Thursday, July 19, 2012

In the Shadow of the Family Tree – The Story of “G.W. James Acting Adjutant”


[Last night, I promised I would tell you the story of "G. W. James  -  Acting Adjutant".  If you haven't read that earlier post, you should start there, just so  you have the proper context for today's story. ]

One of the many interesting documents in the new Fold 3 collection of the 54th Massachusetts is a regimental roster of commissioned officers dated June of 1865. 

By then, the war was over. Lee had surrendered, Lincoln had been assassinated, and the Grand Review of the Armies – a two-day victory parade through Washington – had already taken place the month before. 

Whatever happened to that “G. W. James   Acting Adjutant” whose name appeared on “Special Orders No. 2” just below that of his commanding officer Col. Robert Gould Shaw a little more than two years earlier?  

Shaw had been killed in battle on July 18, 1863, but what about G.W. James?  Did he survive? 

Who was he, anyway?

The roster for June 1865 tells part of the story.  It shows that “Garth W. James”, now a captain, was still alive.  It also shows that he had first enlisted as a private on September 12, 1862.  Born in July of 1845, he was barely 17 at the time he enlisted and was still only 17 when he served as Shaw’s adjutant in March of 1863. His name, along with his enlistment details,  appears at the very end of the list below:



Some other records of the 54th also show that while “Garth” was his “official” first name, nearly everyone who knew him used his nickname of “Wilkie”.  It even appeared that way in the official records of the 54th from time to time. 

Here he is as “Wilkie”, being assigned by Shaw to the regiment’s “D” company as a 2nd lieutenant, along with his close friend, Cabot Jackson Russel:



Of course, “Wilkie” wasn’t really James’ actual first name, either.  His father had named his third son “Garth Wilkinson James” in honor of his close friend James John Garth Wilkinson (1812 –1899) a English homeopathic physician, philosopher and social reformer who had introduced the elder James to the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg a few years before Wilkie was born.

Wilkie's famous older brother -
novelist Henry James
For much of his life, Wilkie James lived under the ever-expanding shadow spread by his famous family of over-achievers.  His grandfather – Irish immigrant and Albany merchant William James – had been one of the most successful businessmen in America, leaving his children a very comfortable fortune that relieved them of the burden of working for a living.  His father Henry James was a well-known theologian and friend of nearly all the New England Transcendentalist literati, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.  His older brother William James would grow up to become the world-famous Harvard psychologist and philosopher while his other older brother Henry James was on his way to becoming America’s most famous and prolific expatriate novelist.

Neither Wilkie nor his younger brother Robertson James were drawn to the literary or intellectual pursuits that consumed other members of the James family.  That gene seemed to have passed them by. Both still in their teens, they wanted to be men of action. When the Civil War broke out, the obvious opportunity for action stared them in the face. Staunch abolitionists, both brothers enlisted – first Wilkie, then Robertson.

Wilkie transferred to Shaw’s regiment as soon as it was organized in 1863; Robertson joined the 55th Massachusetts, also a regiment of black volunteer recruits, as an officer around the same time.  He was not yet 17.


Today’s story, however, is about Wilkie.

As you may know, after training outside of Boston at Readville,  the Massachusetts 54th sailed for South Carolina.  Some months later, on the evening of July 18, 1863, they were ordered to attack Fort Wagner, the Confederate stronghold in Charleston harbor.  The 54th’s commanding officer, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, was killed leading the attack, which would prove to be ill-planned by the Union generals and thus, unsuccessful. 

That much is history, well written and well-documented. But Wilkie’s story on that day is rarely told.

Enter the almost 18-year old Garth Wilkinson James, his sword in one hand and his cap in the other, following behind Col. Shaw in the din and smoke of the battle, rallying the men of the 54th.  Bullets whizzed by, but Wilkie forged ahead, leading the soldiers toward the fort’s parapet.

