The Uncommon James Breathed

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James Breathed as pictured in The Long Arm of Lee, by Jennings Wise.

As troopers of the 8th New York and 22nd New York cavalry regiments spurred their horses toward the crest of Coffman’s Hill on October 9, 1864, 25-year-old James Breathed saw a crisis approaching. On that hill above Tom’s Brook in the Shenandoah Valley, Major Breathed commanded six field pieces of horse artillery with the mission to support the cavalrymen of Gen. Thomas Rosser’s division. Breathed had built a reputation for daring and tenacity through three years of combat in the Stuart Horse Artillery. While fighting hand-in-glove with cavalry troops, he preferred close combat, so he placed his guns close to the enemy and kept them there as long as possible. The tactic usually produced good results, but on that high hill above Tom’s Brook, the cavalrymen around him failed to keep up their end of the bargain and abandoned Breathed’s gunners. The Federals overran the six guns and took them all along with their crews. For the defeated Confederates, the loss of Breathed’s cannon stood as the chief humiliation of the disaster at Tom’s Brook.

The Virginia-born Breathed remains a minor figure in the history of Robert E. Lee’s army, but for the men around him he proved a tower of inspiration on the battlefield. Col. Thomas T. Munford, whose cavalrymen often fought alongside the artilleryman, thought Breathed “the hardest fighter the war produced.” Breathed loved battle, and brigade commander William H. F. Payne, himself a born warrior, praised Breathed as a kindred spirit. Breathed craved front-line action and sometimes left his cannon behind to voluntarily participate in saber charges with the cavalry. Payne recalled an episode in early October 1864, when he greeted some of his men returning from a mounted charge into the streets of Bridgewater, Virginia. The elated Breathed came back with them, the exhilaration of battle lighting his eyes and gore literally dripping from his sword. It was Yankee blood, Breathed exclaimed to Payne as he exulted in having run his weapon through three enemy soldiers.

As a representative Confederate warrior—the type of man who made the Army of Northern Virginia so successful for so long—Breathed has received much less attention than the similar John Pelham. Pelham earned a high reputation and R. E. Lee himself anointed him “the gallant Pelham.” Perhaps the combination of courage and proficiency with his youth and boyish good looks explains the enduring fame of the Alabamian. Pelham’s early death in combat adds to the romance of his legend. No less courageous, Breathed served beside Pelham in the Stuart Horse Artillery early in the war and learned much from the aggressive, West Point-trained Alabamian. Breathed was three months younger than “the boy artillerist,” and his reputation in the army no less bright than Pelham’s. Inexplicably, history has remained largely silent about James Breathed. His undashing looks and his misfortune in not dying in battle failed to inspire would-be biographers until recently. Not until 2006, when David P. Bridges published Fighting with Jeb Stuart: Major James Breathed and the Confederate Horse Artillery, did a writer address the life of this exceptional American warrior. Whatever deficiencies made Breathed an unattractive subject for a biographer, courage and intelligence were not among them. A trained medical doctor, Breathed, ironically, proved both exceedingly eager to do harm to enemy soldiers and exceptionally good at doing so.

Although he did not die gloriously on a battlefield, Breathed met an early end at age 31. In 1871, a comrade published a fine tribute that suggests Breathed’s place in the hearts of the men who fought beside him. It is true this posthumous praise qualifies as romantic embellishment, but it is, after all, a eulogy by a friend not claiming objectivity. Such applause by contemporaries should not be judged as harshly as hagiography produced by later writers claiming to be historians. Honest bias is acceptable, even desirable, for the expression of biases can reveal much about both the writer and the subject. This anonymous homage is especially interesting because it almost certainly flowed from the pen of the novelist John Esten Cooke, a staff officer under Cavalry Chief J.E.B. Stuart. The tribute serves as a solid introduction to a man who stood in the front rank of artillerists in the Army of Northern Virginia.

Read the 1871 tribute to James Breathed printed in the journal The Old Dominion

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