- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 15, 2001

James Lawson Kemper (1823-1895), elected five times to the House of Delegates in his native Virginia, did more than any other politician of military disposition to prepare the state for the impending crisis of civil war. Kemper also became a grievously wounded survivor of Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg.

Before the war, the Madison County politician's place as committee chairman for military affairs led to the reimposition of mandatory militia service in Virginia, reviving an institution that had lapsed since Revolutionary times. His budget and procurement achievements meant that Virginia's preparedness exceeded that of all other Southern states despite Virginia's initial resistance to secession. Kemper's foresight had much to do with the astounding Union defeat at First Manassas. (Of 47 Confederate cannon, 43 belonged to Virginia.)

During the war, Kemper's command of the 7th Virginia Infantry Regiment led to higher command as brigadier general of the 1st Brigade of Gen. James Longstreet's Corps during the Seven Days and eventual brigade command in Gen. George Edward Pickett's division before his serious wounding in the charge on Gettysburg's third day.

Kemper's forebears were German miners who immigrated to the American Colonies in 1714 and were recruited for Gov. Alexander Spotswood's mines at Germanna. The 900-acre Mountain Prospect Plantation in Madison County was the family seat from which Kemper evolved into lawyer, politician and soldier. According to biographer H.R. Woodward, Kemper's father "was a knowledgeable man who loved the land, and the plantation was almost completely self-sufficient. All the food was grown there except tea, coffee, sugar, and salt. The nearest market was Fredericksburg, some forty miles and nearly a week away by wagon because of the poor roads. A trip to market was a rare chance to witness outside life."

This bucolic isolation, however, did not prevent involvement in state affairs. Kemper's parents had established the Old Field School, where Kemper studied under A.P. Hill, the future Confederate general. Kemper then attended Locust Dale Academy and then was graduated from Washington College in 1842.

He read law in Charleston, Kanawha County, and was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1846. He served with the Army during the Mexican War, then returned to practice law in Madison County until the Civil War.

Longstreet would write of Kemper's "marked skill and fearlessness" during the Seven Days, and "Kemper's Men" constituted part of Longstreet's hammer blow against Union Gen. John Pope at Second Manassas. The Virginian's infantrymen stood as the thin gray line at the far end of the Confederate right at Sharpsburg against Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside's legions.

Kemper motivated his men by his personal fearlessness and battlefield rhetoric. Sword in hand, he was recorded by a fellow officer as shouting to his troops at Seven Pines: "Come on, my bloody heroes! Charge!! Send these Devils to Hell!!" Some of his inspirational predictions proved momentarily effective but predictively wrong, as at Marye's Heights above Fredericksburg: "If we can whip the enemy here today, I tell you from what I know, the Confederacy is surely established."

His greatest military fame (and pain) came on the third day at Gettysburg. Before Pickett's Charge, all officers had been ordered to dismount and march with their men so they would be less conspicuous targets. Gen. Richard Garnett was granted an exemption because of a fever that weakened him. Kemper seems simply to have disobeyed the order, because he rode forward on a white horse, exhorting his men toward the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. Within 100 yards of the stone wall, Kemper could make out features of the faces of his foes, and he recorded that he thought he saw the soldier who shot him.

The bullet struck his thigh, traveled up the femur through the groin area and lodged at the base of his spine. He told Gen. Robert E. Lee, who had ridden up to see what officer was on the litter being carried back to Seminary Ridge: "General Lee, do full justice to this division for its work today." Kemper well may have thought his words to Lee that day were his last on earth.

After nearly dying in the Gettysburg farmhouse of Francis Bream, Kemper spent months recovering before being exchanged for a Union brigadier also wounded at Gettysburg.

Kemper never completely regained the use of his left leg. When he somewhat recovered, however, he was assigned as a sort of Virginia home-guard chief during the remainder of the war and was promoted to major general in September 1864. He was one of the pallbearers at Stonewall Jackson's funeral.

Kemper served as governor of Virginia from 1874 to 1878. He died in 1895 and is buried in the family graveyard in Madison.


Cliff Johns is a writer in Alexandria.

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