- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 9, 2002

Gen. Robert E. Lee called him "the hardest artillery fighter the war produced," and Gen. Jeb Stuart said, "I will never consent for Breathed to quit the Horse Artillery, with which he has rendered such distinguished service."

High praise indeed, coming from two of the greatest Southern commanders, yet little has been recorded about Maj. James Breathed.

Breathed, the son of John and Ann McGill Breathed, was born Dec. 15, 1838, near Berkeley Springs, Morgan County, Va. (West Virginia today). When the boy was young, his father moved the family just south of Hagerstown, Md., when he accepted the position of curator at St. James School. John Breathed also served as judge of Orphans Court and was the first agent for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. (The old railway station has been converted into a feed mill, the steel tracks have been removed, but the small village in southern Washington County is still known as "Breathedsville.")

The future Confederate officer received his early education at St. James School and studied medicine under Dr. Charles McGill of Hagerstown. In 1860, the 21-year-old Breathed graduated from the University of Maryland with a doctor of medicine degree and moved to St. Joseph, Mo., to start a practice.

A year later, when the Civil War began, the young doctor climbed aboard the first train east to cast his lot with the Confederacy. On the journey home, he shared a seat with a man soon to become a military legend in the South and who would alter the direction of Breathed's life, Lt. James Ewell Brown Stuart "Jeb" Stuart.

Two days after returning to Maryland, Breathed crossed the Potomac River at Williamsport, and in Martinsburg enlisted in the 1st Virginia Cavalry. A few weeks later, Stuart, now colonel of that cavalry, encountered him, and the pair remembered that they had met on the train. Breathed must have made an impression, because Stuart commissioned him a lieutenant in the horse artillery.

Stuart's horse artillery was engaged in every major battle of the Army of Northern Virginia, including Fair Oaks, Seven Days, Antietam, Gettysburg, Spotslvania Court House and the Wilderness. Once the smoke cleared, Breathed was the first to use his physician skills to bring relief both to friend and foe.

On March 17, 1863, at Kelly's Ford, Va., Maj. John Pelham was killed, and Breathed succeeded the "Gallant Pelham" as battery commander. At the bloody struggle of Spotsylvania Court House (May 1864), many horses and drivers of Breathed's Battery were killed or wounded. Taking advantage, Federal infantry rushed forward to capture one of the Southern cannon. Breathed, seeing that one of his guns was in jeopardy, sprang from his mount and, under heavy fire, cut the traces of the injured horses.

That finished, he leaped on the lead horse, and with two animals pulled the gun back into the Confederate lines.

On May 11, 1864, during the savage engagement with Union troops at Yellow Tavern, Breathed was cut from his saddle and fell among charging horses. As his men turned to search for their fallen commander, he came dashing up on a horse.

Badly wounded, he had pulled a Federal officer from his saddle, mounted the horse and escaped. In the same clash at Yellow Tavern, Stuart wasn't as fortunate. A Federal trooper mortally wounded the famed cavalryman with a shot from his pistol.

One veteran of Stuart's horse artillery respectfully remembered Breathed as "a man apparently reckless in his daring. And yet the results showed that he had a cool head and if his bravery carried him into tight places his military skill brought him through. No battery in either army gained a greater reputation than Breathed's Battery."

Lee once again expressed his admiration for the daring artillerist in a conversation with a friend following the war. "Sir, if the army consisted of ten thousand Breatheds, the cause of the Confederacy would not have been lost."

The author of this article is proud to mention that his great-grandfather William B. Clem served under Breathed. Clem originally rode with the 7th Virginia Cavalry, Laurel Brigade, but in April 1864 was transferred to Breathed's Battery to fill depleted ranks.

At the Wilderness (May 1864), under Breathed, my great-grandfather was severely wounded in the right knee, but managed to serve through the rest of the war.

With the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, Breathed returned to Washington County, where he settled in Hancock, near his sister, Priscilla Bridges. Here in the mountainous region of Western Maryland, Breathed returned to his practice of medicine.

Hancock is on the Potomac River near the Mason-Dixon Line, the dividing line between Northern and Southern states. Breathed's busy practice took him across the border into Pennsylvania.Due to his allegiance to the South during the war, and with bitter feelings still remaining in the North, the doctor's life was threatened many times.

With compassion for the sick, however, he traveled miles into the "forbidden territory." What were a few mountaineers' squirrel rifles compared to a Federal 20-pound Parrott gun? On Feb. 14, 1870, Breathed died at 32. He was buried in St. Thomas Episcopal Church Cemetery overlooking Hancock and the Potomac River.

William B. Clem passed away Feb. 2, 1907. Like many other Civil War veterans, he died in poverty and was buried in a donated grave at Emmanuel Lutheran Church Cemetery in New Market, Va.

An unknown author wrote a few words of lasting respect for the Confederate veterans:

"We laid him to rest in his cold / narrow bed, / And graved on the marble we / placed o'er his head, / As the proudest tributes our / hearts could pay, / He never disgraced the dear / jacket of gray."


Richard E. Clem is a cabinetmaker in Hagerstown, and a student of the Civil War. He is a frequent contributor to this page.


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