Image Courtesy of the Pamplin Historical Park
Too often, when viewing battlefield maps, we forget that the blue and red blocks intended to represent the participating regiments, brigades, and divisions, were actually real living, breathing, thinking, and feeling people. Like us they had good days and bad days, hopes, aspirations, and frustrations. After victories morale soared, after setbacks or bad news it plummeted. Reading the soldiers’ letters and viewing their photographs helps give us a more thorough appreciation for the human side of the Civil War.
Almost three million men served in the Union and Confederate armies during our nation’s greatest struggle. Historians estimate that about 750,000 soldiers died in the four year conflict, while hundreds of thousands more received wounds that ranged from minor to severely debilitating. However, many amazing medical recovery stories emerge from the ranks of the Blue and the Gray. One of those stories belongs to Capt. James B. Backup of the 36th United States Colored Infantry.
The son of Scottish immigrant parents, James B. Backup was born in September 1844. The 1860 census shows the 15 year-old living with his brother, 12 year-old William, in the household of James’s sister Jane, and her husband William Spear in Boston, Massachusetts. The census gives James’s occupation as clerk, the same as William Spear’s.
James originally served in Company B of the 39th Massachusetts. However, he received promotion to 2nd lieutenant in a company of the 36th United States Colored Infantry (USCI) on February 29, 1864. The 36th began its service as the 2nd North Carolina Colored Infantry before being designated a USCI regiment. Many of the enlisted men and non-commissioned officers of the unit came from northeastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia.
Backup received his 1st lieutenant’s commission on April 26, 1864. It was in this position when Backup and the 36th, as part of Col. Alonzo Draper’s Brigade of the 3rd Division of the XVIII Corps, received orders to attack the Confederate fortifications along New Market Heights, just southeast of Richmond. September 29, 1864 was a day that Backup would long remember.
Col. Draper’s after action report states that the 20 year-old Lt. Backup was excused from the battle “for lameness, one leg being partially shrunk so that he could walk but short distances.” However, Backup courageously “volunteered, hobbled as far as the swamp, and was shot through the breast.” Backup’s service records show that he received a minie ball wound to the left chest that exited his body at the shoulder blade. Retrieved from the battlefield, Backup received medical attention and then the army sent him home to hopefully recover. Promoted to captain on October 21, 1864, Backup never returned to duty. He received a physical disability discharge from the army on January 23, 1865. The African American soldiers of the 36th that Backup helped lead that fateful day also exhibited extreme bravery; two of whom received the Medal of Honor: Cpl. Miles James and Pvt. James Gardiner.
Amazingly, Backup apparently lived a rather full life after his severe wounding. He shows up in the 1880, 1890, and 1910 censuses working as a mail carrier and raising a family in Boston. Backup’s pension index states that he died August 10, 1911.