History's Headlines: Mystery man of Marshall's Hill

 

People driving to Palmerton will probably notice a house on a hill. It is called Marshall's Hill, after General Elisha Marshall. This is the story of that brave man and heroic soldier whose tragic and at times bizarre life led him to the house and the hill.

Elisha Marshall's father was Chauncey Marshall, a Connecticut Yankee entrepreneur. He and his wife, Mary Hotchkiss Ward Marshall, came to Seneca Falls, New York in the 1820s. His most significant business was the Marshall & Adams clock factory. In 1836 Marshall & Adams made $40,000 in profits. But in 1837 Chauncey Marshall's real estate speculations collapsed. Suddenly this father of six found himself bankrupt. Apparently finding the shame too great to bear, he killed himself. His wife did not re-marry.

Elisha, their fourth child, was born on January 26, 1829. On July 1, 1845 he was appointed a cadet at West Point Military Academy. The most historically important of Marshall's classmates was Gouverneur Warren. On July 2, 1863 at Gettysburg, his knowledge of topography led him to recognize that a vital space called the Little Round Top would be essential to the eventual Union victory.

Marshall got his first action by being sent to the western frontier. In 1859, records Marshall's New York Times obituary, he was serving at Fort Mojave, New Mexico, "and at this point he engaged in his first skirmish in a brush with the Indians." In 1860 it was clear the nation was headed for Civil War. Marshall had no doubt about which side he was on. On April 20th 1862 he received a commission with the rank of Colonel in the Army of the Potomac, the main Union fighting force. That May Marshall married his first wife, Hannah Ericson. They were to have two children: a daughter, Nora, who died at the age of 5, and a son, Aaron, who died at the age of 1. Hannah died in 1873.

Throughout 1862 Marshall participated in several major campaigns. At the close of that year Marshall joined in the Union forces- flags flying- that charged into the entrenched Confederate troops at Fredericksburg, where they were killed by the hundreds. Marshall was so severely wounded at Fredericksburg that he was sent home to recover. It was not until June 17th 1864 that he found himself with Grant's forces outside of Petersburg, on the doorstep of the Confederate capital of Richmond, in front of a mass of fortifications that the Army of the Potomac could not crack.

This, on July 30, 1864 put Marshall at the center of what is known as the Battle of the Crater, which Grant was later to call "the saddest thing I have seen in the entire war." A group of soldiers from Schuylkill County, former coal miners turned soldiers, dug a tunnel underneath the Confederate entrenchments. Here they placed 4000 pounds of black powder. The idea was to blow a huge hole in the Rebel lines, so big that they would be stunned. Before they knew what was happening, Union troops would charge either side of the entrenchments, breaking the Petersburg defenses. Marshall's men charged into the crater and were so amazed that they became transfixed by it. "The division was simply there," recalled one eyewitness, "a mass of brave men without orders and without a head." Then the Union soldiers discovered they could not get out of the sheer clay walls of the crater, and that gave the Rebels time to reorganize.

Marshall held his post to the last, refusing to abandon a comrade whose artificial leg made of cork had been splintered by a flying shard of boulder, and left him lying on his back, helpless in the crater. "Men were dead and dying all around us," one officer recalled, "blood was streaming down the sides of the crater to the bottom for a time before being absorbed by the hard clay."

Marshall, severely wounded in a Confederate POW camp in Columbia, South Carolina survived. After Lee's surrender he was released. Marshall resigned his commission in 1869. It was in 1875, two years after his first wife's death, that he met Janet Rutherford, a wealthy woman from a prominent New Jersey family. They met while he was visiting the Rutherford family's Pennsylvania home. Strangely there is no mention of the marriage to Rutherford in Marshall's New York Times obituary.

It was in 1881 that the couple had their fourteen room home built. The builders were said to be local carpenters. After what Marshall had seen and been a part of during the Civil War he could have been easily been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He was also carrying around an undoubtedly large amount of shell fragments in his body, which must have created almost constant pain.

How long Marshall actually lived in his Palmerton house is a subject of debate. In 1956 a newspaper article claimed, as most sources do, that the house was built in 1881. But Marshall's New York Times obituary gives his death date as August 3, 1883. So he may have only lived there a short time, or perhaps the 1881 date is off by a year or two. Marshall died of his war wounds at the age of 63 while at a rest cure facility for veterans in Canandaigua, New York. He was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York. Janet Rutherford lived on in the house as a virtual recluse. She died in Atlantic City in 1911 in a fruitless search for a cure for the cancer that eventually killed her.

Marshall had one more tragic act to play, this time from the grave. In 2000 his body was taken from the grave and the skull removed. The groundskeeper claimed it was probably taken for a satanic ritual. His headless body was reburied.