- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2007

When President Lincoln issued the call for volunteers, 24-year-old Pennsylvania farmer James C. McCleary answered it, thus beginning a series of challenging experiences that could have killed him.

His war experience ultimately included being shot in the head, being captured by the enemy and suffering from several life-threatening illnesses. It also involved a lingering controversy over his pension and most serious wound.

McCleary, the son of a stage driver on the Old National Road, was a young man of ordinary stature, well liked in his southwestern Pennsylvania community, and in most respects ordinary. He signed up on Aug. 28, 1861, for a three-year term of enlistment in the Volunteer Cavalry, perhaps looking for a little excitement and relief from the routine in rural Washington County.

On Sept. 12, Pvt. McCleary officially joined the rolls of Company K, 1st West Virginia, in Wheeling, and on the 28th, he was listed as in camp and on active duty.

Regimental records for the 1st West Virginia Cavalry indicate that the unit was well equipped and “as beautiful and inspiring an organization as ever graced the army of the United States.” Early assignments included guarding the railroads in the region and guard duty in the mountain passes as an attachment to the Cheat Mountain District.

West Virginia, though not officially a state until 1863, suffered a level of guerrilla and partisan activity similar to that in border states such as Kentucky and Missouri, and the men of the 1st West Virginia Cavalry frequently encountered these enemies.

During the late fall and early winter, the West Virginia locales of Wirt County Courthouse, Suttonville and Braxton County Courthouse along with Jennies Creek in Kentucky were scenes of brief, sharp encounters. Seldom a week went by without some excitement.

Shot in head

McCleary was counted as present for duty all through the winter months, and his Company K participated in its share of skirmishes. The spring months found the 1st West Virginia engaged primarily in guard and escort duty for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, a vital east-west transportation artery that linked Washington and Baltimore with the Midwest. Confederate regulars and irregulars made the trains a favorite target, setting up ambushes and then disappearing into the woods.

In May 1862, while on such duty, McCleary experienced the first of his wartime ailments. The medical records indicate that he was treated for “sore mouth” and returned to duty on the same day.

As with many outlying commands, the 1st West Virginia Cavalry frequently was split into smaller groups for various tasks. In the late spring and early summer, companies of the regiment fought in the Shenandoah Valley under Gen. N.P. Banks while others remained behind to guard the supply lines and chase partisans. McCleary’s Company K drew more train escort duty in the summer, and it was on another such mission that he suffered a head wound.

He reported in his own words: “I was a private in Company K, First Regiment West Virginia Volunteer Cavalry … in the summer of 1862. A portion of our company was guarding a trainload of provisions from Ravenswood, West Virginia, to Spencer, West Virginia, and while on the road and in the line of duty we were attacked by bushwhackers. … During the skirmish that ensued I was shot in the head, and after we arrived at Spencer I was sent to the hospital or to the office headquarters of a physician who examined the wound and probed for the ball, but failed to find it. The examination by the physician was several hours after I was shot.”

A mystery

The head wound can be seen prominently in McCleary’s portrait, and surviving family members are familiar with stories about it. Some of the stories call into question whether McCleary was shot by Confederates or by a companion, but all agree that he carried the bullet in his head for a number of years before it finally was removed.

A 1912 obituary said, “During his enlistment, he was shot by a member of his own company, the ounce ball striking a glancing blow.Only a slight drop in the pistol would have caused death at the time. As it was the ball was imbedded and carried by Mr. McCleary a number of years. The comrade who did the shooting was not fighting, but committed the act in a spirit of dare devil.”

This information seemed to imply that McCleary exaggerated the wound story to receive a pension increase.

He was quick to answer such charges in a sworn affidavit many years before the obituary was written. The gunshot wound “was through no fault of mine or its consequences and effects are not increased or enlarged in any way on account of any vicious habits.”

McCleary’s statement does nothing to confirm or deny the assertion that he was shot by a fellow Union soldier, though there is ample evidence of his general character from a variety of sources. Other epitaphs include “Square in his dealings” (the same obituary, ironically), “Modest” and “Unassuming.” Even a doctor who examined him was careful to state in the exact words McCleary used that he displayed “No evidence of vicious habits.”

That same doctor also reported that there were two bullet holes in McCleary’s head — one on the upper forehead and one on top of the head. Without any further comment, one is left to assume that the second hole was a scar from the bullet’s removal. McCleary stated that a Dr. Hartman performed this operation in 1866 or 1867.

The company records are silent on the matter of the gunshot wound, and McCleary had more adventures on the horizon. In spite of lingering complaints, he claimed at his pension hearing after the war that he did not miss any duty following the shooting incident.

Stomach problems

In September 1862, McCleary was in the hospital for 10 days and was treated for what was referred to as the “billows.” The word “billow” can mean literally a swelling of the belly, and McCleary probably was suffering stomach problems common to all Civil War soldiers, namely diarrhea or “symptoms consisting of headache, abdominal pain, and constipation.” It also could be a misspelling of bilious fever. Many soldiers died of stomach ailments, but McCleary returned to duty on Sept. 15, presumably in reasonable health.

The regiment had a busy fall, including actions in Northern Virginia at Rappahannock Station, Hazel River and Kelley’s Ford and ultimately at Antietam, Md.

