The LaVergne Skirmish: Captain John H. James of the 26th Ohio
John Henry James was born in July 9, 1834 in Champaign Co., Ohio to John Hough James and his wife Abigail. The elder James, a friend of Henry Clay, was a prominent businessman being at one time a railroad president and at another a bank president. John Henry studied at the Kentucky Military Institute before taking up law and entering into practice as an attorney in Urbana at the time of the Civil War. He married Harriet Hall Lynch in 1866 and they had six children: Abbe Bailey James (1864-1936), Margaret Lynch James (1866-1956), Gertrude Vanuxem James (1867-1929), John Hough James (1869-1950), Harriet James (1874-1909), Frances Hepburn James (1877-1943). Captain James died of paralysis September 23, 1898 in Urbana, Ohio. He and his wife Harriet (March 4, 1837-February 11, 1911) are buried at Oak Dale Cemetery in Urbana.
He enlisted as the Adjutant of the 26th Ohio Volunteer Infantry June 29, 1861 and was promoted to the captaincy of Co. A on December 12, 1861. Captain James led Co. A (known as the Butler Pioneers as the company had been raised primarily in Butler County, Ohio) until February 1863 when poor health forced him to resign his commission. Upon his death, one of his contemporaries Judge Geiger said that “Judge Geiger stated that the captain was “was patriotic and enlisted in the army at the time of the Rebellion and exhibited an unusual amount of zeal for the success of the Union cause. Some persons closely related to him were not entirely in sympathy with the prosecution of the war, but notwithstanding the lack of encouragement Captain James enlisted and conducted himself with courage and ability. He was an honorable man.” It was an active period of service marked by long marches and missing out on two battles: Shiloh and Perryville. Captain James’, however, took full part in the Battle of Stones River and his lengthy account of the battle, and a preliminary engagement fought at LaVergne on December 27, 1862, both presented here, rank among the finest existing accounts from any Federal officer.
Captain James' health declined rapidly after the Battle of Stones River such that he had to resign his commission. His superiors had a high regard for Captain James’ ability. Colonel Edward Fyffe of the 26th Ohio wrote that “Captain James acted bravely and distinguished himself” at the battle. He then described an example of Captain James’ bravery and intelligence in action. The scene was the afternoon of December 31, 1862. “The enemy did everything they could to break the line of the 26th but failed. When they could not succeed by fighting, hey then tried cunning. They came down and planted a color very much like the U.S. flag, then turned their backs to our men and fired the other way to make believe they were our men. John James ordered his men to cease firing and walked deliberately across the field to Major William Squires to know what he should do. That it was said the line in front was our men. Now the bullets, grape, and shells were flying as thick as hail, the Major says, but John did not think of that; he had got the impression that the line directly in front was our people and he did not wish to kill them, but did not think that everybody on the other side could have a fair shot at him while he was walking along for almost everybody else was lying down. He came through safe without a scratch. I do not suppose he thought of danger; he went to do a particular thing which he thought was his duty and he would have done it if the whole Confederate army, horse, foot, artillery, and everybody else had been shooting at him. John is very different from any young man I ever knew. All who know him have the greatest respect for him.” General Milo Hascall wrote that James’ possessed a “high moral character and high soldierly qualities” and that the captain “has literally used himself up in the service and it is with the deepest regret that I have become convinced of the painful necessity of his quitting the service.”
He resigned his commission due to typhoid fever February 12, 1863 and returned home to Urbana. He made a slow recovery and while nursing him, his mother Abigail and sister Ellen contracted typhoid fever and died. Ellen died March 6, 1863 at age 36 and Abigail died March 10, 1863 at age 61.
At the time of Stones River, the 26th Ohio belonged to General Milo Hascall’s Brigade of General Thomas J. Wood’s division of General Thomas L. Crittenden’s Corps, later known as the First Brigade of the First Division of the Left Wing (later 21st Corps). The First Brigade included the 26th Ohio, the 3rd Kentucky, 58th Indiana, 100th Illinois, and the 8th Indiana Battery. It took 13 officers and 380 men into action at LaVergne on December 27, 1862 and lost one killed and 17 wounded in that action. The regiment went into action on December 31, 1862 with 13 officers and 374 enlisted men and lost one officer killed, two wounded, 9 enlisted men killed, and 72 wounded, total casualties being 10 killed and 72 wounded on December 31st.
|Reunion of 26th Ohio vets in 1875.|
Engagement at LaVergne, Tennessee
Captain James began his lengthy letter home to his father on January 8, 1863 but after repeated starts, stops, and interruptions, he was able to finish it on January 14th. He was apologetic for the broken nature of his writing, but explained that “you have very little idea how much work I have to do-particularly writing- being the only officer left in the company just after the great battle. There are descriptive rolls of the wounded, final papers of the dead, and numerous reports of ordnance and camp equipage to be made out and handed in; that the authorities may know what things are needed to make good the losses in the late battle and put the army again in condition for service. All this writing and work occupies me so through the day that I am tired when evening comes and feel more like resting than writing.” He had sent his father a brief letter on January 4th indicating that he was safe, but wanted to write sooner “but I had no paper and not enough or none was to be had for love or money.” His account was published in three consecutive issues of the Urbana Union from February 4, February 11, and February 18, being featured on the first page of the latter two issues.
The army left Nashville on Friday morning the day after Christmas in several columns on different roads. Ours- the left wing- under General Crittenden comprising Van Cleve’s, Palmer’s, and Wood’s division, moved on the direct road to Murfreesboro. McCook’s wing- the right- I think went on the Nolensville road and Negley’s and Rousseau’s division of Thomas’ corps formed the center but I don’t know what road they took.
