July 13th, 2012: James W. Davis

Posted on: 07/13/2012

150 years ago today a small battle occurred in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  The fight occurred between Confederate cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest and a Union force of infantry, cavalry and artillery under Colonel Henry C. Lester of the 3rd Minnesota Infantry.  At the end of the day Forrest had humiliated the Union force and captured many prisoners, resulting in the later dismissal of Col. Lester for his rout at the hands of Forrest.  Among the Union soldiers in the fight that day was James W. Davis, a Welsh born coal miner.  The confusion of the battle hampered the Union officers’ ability to notify families of the fate of their loved ones, and Davis’ family would be ignorant of what happened to him for many months.

Above is the 1860 census, with James W. Davis highlighted. He was a 52 year old coal miner living in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania with a large family.  Among them was his wife, Margaret, two older sons James and William (both coal miners as well), and a few younger children.  All of James’ children were born in Wales except for Margaret, age 9, which suggests that the latest they could have moved to America was 1851.

When the Civil War broke it James did not enlist right away, but waited until December of 1861, possibly to take advantage of financial incentives like an enlistment bounty.  He joined the 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry, which at the time was still organizing around Harrisburg.  In March of 1862 the 7th was sent west to join Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio.  James would have gone with his comrades to Middle Tennessee to help consolidate the Union gains there from the previous year.

Like the war in the east, the western theater was about to be shaken up with Confederate offensives, and 150 years ago today was a precursor of those movements.  Nathan Bedford Forrest led his force on a long 48 miles march into Murfreesboro and took the Union garrison by surprise.  Col. Lester, who had actually been place under the command of by Brigadier General T.T. Crittenden just two days before, did not follow orders from his new commander to heavily picket the roads leading to his post.  As a result Forrest’s men broke through the Union perimeter without a fight and came crashing into the camp of the 7th Pennsylvania where James Davis and his comrades had to quickly for a resistance. 

The Union soldiers fought well, but were outnumbered and in need of reinforcements.  Requests for help were sent to Col. Lester but were ignored, and by that time General Crittenden’s headquarters had been surrounded and cut off.  As a result almost the entire Union force surrendered in a humiliating defeat.  Many Union soldiers lied dead or wounded on the field, and among them was James Davis, who had been killed by a gunshot to the head.

Through a breakdown in bureaucracy, not notification was sent to James’ family and likely many others who lost their loved ones at Murfreesboro shared this in common.  It would not be until April of 1863 that James’ death would be confirmed to his son William:

Murfreesboro April 2nd /63

Mr. Wm. Davis

Dear Sir

Yours of the 28th was Recd today in answer to your inquiry concerning the fate of James W. Davis a member of my company[.]  It is with the deepest regret that I inform he is now no more[.]  he was killed in action on the 13th of July last at Murfreesoboro Tenn when that place was taken by the Confederates under command of Gen Forrest[.]  The enemy surprised us at day light on the morning of the 13th though taken by surprise the men rallied and held them in check until overcome by superior numbers[.]  Davis was formost in the fight when he was struck in the forehead by a bulling killing him instantly[.]  Our discriptive and all our rolls was destroyed thus rendering it an impossibility for us to learn his place of resaincec [?]  I made all enquiry but could not find out anything.  I regretted it very much for a wished to inform his family as was a good man and a brave soldier and I [am] deeply sympathetic with his afflicted family in their bereavement[.]  I will find out whether there was any back pay due him or not and let them know anything that I can do for them will be done with pleasure.

I remain

Very respectfully

Your obt servt

James L Graham

1st Lieutenant Co. M 7th PA Cav


Mufreesboro would become better known at the end of the year when the bloody Battle of Stones River was fought, and this smaller engagement faded in importance.  As for James Davis’ family, they applied for a pension in 1864, and the government granted them $8 a month with back payments due to July 13th, 1862.

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