiers released from prison camps – to die in the April 1865 explosion
and fire on the steamboat Sultana above Memphis. It was the deadliest maritime
disaster in U.S. history.
What made Ely
notable, according to Sultana author Jerry Potter, is that he maintained a journal
that includes entries on the journey up the Mississippi River.
|Sgt. John Clark Ely|
“To my knowledge, his diary is the only
one that is in existence,” Potter recently told the Picket. “While we have many
accounts written later, his is the only one that we have that gives a day-to-day
account leading up to the disaster. Plus, he is one of the few buried at the (Memphis)
national cemetery with a headstone with his name. Finally, he became my hero
who through his own words I got to know him.”
Pearson, 60, of Norwalk, Ct.; and David Ely, 57, of Alameda, Calif.; recalled
learning the details of their great-great-grandfather’s Civil War experiences.
father, Clifford Seth Ely Jr., and Clifford’s cousin, Norman Ely, had some of
the soldier’s belongings – including one of two journals (the other is lost)
and a Bible -- and began doing research. Norman had a chess set that was carved
by John Clark Ely.
told the Picket in 2012 that the cousins and their wives traveled to a reunion
of Sultana descendants. They visited Andersonville, the notorious prison in Georgia where
John Clark Ely was held shortly after his December 1864 capture in Tennessee.
Norman Ely's mother told him
about the small diary, which captures the soldier's despair, anguish,
privations -- and hope. Ely said he became interested in the family's genealogy
later in life.
"The fact that he went through this ordeal,
the fact that he died there and left four children is very sad," he said.
(Norman Ely, of Glenwood Springs, Colo., passed away in March 2013.)
|Pages from the diary recovered after Sultana disaster (Ely family)|
Sharon Ely Pearson said she
is not sure how John Clark Ely got to Ohio. He was born in Franklinville, N.Y.
His widow, Julia, returned to Norwalk, where she died in 1873.
Clifford and Norman Ely
pursued their interest in the Sultana while retired, and they set about writing
their own memories.
in her 20s when she heard of the diary. “My Dad didn’t share that kind of
since pursued an interest in genealogy and has wandered through cemeteries. “I think it’s
very cool. It is not just my side. I have done (research) on my husband’s side, too. We
are New Englanders.”
|(Courtesy of David Ely)|
retired from the U.S. Coast Guard, has a daily reminder of John Clark Ely’s
Civil War service and sacrifice. On a wall of his home is a collage of photos
of men in his family. From left:
-- John Clark Ely, Civil War
-- Clark Mead Ely, John’s son
-- Clifford Mead Ely Sr., Clark’s son and a U.S.
Army veteran of World War I, European campaign
-- Clifford Seth Ely Jr., David and
Sharon’s father, U.S. Navy, 1943-1946, Pacific campaign. He died in October
David and Sharon did not participate in
observances this year marking the 150th anniversary of the sinking
of the Sultana and are not active in the descendants group. They are busy with
other matters. But nearly a decade ago, David made mention of John Clark Ely
during a Memorial Day observation.
Memorial Day and I brought the frame and four photographs and talked about the
sacrifices our service members do. Sometimes, it is not in the heat of battle
that they give their lives. But in this case, it can tell a story of men who
were released from prison at end of war and on the way home to families, making
that journey -- how tragedy strikes.”
|Quilt made by Trinette Ely|
One of last
things he did with his father was to visit the Gettysburg battlefield. Clifford
Ely’s late wife, Trinette, made a quilt honoring those on board the Sultana.
inspiring to have that connection. The Elys came over in the 1600s from England
but we don’t know much about a lot of the individuals, except for John Clark,”
David Ely said. “The diary and story of Sultana is a very strong connection to
the Civil War to our family …Now there is an incredible story.”
journal provides vivid details of the soldier’s transit to and time in
Confederate prison camps.
Clifford Ely, who was a businessman in Norwalk,
told the Picket in 2012 he was touched by his ancestor's time at Andersonville.
"There was a lot of sickness around. Other people stole things from him.
It was just a sad thing, day by day. People tried to escape, (but) he never
"He had all the great
hopes. He couldn't wait to get home," Clifford Ely said. "When he got on the
steamboat, he kept writing to her (Julia)."
Sgt. John Clark Ely, Company C,
Volunteer Infantry, boarded the
overcrowded Sultana near Vicksburg, Ms. His last diary entry, written two days
later, read: “Very
fine day, still upward we go.”
Sharon Ely Pearson said her great-great-grandfather should have lived to see his family.
Instead, he would perish in the April 27, 1865, disaster.
“It was sad
and tragic, but so typical for what happened in the Civil War,” she said.