Leming J. Eckler served under General Custer during the Civil War. He was captured at the battle of Trevilian Station and spent nearly a year in Confederate prison camps as a POW.
L.J. Eckler survived the war but spent the rest of his life struggling to find peace in his daily life after his time in service and as a prisoner at Andersonville. This is my ancestor, Leming J. Eckler’s, story here.
Growing up my paternal Grandmother was one of the few people who indulged my interest in family history without hesitation. She had a box of old family photographs and documents in her basement that on frequent occasions she would dig out and we would pour through them as she answered any questions that popped into my young mind. I wish I had taken more time to question her while she was alive. As an adult, I have spent countless hours trying to recall every tiny detail of so many conversations from long ago. I scour old records and try to find documents that help me piece together the missing details of the stories I vaguely remember from childhood. Each story I manage to recall I am certain there are three I have lost to the sands of time. She had some fascinating tales.
In all the tales my Grandmother told me, I do not ever remember hearing about Leming J Eckler. It is possible she did not about him; he died before she was born. It is also possible that Leming J. Eckler, or L.J. as he was known was a tormented enough figure that he descendants didn’t care to talk about him much. Whatever the reason, she never told me about L.J. Eckler and it was many years after her death before I followed the document trail to his story. L.J. Eckler was her mother’s, Sarah Eckler Ashley, paternal Grandfather through her father, Nelson Eckler.
A Call to Duty
L.J. Eckler was a young blacksmith living in Michigan at the start of the American Civil War. He was married, his wife Harriet, was a decade older than he was and she had three children from an earlier marriage. The 1860 census show the family living in Oakland County, Michigan and two of Harriet’s children from an earlier marriage are in the household. On 9 December 1861, Leming became a father with the birth of his biological son Gilbert Eckler.
On 2 September 1862, he enlisted for 3 years in the Union Army. He mustered in for service on 11 October 1862 and was assigned to Company G of the 6th Michigan Calvary, a part of the legendary Michigan Brigade led by Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer. The Michigan Brigade gained fame at the battle of Gettysburg and participated in every major battle campaign of the Army of the Potomac from Gettysburg in July 1863 to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House in April 1865. Eckler would serve as a blacksmith for the brigade until the battle of Trevilian Station, Virginia on 11 June 1864.
In The Army
General Custer earned his reputation for daring bordering on reckless long before the ill-fated Last Stand that cost him and his men their lives in the American west. Custer earned his reputation for rushing headlong into the face of danger while serving in the Union Army. Custer’s Brigade of Wolverines could be found charging into mounted melees in the center of the battlefield to the charge of “Come on, you Wolverines!” as the flamboyant General led the charge forward. It earned him great battlefield victories when it worked and caused great battlefield casualties when it failed.
“Come on, you Wolverines!”Custer’s battlefield charge to his Brigade of Michigan soldiers
The Custer Brigade was one of the elite Calvary units of the Union Army under their young leader. At the battle of Haw’s Shop 28 May 1864 the wooded terrain forced his brigade to dismount and line up for battle like infantry. Custer inspired his men by staying on his horse as he led them forward waving his hat in full view of the enemy while his brigade band played Yankee Doodle. During the heavy rifle and artillery fire 41 Union cavalrymen and Custer’s horse fell. Still the daring young General and his Wolverines fought battle after battle, day after day, with the same reckless abandon for personal safety.
Battle of Trevilian Station
On 11 June 1864, the Union and the Confederate forces met up again at the Trevilian Station. The Michigan Brigade under General Custer managed to capture Trevilian Station, unguarded and occupied by Confederate General Wade Hampton’s trains. The Michiganders captured 800 prisoners and 90 wagons including food, ammunition, and 1,500 horses. The daring move resulted in great bounty but quickly resulted in Custer’s men surrounded on three sides by enemy forces.
Custer’s brigade, under heavy enemy fire from three sides, were rapidly in danger of losing all they had gained as they wound up separated from the rest of the Union forces by the Confederates. The situation grew dire as the Michigan men continued to fall. When the flag bearer fell injured, Custer removed the flag and stuffed it in his coat so it would not be lost in the foray. The men were in danger of being overrun, much of their war bounty lost, many of their own men dead or injured, and now some of their own wagons and men captured by enemy forces.
Sheridan to the Rescue
Finally, Sheridan was able to come to the rescue of Custer. The Confederate forces were driven back and Sheridan and Custer ended the day with the Union forces in charge of Trevilian Station. The battle toll was heavy. Custer’s brigade counted 361 battle casualties that first day. The forces met again in the same area for a second day of fighting on June 12, 1864.
