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Captain Daniel Ellis
A Biographical Sketch



Daniel Ellis was born on 30 December 1827 in Carter County in northeastern Tennessee. With a rudimentary education, Ellis was a farmer and wagonmaker until volunteering for service in the Mexican War, serving in Company K, 5th Regular Tennessee Volunteer Infantry. Most of his war service was spent battling the "intestine foe" which would plague him for the rest of his life, ultimately leading to his death. He returned home from Mexico to regain his health and resume his expectedly ordinary life. He married Martha May of Sussex County, Virginia, with whom he had seven children between 1852 and 1866.

The Civil War found East Tennessee strongly divided in its loyalties, with most citizens, like Daniel Ellis, favoring the Union. When the state seceded, Confederate troops were sent in to control Union sympathizers. Ellis became involved in a failed plan to burn railroad bridges to precipitate an invasion by Union forces. Branded a bridge burner, a capital offense, Ellis lived in exile in the East Tennessee mountains. He eventually became a pilot, leading Unionists, Confederate deserters, prison escapees, slaves, and all manner of fugitives through the mountains into Kentucky or wherever the Union lines would advance. All the while he recruited for several regiments, provided information on Confederate activities to Federal authorities, and maintained a mail service between mountain Unionists and their men in the Union army. Possibly the most successful of all such pilots, and despite a bounty on his head, Ellis always (often narrowly) escaped capture, and became known as "The Old Red Fox." War in the mountains was a brutal, bloody, often lawless affair, and the likelihood for the survival of Ellis and his family was enhanced by his reputation for extraordinary viciousness when crossed. Armed with the best weapons his contacts could secure, Ellis and his band of guerillas proved a formidable force. 

In all, Ellis made some 20 expeditions, covering some 8000 miles, leading approximately 4000 fugitives through the mountains. Over half of these joined the Union army. Ellis was a constant aggravation to Confederate authorities, and contributed incalculably to the morale of the beleaguered Unionist East Tennesseans. As the war waned and his piloting duties were less in demand, he formally joined the Union army as captain of Company A, 13th Regiment, Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry. His official duties included leading raids against Confederates in the upper East Tennessee counties, guiding Federal troops through the northwestern North Carolina mountains, and tracking and arresting AWOL Federal soldiers. He mustered out in September 1865.

After the war, trying to eke out a living in the war-savaged mountains and often the victim of his own altruistic nature, Ellis petitioned congress for compensation for his efforts on behalf of the Union. He was recognized with an award of $3060, about two years' pay and allowances for an army captain. In 1867 Ellis published his war memoirs, Thrilling Adventures of Daniel Ellis. Ellis was probably assisted in writing the book by William R. Fitzsimmons, who was a prominent East Tennessee newspaperman, and whose name appears as "part-proprietor" on Ellis' contract with the publisher, Harper & Brothers (for an examination of Ellis' authorship of Thrilling Adventures, see Ellis, Allen. "The Lost Adventures of Daniel Ellis." in The Journal of East Tennessee History no. 74 (2002), pp.58-68). The book remains in print and, despite its narrative excesses, is largely regarded as an invaluable, if highly partisan, accounting of conditions in wartime Appalachia. Some modern critics feel Ellis exaggerates his role; Ellis' contemporaries maintain that he was too modest to adequately convey his war record. 

Despite the popularity of his book, and partly because of his tendency to give copies away, Ellis remained in poor financial straits. In 1878 Ellis was chosen, by virtue of his reputation for integrity and courage, to act as bodyguard in the congressional campaign of Robert Love Taylor. The congressman rewarded him with a position within the U.S. House of Representatives. Years later, popular writer James R. Gilmore ("Edmund Kirke") was shocked to find Ellis, whom he considered "the hero of the late war" living in obscurity and poverty in the East Tennessee mountains. Gilmore worked to provide more government compensation for the old scout, and used him as a supporting character in one of his novels, A Mountain-White Heroine (1889).

Due to continued Confederate loyalties in the East Tennessee region, the nature of Ellis' wartime activities, and reactions to his vitriolic book, Ellis' life was threatened for years. As long as he was able, he was compelled to travel well-armed, always on the alert. Nonetheless, he lived into old age, always preferring to walk when possible, recounting his exploits, and enjoying a measure of local celebrity. He died 6 January 1908, and is buried in the family cemetery near Elizabethton, Tennessee. 

Today Ellis is hardly remembered, his legacy perhaps swept up in a healing repression of the horrors, cruelty, and upheaval of the Civil War in the Appalachian mountains. He seems to be emerging from obscurity, however, as the Civil War in the Appalachian south gains more attention from historians. Captain Ellis has also made some recent inroads into Popular Culture. Thrilling Adventures was used as a source (and inspired a scene or two) by Charles Frazier for his celebrated novel, Cold Mountain. A character based upon Ellis (and Ellis himself) appears in Cameron Judd's "Mountain War Trilogy": The Phantom Legion: A Novel of Unionist Resistance in Tennessee and North Carolina, February-December 1863 (New York, 1997), Season of Reckoning: A Novel of Unionist Resistance in Tennessee and North Carolina, January 1864-February 1866 (New York, 1997), The Shadow Warriors: A Novel of Unionist Resistance in Tennessee and North Carolina, September 1860-January 1863 (New York, 1997). Also, actor/writer Gary Bullock is at this writing looking for a producer for his screenplay entitled Ridge Runner, based on Ellis' adventures. See http://www.act2sc3.com/ridgerunnerpitch.html.


Based on 

Ellis, Allen W. "Ellis, Daniel." In Encyclopedia USA: The Encyclopedia of the United 
States of America Past & Present
, ed. Donald Whisenhunt, vol. 26. Academic 
International Press, 1999: 232-234.





Images:

Scout Daniel Ellis loaded for bear (from Scott and Angel's History of the 13th Regiment)

Dan and Martha  (from the Elizabethton Star, January 5 1975, page 1-B)

A Highway Marker that once stood on TN 67 over the north bank of the Doe River. It was removed during road construction and to date has not been replaced. Note the incorrect year of death.

A church that Dan built in the Valley Forge community near Elizabethton in 1867. The date of the photograph is unknown. Who are the two women and the child? (photos courtesy of Robert M. Shepherd, Jr.) 

The same church in 2001