James J. Harris, Union City Civil War Veteran
James J. Harris, Sergeant, Company E, 145th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, was an ordinary soldier who wrote letters home from battle fields in the southern states. He enlisted in 1862 and served in the infantry until June 14, 1865. According to the 1880 United States Federal Census, he and Mary were married in 1862 before he went off to fight in the Civil War.
Mrs. Mary Harris kept his letters and the Union City Times Enterprise in 1918, printed one of them. It is dated Falmouth, Va., May 10, 1863. In the letter, James tells his wife that he feels better than he did the last time he wrote. He describes how he and the other men of the 145th marched to the battlefield.
"We marched within a mile or two of the river and camped down in a very nice piece of little pines. It would be a good place for camp meetings," he told Mary.
Judging from the date of his letter and his description of preparing for battle, it is likely that James participated in the Battle of Chancellorsville, which took place on May 1-3, 1863. In this battle, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson led a dramatically outnumbered Army of Northern Virginia to victory. Some historians say that this is Lee's greatest victory and one of the Confederacy's brightest moments.
Since its crushing defeat at the battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, the Army of the Potomac had been in disarray. During the winter of 1862-1863, the opposing armies had settled into camps, facing each other across the icy Rappahannock River. Northern officers and men questioned the abilities of Commander Major General Ambrose E. Burnside and even the ability of the north to win major battles.
General Burnside compounded the unhappiness of his troops when he led them out of their winter camps in mid-January on what they called "The Mud March." This march led to the firing of General Burnside. Major General Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker replaced him. As soon as spring mud dried up and Virginia roads were passable, General Hooker moved part of his army up and across the Rappahananock above Fredericksburg. He had a daring plan. He would fall upon the rear of Lee's Army and destroy it.
Major General Hooker immediately put his plan into action. Facing a tremendous disadvantage, General Lee rushed his men west of Fredericksburg toward the tiny country crossroads of Chancellorsville. Dense underbrush covered the land. Local inhabitants had always called the tangle of thickets "The Wilderness." It served as a natural barbed wire for Lee to maneuver his slender military resources around and through.
The two generals - Hooker and Lee - maneuvered for position. May 1st ended with the Union Army digging in around and west of the crossroads. The right flank of the Army stretched westward beyond Wilderness Church.
In the meantime, James J. Harris was busy. The 145th Pennsylvania had gotten orders to build a pontoon bridge across the river. He reported to his wife. Mary, that the men had quite a time getting a pontoon down the hill to the river. They had to build a road down a gutter to the river, unhitching the mules from the wagons to finish building the road. After this was finished, James reported that "the commander had the Pennsylvania rackers, or pack mules as we are called, draw the pontoon wagons down to the river. It took about ten span of us to a wagon. We had quite a time of it getting them down. It was but a short job to lay the pontoon."
The men successfully put the bridge in place and crossed the river. The generals continued to organize their battle lines, and late in the afternoon of May 2, General Jackson had his 30,000 men lined up behind the unsuspecting Union troops. Hordes of ragged Confederate soldiers came charging out of the bushes screaming their Rebel yell. They rolled over and destroyed half of General Hooker's line.
On the morning of May 3, the most intense fighting of the battle of Chancellorsville developed across the densely wooded Wilderness. Confederate artillery crowded into a small, high clearing known as Hazel Grove and the guns at Hazel Grove supplied momentum to weary infantrymen. They surged across the fields around Chancellorsville crossroads in mod-morning to clinch a southern victory that cost the Union 17,000 casualties.
James described his battle situation. "We built a good breastwork. I think they would have been laid low if they had attempted to climb over it, but they shelled us like fury. They got the range of us pretty well, but they threw their shells too high generally...The enemy fought well. It is claimed they had whiskey and gun power to make them fight. I certainly think it is so, and believe they make a practice of giving it to the men before entering a battle."
Another dramatic aspect of Chancellorsville unfolded on May 3 at Salem Church on the outskirts of Fredericksburg. A Union force remaining near the town brushed aside the Confederates there and pushed west toward the main action, threatening Lee's success at Chancellorsville. Some Confederates found good ground at Salem Church where they could resist the Union force, but in the end, many of them died.
James wrote to his wife, Mary, "Charles Hoyt and I went over to the battlefield that day, but it was not safe to stay there long. We held our ground there until Wednesday morning when we fell back and went to camp. They shelled us a good deal while we were there. One captain was struck with a shell and our major general had his arm shot off. While fighting there our men were doing good work at Fredericksburg."
During the next three days, the campaign wound down and General Hooker decided to admit defeat and recross the river. The battle of Chancellorsville gave the Army of Northern Virginia momentum that a few weeks later Lee turned into an aggressive campaign that ultimately led to Gettysburg. Chancellorsville cost the Confederacy 12,800 casualties, including Stonewall Jackson.
In another letter dated December 4, 1863, James told his wife Mary about more marches and skirmishes with the army in Virginia. He said, "I think we will make our winter headquarters near here. I understand we are going to move our camp about a mile tomorrow. I will send you a piece of Reb ribbon which was well-preserved along with the letter.
James was wounded by a bullet in the right arm at Sailor's Creek, Virginia, on April 6, 1865, but he survived the war and came home to Union City.
The 1900 and 1910 Federal Census shows James J. and Mary living in Union Township and lists him as a farmer. Their son Elton and his wife and children lived nearby. The 1920 Federal Census shows James and Mary living with their daughter Mabel Crosby and son-in-law William in Crawford County. James J. Harris died in 1923 and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery.