Educator, soldier, minister. Capers was born in Charleston on October 14, 1837, to William Capers and Susan McGill. The Capers men were active and prominent as lawyers, soldiers, and religious leaders. William Capers was a well known Methodist minister and bishop and an instrumental voice in the 1844 sectional split of the church.
Much in Ellison Capers’s early life mirrored the lives of his ancestors. He attended the South Carolina Military Academy (the Citadel), graduating in 1857. Afterward he read law, though he never practiced, and taught at the academy as a professor of mathematics and rhetoric. The outbreak of the Civil War cut short his teaching career. Partly on the strength of his military education, he was elected major of a regiment of South Carolina volunteers and participated in the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Then began a steady, if unspectacular rise. He helped recruit the Twenty-fourth South Carolina Infantry and was elected its lieutenant colonel. Stationed along the South Carolina coast, the regiment saw action at Secessionville on June 16, 1862—with Capers personally handling an artillery battery that was tardy coming into action. For this he won high praise as well as personal satisfaction, calling it a “delightful” experience. “I am satisfied that the fire of this battery,” he reported, “contributed no little to our success, and am gratified . . . that the general commanding rode to the battery during the close of the engagement and warmly thanked us for our work.” The Twenty-fourth South Carolina was transferred to Mississippi in 1863, and it served with the Army of Tennessee until the end of the war. Capers fought in most of the army’s major engagements, suffering wounds at Jackson, Chickamauga, and Franklin. Along the way he was promoted to colonel and then, on March 1, 1865, to brigadier general. He was one of only four Citadel graduates to attain the rank of general in the Confederate army.
Life in peacetime South Carolina proved adventurous. From 1866 to 1868, during an interregnum of sorts between the war and the establishment of Republican power in the state, Capers served as secretary of state. Although an active Democrat, Capers found his calling in the Episcopal ministry. From 1867 to 1893 he was minister to parishes in Greenville and Columbia. In 1894 he became bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina. In 1904 he accepted the chancellorship of the University of the South, a position he held until shortly before his death. Because of the ties among Confederate memorial activities, religious instruction, and higher education, these positions also gave Capers a high profile in the Lost Cause movement. Capers was active in the Southern Historical Society, edited the South Carolina volume of Clement A. Evans’s Confederate Military History, and was chaplain general of the United Confederate Veterans.
Capers married Charlotte Rebecca Palmer on February 24, 1859. Together they had seven children. He died in Columbia on April 22, 1908, and was buried at Trinity Episcopal Church in Columbia.
Capers, Walter B. The Soldier Bishop: Ellison Capers. New York: Neale, 1912.
Wilson, Charles Reagan. Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865–1920. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980.