The Heavy Toll of Battle
The battle of Trevilian Station was the bloodiest and largest all-cavalry battle of the Civil War. Both sides took heavy losses. Union Forces had 102 killed, 470 wounded, and 435 captured. Of those losses Custer’s brigade lost 11 men killed, 51 injured, and 299 captured. Leming J. Eckler was one of the 299 men captured during the fighting.
As brutal and deadly as battle can be Leming J. Eckler had just begun to experience the depths of hell on earth war can bring. As a prisoner of war, he found himself at Camp Sumter in Georgia.
More commonly known today as Andersonville Prison, Camp Sumter opened in April 1864. By the time Leming J. Eckler arrived in late June 1864, it had already become an overcrowded pit of death and misery. The site housed over twenty thousand Union prisoners by the end of June 1864, over thirty thousand a month later. August of 1864 saw the camp at its peak population with over thirty-two thousand Union prisoners packed into the twenty-six acre stockade.
Hell on Earth
In all forty-five thousand Union prisoners passed through the gates at Camp Sumter. The death rates were astronomical as disease and malnutrition ran through the overcrowded and deplorable conditions. The death rate was so high they used mass trench graves to bury the bodies. In the fourteen months of operation, nearly thirteen thousand, a death rate of twenty-eight percent, died at Camp Sumter.
“As we entered the place, a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us. Before us were forms that had once been active and erect;—stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin. Many of our men, in the heat and intensity of their feeling, exclaimed with earnestness. “Can this be hell?” “God protect us!” and all thought that he alone could bring them out alive from so terrible a place. In the center of the whole was a swamp, occupying about three or four acres of the narrowed limits, and a part of this marshy place had been used by the prisoners as a sink, and excrement covered the ground, the scent arising from which was suffocating. The ground allotted to our ninety was near the edge of this plague-spot, and how we were to live through the warm summer weather in the midst of such fearful surroundings, was more than we cared to think of just then.”Robert H. Kellogg, sergeant major in the 16th Regiment Connecticut Volunteers, described his entry as a prisoner into the prison camp, May 2, 1864
Leming J. Eckler would spend over seven months in Camp Sumter during the worst of the disease and overcrowding. Records show that at least one time during his time as a POW at the Camp he received treatment for scorbutus, a term of the day for scurvy, which killed many of the prisoners at Camp Sumter. Leming J. Eckler managed to survive and on 2 February 1865 and was sent to Columbia, South Carolina and was held at Camp Asylum, an equally deadly Confederate prison camp.
Camp Asylum and Salisbury Prison
Leming J. Eckler left Camp Sumter for Columbia, South Carolina on 2 February 1865. His time at Camp Asylum would be short lived. Sherman’s Union forces were blazing their way across the south and rumors had him marching into Columbia soon.
The Confederate forces protecting Camp Asylum evacuated the prisoners, sending them first to Salisbury prison camp at Charlotte and then onto Wilmington, North Carolina as Sherman continued his march across the south. Sherman sacked Columbia on 17 February 1865; three days after the last of the Union prisoners evacuated from the prison camp there.
POW Exchanges Resumed
On the same day that Sherman sacked Columbia, the Union and Confederate governments announced a POW exchange. Over five thousand Union prisoners left Salisbury for Wilmington, North Carolina for the next three weeks. On 2 March 1865, the prisoners from Salisbury were exchanged at Wilmington, North Carolina including Leming J. Eckler. The prisoners left Wilmington and were transported by ship to Annapolis, Maryland for processing and medical treatment.
According to the New York Times article published on Tuesday 7 March 1865 Leming J. Eckler was one of 500 men to arrive on the steamer Gen. Lyon from Wilmington, North Carolina on the previous Sunday. He was one of three thousand Union prisoners exchanged as the war drew to its conclusion.
Leming J. Eckler received his discharge from the United States Army on 12 June 1865 at Camp Chase, Ohio. It had been nearly a year to the day since his capture at Trevilian Station. He was just a few months short of completing his entire three-year enlistment.
Back home in Michigan Leming reunited with his family. He continued his trade as a blacksmith. On 4 July 1867, the couple welcomed their second son together, my great-Great Grandfather, Nelson Eckler. At the time of the 1870 census, the family is living together in Oakland County, Michigan.
As time progressed, Leming J. Eckler seems to have had a rough time adjusting. By 1880 Leming and his wife Harriet were divorced and his life seems to have been plagued with marital and money problems. He remarried several times and at least one more marriage ended in divorce. He was suspected of trying to orchestrate an insurance fraud scheme in 1884 that wound up landing him in jail.
Leming J. Eckler died on 21 February 1915 in Tuscola County, Michigan. He was married at least five times during his lifetime. He is buried in the Almer Township Cemetery in Caro, Michigan.