FIGHTING WITH JEB STUART: MAJOR JAMES BREATHED AND THE CONFEDERATE HORSE ARTILLERY
By David P. Bridges, Breathed Bridges Best, LLC, $32.95, 414 pages, illustrated
“They have our range, move up closer.” So remembered Confederate Gen. L.L. Lomax when asked in 1903 about the leadership of his fellow officer, Maj. James Breathed. When under fire from Union artillerists, Breathed would often move forward, putting himself in greater danger, but also inflicting greater casualties on the enemy.
This fine biography, penned by Breathed’s great-great nephew, David P. Bridges, is an excellent addition to any Civil War enthusiast’s library, especially those with an interest in J.E.B. Stuart and a specialized branch of the cavalry, the horse artillery.
If the name James Breathed does not ring an immediate bell, it may be because he lived in the shadow of the two shining stars of the Confederate cavalry, Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and Maj. John Pelham, “the Gallant Pelham,” so named by Robert E. Lee at Fredericksburg.
Breathed was a quiet man, reserved in his life outside of the fire of battle, but under combat conditions he showed a coolness and passion that elicited the devotion of his men and the admiration of friend and foe alike.
James Breathed was born near Berkeley Springs, Va. (now West Virginia) in 1838, the first child of Judge John Breathed and his wife, Ann. By 1848 the family had moved to Maryland, to a plantation near Sharpsburg named Bai-Yuka (fountain rock).
Breathed attended the School of Medicine at the University of Maryland (Baltimore) and by 1860 was practicing medicine in Rushville, Mo. Breathed boarded the train to go back East, to offer his services to the Cause.
Somewhere between Memphis and Pennsylvania, he sat next to James Ewell Brown Stuart. They were both traveling for the same reasons, and the two men became good friends. After a short stay at Bai-Yuka, Breathed saddled his horse and rode to Martinsburg, Va., where on April 19, 1861, he enlisted for one year in the Berkeley Troopers of Cavalry as a private.
Breathed was part of Stuart’s command and distinguished himself by ably performing scouting and other duties along the Potomac River near Harpers Ferry. He was with Stuart as the Southern cavalry helped rout the Union troops at First Manassas (Bull Run).
Until November 1861, Breathed was part of the regular cavalry. Then on the 18th he received his commission as a 2nd lieutenant, and two days later was transferred to the newly formed Stuart Horse Artillery.
From this point, Breathed’s fortunes of war lay with his service within the Stuart Horse Artillery. Except for a brief period during the summer of 1864, when he was recovering from a bullet wound to the stomach, he was present for every major campaign of what would become the Army of Northern Virginia. He was with Stuart during his first “Ride Around McClellan” as Robert E. Lee took command of the Confederate army and drove the Union forces away from Richmond in June and July of 1862.
The author has done splendid work in having his book filled with photos, illustrations, and, most important of all, maps of the important battles and skirmishes involving Breathed. This makes the book more accessible to the casual Civil War reader, who may be put to sleep by tomes that go on and on concerning some arcane fact or battle. In this book we have an understandable explanation of a little-known and less-understood arm of the Confederate army.
On Feb. 29, 1864, Breathed’s winter camp was attacked near Charlottesville, by Union cavalry under Gen. George Custer. Though their camp was destroyed, Breathed’s men were able to rescue their guns and drive back the Yankees. The ladies of Charlottesville rewarded them with a silk flag. When Stuart was wounded at Yellow Tavern on May 11, Breathed was there to intercept Custer’s Michigan cavalrymen who were trying to capture Stuart’s ambulance. Stuart died of his wound the next day.
At the end of June, Breathed was severely wounded while leading a charge of the 6th Virginia Cavalry. A pistol ball struck him in the abdomen and knocked him from his horse. He spent all of July and part of August on medical leave in Richmond.
Breathed was outside the lines of the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865, when Lee surrendered. His friend cavalry Gen. Thomas Munford recorded that “we turned our backs upon it and I may say that we ‘never surrendered.’ ”
Breathed on April 24 in Winchester took the oath of allegiance to the U.S. government. From there he traveled to his sister Priscilla’s house in Hancock, Md. She was married to Robert Bridges, a local entrepreneur, who helped Breathed set up a doctor’s office in their home.
Breathed probably suffered from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder . His health never fully returned and the pain of his stomach wound continually bothered him. He maintained his medical practice until his death on Feb. 14, 1870. He was just 32 years old.
The cause of his death remains unknown. He had been wounded several times during the war, and the effects of those injuries, coupled with his laudanum addiction, probably fatally weakened his constitution.
During the early years of the 20th century, Robert Bridges, the chief editor of Scribner’s Magazine in New York City, asked Priscilla to send him Breathed’s wartime papers. The novelist Thomas Nelson Page told her that Breathed’s life contained the “romance of the South” and wished to write about him.
But the papers remained with Priscilla, probably because of her advanced age and deteriorating health. Finally, at the beginning of the 21st century, her great-great grandson, David P. Bridges, accessed those papers and wrote a book needed to restore to prominence one of the forgotten heroes of the South.
William Connery is a freelance writer in Alexandria. He has written and spoken on various Civil War topics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.