I may as well explain here that on all marches, as a general military rule, the different subdivisions of a column take the lead or advance in succession; that is, the division which is in front today for instance falls to the rear tomorrow and thus uncovers the second division which takes the lead and next days falls in the rear and leaves the third in front and so on. The brigades in a division and the regiments in each brigade change the same way every day, but the companies of a regiment never do, any further than marching the right and left of the regiment in front alternately sometimes. Co. A being on the right of the regiment is always either in front or rear.
The day we started our division was in the center and so was the brigade and we got off at 9 o’clock. It soon began to rain and the men had to march or, what was worse, to stand still waiting for the road to be cleared ahead in a cold rain nearly all the forenoon. The enemy cavalry with two or three pieces of artillery resisted our advance (Palmer’s division) skirmishing as they fell back before us.
Soon after dark, we camped in a piece of woods within a half mile or so of LaVergne, 15 miles from Nashville and the same from Murfreesboro. I say camped, but should rather say we bivouacked for we had no tents- the baggage having all been sent to Nashville inside the fortifications. I had besides my overcoat which I wore, an oil cloth blanket and a common white bed blanket with which I managed to sleep pretty comfortably under a tree though it rained nearly all night.
The next day (Saturday December 27) we did not move until about noon when the brigade was formed in an open field in front in two lines for an advance through LaVergne and on towards Murfreesboro. Our 26th and 58th Indiana were in the first line supported a short distance behind by the 100th Illinois and 3rd Kentucky. Two companies from each regiment of the first list- mine and Captain Samuel Ewing’s Co. B- were thrown forward as skirmishers. The instructions the General gave me just before we started were to push ahead smartly and not allow ourselves to be stopped by any slight opposition, but if we met serious opposition which appeared too much for us to fall back or wait for the regiment to come to our support. [Captain Edmund R.] Kerstetter, the adjutant general, said we were not likely to find anyone in town, that it was barely possible we might have a little brush that afternoon.
We started off and had hardly gone a hundred yards when the bullets began to whistle round us from the enemy posted in the houses of the village and the fields and woods on the left. We advanced till we came out on an open space about as far from the first house as from our house to Mr. Young’s when we commenced firing. But not a man could we see though their bullets kept whistling past us thick and fast. I first told the men not to fire unless they saw something, but finding that no one was to be seen and thinking a random fire better than none I told them to fire away. But our men were very much exposed in an open field and their advance was already checked and just then a piece of artillery (a good ways off but in easy range) opened on us. I was getting a little doubtful as to what to do next, when the order came to “double quick through the town” and we saw the regiment advancing in line close behind us. We kept a short distance ahead of the line and as the Rebs saw the advance they evacuated the houses in time to escape; most of them that is, for some were killed and wounded.
As our troops advanced into the town, the enemy’s fire was kept up from the woods on the left. Going down to the left of the line I found Captain Ewing with his men and part of mine in the edge of a piece of woods. He said the woods just across the cleared field in front of us was full of the enemy, and as the regiment was still advancing and getting beyond us and exposing its left flank to the Rebel cavalry in the woods and the enemy’s force and position in the woods was too strong for us, we fell back to the regiment. I started the adjutant and sergeant major, both of whom were mounted, off to find the General and tell him about the Rebel cavalry on our flank and that one battery in the rear could reach them. As [James A.] Spence (the sergeant major) galloped down the railroad, he saw them himself and one of them shot at him. He found the General and told him where the cavalry was and he said he would have the battery open on them but did not for some reason, and they withdrew.
Meantime the line kept on advancing beyond the town. Soon after Captain Ewing and I rejoined the battalion but we were again sent out. Shortly thereafter the regiment was relieved in front by the 100th Illinois and put in reserve for the rest of the afternoon and the skirmishers were recalled. I got the order of recall and so did part of Co. B under Lieutenant Rennick, but the rest of my company under Lieutenant [Lyman B.] Foster and part of Co. B under Captain Ewing did not get it and continued in the advance skirmishing all afternoon. Just before we camped they performed the important service of putting out the fire at the bridge over Stewart’s Creek which the enemy had set fire to retard our advance. They also captured a few horses.
I have dwelt at some length on this little skirmish at LaVergne for it was an affair in which the 26th Ohio had the principal share of the work and honor, and, unfortunately, of the casualties also. Out of the 24 killed and wounded in the brief time we were under fire before entering the town and just after, 18 of these were in the 26th regiment. Considering the short time we were under fire (3-5 minutes) this loss was pretty heavy. But the regiment moved right on and showed that they could be depended on wherever they might be placed. One of the wounded was in my company: Richard H. Colvin was wounded in the arm. The wounded were all placed in hospital in one of the best houses of the place, which was taken possession of for the purpose and left under the care of Dr. Andrew Sabine of our regiment. The next Tuesday (December 30th) they were all captured by the enemy’s cavalry and paroled.
It rained nearly all afternoon Saturday after the skirmish. A little before dark we halted and bivouacked on Stewart’s Creek (north side). The boys fortunately found an old barn full of dry straw with which they soon made themselves pretty comfortable as soon as it stopped raining. When the straw was removed, Major William H. Squires (who commanded the regiment all through the battle, Colonel Fyffe being in Kentucky and Lieutenant Colonel Young sick at Nashville) established the headquarters of the regiment in the barn and invited me to board with him which I did. The army lay here all day Sunday- it being though that the enemy would probably contest the passage of Stewart’s Creek in force.
Great stuff, Dan! Company A of the 26th is right in my wheelhouse. Of the 116 men on the roster of the company, 42 were considered Butler Pioneers, most of them coming from the southern portion of Butler County.ReplyDelete