It’s not clear from the records exactly what McCleary did with Company K during this time, though muster rolls count him as present for duty throughout the fall, and various parts of the regiment performed diverse tasks ranging from personal escort detail with a general to military police work in the Department of the Ohio under Maj. Gen. John E. Wool.

Company K is listed as part of the Railroad Division on Oct. 31, 1862, commanded by Maj. John Showalter in Weston, W. Va. No doubt McCleary and his comrades spent more time escorting the endless trains moving from east to west.

Prisoner of war

In January, McCleary returned to the hospital, this time because of bronchitis, a disease that would trouble him in his postwar years as well. He spent almost four weeks on the sick roll, undergoing standard treatments: “Dosing of opium or sometimes quinine and muster plasters.” Once again, McCleary survived. He returned to duty in February.

On Feb. 27 and 28, 1863, the regiment participated in a scouting expedition from Centreville to Falmouth, Va. Similar reconnaissance missions associated with the defense of Washington were undertaken throughout the spring, terminating in places such as Warrenton, Salem, Aldie and Upperville, Va.

Duties eventually included guarding more railroads, garrisoning strategic points in Northern Virginia, gathering intelligence on the enemy and always hunting down partisans. Under Gen. Julius Stahel, this campaign reached a miniclimax with the defeat of Mosby’s Rangers at Warrenton Junction on May 3.

A number of Union cavalry were taken prisoner at the start of the battle before the tide turned against Mosby’s men. McCleary, however, is listed in regiment records as a prisoner of war between April 30 and Aug. 31, which would suggest he had been captured before this battle occurred.

There is no record that Company K was involved in combat on April 30, so one is left to speculate about the circumstances of McCleary’s capture. There were large-scale movements of almost all Union forces in Northern Virginia, as Gen. Joseph Hooker moved aggressively to invade Central Virginia. McCleary probably fell into Confederate hands during those activities before the Battle of Chancellorsville.

McCleary missed the Battle of Winchester (June 13 through 15) in which Company K played a part, as well as fighting at Hanover, Pa., and Gettysburg, where the regiment helped stem the Confederate tide near Big Round Top on the last day.

Frequently absent

Where McCleary served his term as prisoner is unknown. He did not travel to Andersonville, Ga., or the stockade at Florence, S.C., or, as far as can be ascertained, to any other Deep South prison. The likelihood is that he was held in one of the many prisons in Richmond or one of the smaller ones to the west such as in Danville, Va.

Pvt. McCleary survived. He reappears on the company roll at the end of August 1863 and is listed in September and October as “Absent — Exchanged prisoner not as yet returned to duty.” A signed railroad pass from a Capt. Moore, 13th Infantry, provided McCleary rail transportation on Sept. 4 from Bellair, Ohio, to Columbus, Ohio, on the Central Ohio Railroad as a paroled prisoner.

In November and December, McCleary is counted as present for duty. The regiment participated in the ill-fated Mine Run campaign in Virginia, and McCleary probably was involved.

Beginning with the January 1864 entry, however, McCleary is listed as “Absent on duty,” a phrase that at once is a contradiction and a curiosity. Apparently McCleary was not with the company, though he was on some type of official duty. Adding to the oddity is that in March he is listed as “Absent on furlough,” which is the opposite of “Absent on duty.” The former maintains a tie to official duty, while the latter excuses a soldier from official duty.

Remount camp

The regiment was posted in various locations in West Virginia until May. There are no company records for April or May on McCleary, and he makes his next official appearance in June, back on the doctor’s patient list. On June 1 and 2, the private was out of action for treatment of gonorrhea. He quickly and quietly returned to duty. The regiment saw a variety of action following this, up and down the Shenandoah Valley and in West Virginia.

In July and August, however, when much of the regiment saw continuing action at Kernstown, Winchester, Falling Waters, Martinsburg and other places, McCleary was listed as “Absent — at remount/dismounted camp, Cumberland, Maryland.” What he did there is only speculation. “Remount camp” sometimes was a euphemism for a place to send someone who needed a break, but the camps also were real camps where soldiers waited until another horse could be assigned to them.

It’s possible that McCleary was placed there for health reasons.After all, by this time, he had survived a number of ordeals of a kind that had killed many other soldiers. It’s also possible that he simply needed another horse.

Whatever the case, McCleary’s three-year enlistment was due to end shortly. In December 1864, he was listed as “Absent in Wheeling, waiting muster out.” On Dec. 14, he received an honorable discharge. On Dec. 27, he turned in his sling belt, swivel complete, Spencer carbine and Colt Army revolver. His days in the Union Army were over.

Civic activist

McCleary returned to his farm near Stony Point in Washington County, Pa. In 1870, he married Margaret Hair, and she eventually bore eight children. He received a government pension and belonged to his local chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic.

In 1904, he moved to a Greene Street home in Claysville, Pa. He was a staunch Democrat and a civic activist, once serving on the borough council. In 1912, after a long illness complicated by residual wartime injuries and sickness, McCleary died at the age of 73.

People in Claysville associated him with his war service. The headline of one obituary reads simply, “Was a Prominent Claysville Citizen. … A soldier of the Civil War.” Most remarkable, however, are the number of wounds and sicknesses he endured, a record rivaled by few other war survivors.

Jack Trammell is professor and administrator at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va. He lives on a farm in central Virginia with his wife and seven children, and can be reached at jacktrammell@yahoo.com.

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