Wilkie was hit in the foot and in the side, but still he pressed on until he could no longer move because of the pain and the loss of blood.  He fell, severely wounded and exhausted. 

It is not clear whether Shaw was killed before Wilkie fell, or it was the other way round. Stories vary and memories can be faulty.

Wilkie James was found on the battlefield by ambulance men.  He was barely alive and taken to a tent that was serving as the Sanitary Commission’s field hospital.  

Some days later, he was located there by the father of his fellow officer and closest friend Cabot Jackson Russel.  Young Russel had also been shot and was missing.  Mr. Russel had come south in search of his son, but his search proved to be in vain; Cabot’s body was never found. When Russel returned north by ship, he brought his son’s friend Wilkie with him on a stretcher, taking him to  Newport, Rhode Island, where Wilkie’s parents were then living. Wilkie spent months in recovery, for the first weeks slipping in and out of consciousness.

Eventually he felt well enough to return to his regiment as the roster at the top of the page clearly shows.

Many years later, in 1890, Chicago lithographers Louis Kurz and Alexander Allison issued a large print called “Storming Fort Wagner”.  The Library of Congress copy below shows Col. Shaw, mortally wounded, about to fall. 

(Note: clicking on the picture will bring it up enlarged in another window.)



Behind him, there’s an officer with a sword in one hand and his hat in the other (see detail below).



That’s Wilkie.

Did it really happen the way Kurz and Allison portrayed it? Hard to say.  That’s the way some people remembered it. 

Seven years earlier, on November 23, 1883, the New York Times reprinted a short article that had originally appeared in the Milwaukee Wisconsin newspaper on November 16th.  It began:

The death of Garth Wilkinson James, which had been expected by his friends for some time past, occurred last evening shortly after 5 o’clock, at his residence, 473 Jefferson-street.

The story then went on to say:

Speaking of his military career, another gentleman said:  “Wilkie was only 17 when he enlisted in one of the Massachusetts regiments and went to the front.  On account of his conspicuous bravery he was promoted by Gov. Andrew to the position of Adjutant of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Colored Infantry.  He participated in the brilliant night attack on Fort Wagner, and when Col. Shaw was disabled in the action and the regiment was wavering and about to break, the boy of 18, waving his cap above his head and calling upon men to follow him,  succeeded in rallying them, and led them on to make a splendid assault.  He received three wounds on that occasion, from the effects of which he suffered until the day of his death.”

At least that’s how the story of Wilkie at Fort Wagner was remembered by his friends.

Garth Wilkinson James died of Bright’s disease (a form of a kidney disease now called nephritis) at the young age of 38, leaving a widow and two children under 10.

Here’s the James family of Milwaukee in the 1880 census, living at the 473 Jefferson Street address mentioned in the death notice three years later.



Although he was never as successful as his older brothers and was probably fortunate to have found a wealthy wife with a half-million dollars of her own, Wilkie found his own small moment of glory.  

There’s no monument to him, but still, his act of personal bravery lives on, frozen in time, in that Kurz and Allison chromolithograph print.

A very young man with a sword, his cap in his hand and his friends falling around him, facing an uncertain future.

And what about the rest of the regiment? Did it live up to Gov. Andrew’s expectations that day and become a model fighting force of black soldiers? Here’s what Samuel W. Mason, the correspondent of the New York Herald, who witnessed the assault on Fort Wagner, wrote about the regiment: —

“I saw them fight at Wagner as none but splendid soldiers, splendidly officered, could fight, dashing through shot and shell, grape, canister, and shrapnel, and showers of bullets, and when they got close enough, fighting with clubbed muskets, and retreating when they did retreat, by command and with choice white troops for company."

Even though the 54th Massachusetts did not succeed in taking Fort Wagner that day, the story of the battle traveled far and wide throughout the land, rallying thousands of other African-American men to join the U.S. Colored Troops and take up the fight.

You see, stories have a power of their own. 

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful story! I really enjoy reading your writing. Good job.

    ReplyDelete