The last few weeks I’ve been spending the time I normally fill with reading by doing some research on the Battle of New Market Heights for a tour I will be giving on Friday. In the September 29, 1864, battle fourteen African Americans in Brig. Gen. Charles J. Paine’s Division of the XVIII Corps (Army of the James) earned the Medal of Honor.
To fill in these men’s stories I’ve been searching their service records for information that tell something about their Civil War experience. Most of the fourteen soldiers’ records only contain basic data and dates. However, when I paged through the records of Corporal Miles James, who served in Company B of the 36th United States Colored Infantry, I was surprised to find more.
As for the basic information, James was a thirty-four year old farmer when he enlisted in his regiment. He was five feet, seven inches tall, and was described as “black” complexioned. He was born in Princess Anne County, Virginia, and had enlisted in Norfolk on November 16, 1863. James was officially mustered into service at Fort Monroe on December 28, 1863. No mention is made if he was free before the war, so he was likely enslaved prior to the conflict and Union occupation of southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina.
The 36th USCI was originally designated the 2nd North Carolina Colored Infantry Volunteers. Miles James must have exhibited soldierly qualities early on, as he received his promotion to corporal on February 15, 1864.
James was listed as always present for duty until that fateful September 29, 1864 day. During the charge made by Col. Alonzo Draper’s brigade (5th, 36th, 38th USCI), Miles James was shot in the left humerus (upper arm) as he got within thirty yards of the Confederate breastworks. The minie ball that stuck the bone shattered it. Despite this grievous wound, James continued to load and somehow discharge his rifle with one arm, all while urging his comrades onward. The courageous soldier received a field amputation and was sent to a hospital facility at Fort Monroe for recovery. For his bravery James received the Medal of Honor on April 6, 1865. He also received a promotion to sergeant on April 27, and the “Butler Medal.”
Normally such a wound provided a soldier with his ticket home. But Miles James was not an ordinary soldier. His service records contain a letter written by his brigade commander, Col. Alonzo Draper, on February 4, 1865, to the chief surgeon at the hospital at Fort Monroe. It reads:
Sgt. Miles James, Co. B, 36th U.S.C.I. writes me from your Hospital to urge that he may be permitted to remain in the service.
He lost his left arm in the charge upon New Market Heights, Sept., 29, 1864.
If it be possible, I would most respectfully urge that his request be granted.
He was made a Sergeant and awarded a silver medal by Maj. Gen. Butler, for gallant conduct.
He is one of the bravest men I ever saw; and is in every respect a model soldier.
He is worth more with his single arm, than half a dozen ordinary men.
Being a Sergeant, he will have very little occasion as a file closer to use a musket.
He could be Sergt. of my Provost Guard or Hd. Qtr.Guard, and could do full duty in many ways.
If consistent with your views of duty, I shall be greatly obliged if you can make it convenient to return him to his Regiment.
I have the honor to be
your Obt. Svt.
A. G. Draper
Bvt. Brig. Gen. Comdg.”
One might think that the surgeon would dismiss such a request, but it appears that it was honored, because another letter appears in Miles’s file. In it Draper issued a special order from “near Petersburg” on April 18, 1865. It reads:
“The following named enlisted man is hereby detailed for duty at these Hed. Qrs. and will report at once – The commanding officer of the 36th U.S.C.I. will furnish him with a sergeant’s sword instead of a musket.
Sergt. Myles [sic] James 36 USCI”
Miles James continued to serve until he received a disability discharge on October 13, 1865, at Brazos Santiago, Texas, where his regiment was serving out its enlistment.
As the fictional character Silas Trip, played by Denzel Washington in the film Glory claimed, the USCTs had to prove themselves and “kick in like men.” Miles James kicked in like a man, and then a great measure more.