Two brothers who served in the 144th Illinois Infantry guarding Alton’s infamous Confederate Prison and who died side by side on the same day in 1865 now rest side by side in Milton Cemetery.
Or do they?
Perhaps they rest side by side in Alton National Cemetery.
Sgt. George W. Ernest and his brother, Pvt. Amos A. Ernest, are memorialized by a pair of veterans’ headstones at the Alton National Cemetery on Pearl Street and also at Milton Cemetery at the foot of Milton Hill in Alton.
The mystery of why these young men ended up with two headstones each may never be solved, but it makes for an interesting tale.
The search that ended up finding these headstones begins with a family story from my wife’s family. It was said that her late father, Harold Keene, took his elderly grandmother to Milton Cemetery to decorate family graves, including those of two brothers, who supposedly fought on opposite sides in the Civil War — one for the Blue and one for the Gray.
The story turns out to be largely true, although without the romantic, bittersweet twist that they fought on opposite sides.
George and Amos Ernest were actually on the same side, enlistees in the Union Army. Both were mustered in on Sept. 7, 1864, and were subsequently assigned to Company C of the Alton-based 144th Illinois Infantry Regiment. The 144th never saw combat, but was assigned to duty in St. Louis and it supplied the military guards for the Confederate Prison in Alton. The regiment was mustered out on July 14, 1865, since the war had ended.
But the Ernest brothers were not to live to be mustered out or to see the end of the war.
According to two separate articles published in the March 24, 1865, edition of an Alton newspaper available online from Hayner Library, the brothers died side by side on the same day, March 16, 1865, at the Upper Alton home of a Mr. Mortley. Regiment records indicate that Amos had been discharged less than a month before, on Feb. 24, because of disability, while George was apparently still on active duty. Amos died first of “consumption.” George died 20 minutes later of “congestion of the brain,” produced by “over exertion in caring for his brother.” Most likely they were subject to the same diseases that ravaged the prisoners whom they guarded at the Confederate Prison. George was 24 and his younger brother, Amos, was 22.
The brief contemporary newspaper account of the deaths notes, in the flowery prose of the day, “Thus the two brothers in the bloom of youth, and loved by all who knew them, at the same hour were called to quit the shores of time and launch out into the boundless ocean of eternity. ‘Surely all flesh is as grass.’” They were reportedly buried in the same grave, although the cemetery is not specified in the newspaper article.
While the cemetery where the brothers was buried isn’t specified in the contemporary account, their gravesites — two for each of them — are documented on the popular genealogy website Find-A-Grave, where site contributors record the location of graves, often with photos of the headstones.
As I researched these brothers, I leaned that I’m not the first to discover the curiosity of the brothers’ double headstones. Alton Township Supervisor Don Huber and writer Charlotte Stetson — both avid Alton historians — published an account of the twin headstones in the book “Alton Remembered,” published in 2000.
Huber believes the brothers are probably buried in Milton Cemetery, as do I. He notes that there is no burial record for them at the Alton City Cemetery, out of which the Alton National Cemetery was carved in the middle of the 20th Century. He also says that it’s less likely the brothers would have been buried in Alton City Cemetery since they died in Upper Alton, then a separate town. I lean toward Milton because that is where the elderly grandmother decorated the graves of her uncles.
The military generally keeps good records and the provisioning of veterans’ headstones is no exception. There are three records of headstones being ordered for the Ernest brothers — two for a headstone for each in Milton Cemetery and one for George in the Alton National Cemetery. (Presumably, there is also an order somewhere, but still undiscovered, for a headstone at the Alton National Cemetery for Amos.) These orders were placed in 1933, almost 70 years after the men died, and are designated as headstones for the “unmarked graves of soldiers.”
It’s hard to determine today what happened here, but it seems a fair supposition that memory had grown thin and two people, acting independently, took action to memorialize the young brothers, who had died so many years before.
Interestingly, George and Amos were not the only Ernest brothers who served the Union during the Civil War and to have a military headstone.
The newspaper account of George and Amos’ deaths indicates that their parents, Henry F. and Jane Ernest, were deceased. We don’t know exactly when they died so we’re unsure if they ever knew that they would have four sons in service to the Union cause.
Oldest son Henry W.D. Ernest was in the 27th Illinois Infantry. He survived the war, was a bit of an eccentric and apparently lived in and out of institutions on and off for the rest of his life. When he died in 1904 he was buried in Ebenezer Cemetery in West Alton, Mo. According to a contemporary newspaper account — which calls Henry the “Onion King” of the Missouri Point — he insisted that bodies not be buried for 72 hours after death to avoid the possibility of premature burial. His family honored his wish.
The second-oldest son, David Putnam Ernest, also was a private in an undetermined Union Army unit. He appears to be the only son who married and had a family, passing away at the age of 84. He is buried in Wanda Cemetery.
A daughter, Louisa, also married and had a large family, and it was her line that passed down the memory of the Civil War brothers.
One of the 1865 newspaper stories also indicates that George, the older brother, had “long been in his country’s service and by unflinching courage at (the battles of Fort) Donelson and Shiloh proved himself a true soldier and noble patriot.” So he apparently had an enlistment prior to his service with the 144th and is most likely the George W. Ernest who is listed on the roster of the 7th Illinois Infantry that is known to have fought at those two battles.
In the absence of any firm evidence, it is impossible to say for certain where the youngest Ernest brothers are spending their voyage on the “boundless ocean of eternity.”
But considering the fact that many veterans’ graves lie on distant lands or were never marked in any way, perhaps two resting places are better than none.
George and Amos — from your kinfolk a century and a half later — rest well, wherever you are.
Walt Sharp, formerly of Alton, lives in Dallas. He is a retired public relations executive and a former managing editor of The (Alton) Telegraph. If you think you know where George and Amos are, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.