Born in Pennsylvania in 1838, James Downs was the son of Maryland natives.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, he was also a 23-year-old tanner residing in Blain, Perry County, Pennsylvania.
According to historian Harry Harrison Hain, the community of Blain was “nestle[d] in the famous Sherman’s Valley, near the western end of the county, the center of a veritable garden spot,” and “had its beginning in the early settlement which grew up about the mill erected by James Blaine in 1778, after whom the town took its name.” Like Duncannon to the east and its other sister communities across Perry County, Blain became increasingly less rural as the 19th century waxed and waned.
Civil War Military Service
On 20 August 1861, James Downs became one of Pennsylvania’s early responders to what would ultimate become America’s largest civil crisis when he enrolled for military service at Bloomfield in Perry County. He officially mustered in for duty less than two weeks later, 31 August, at Camp Curtin in Dauphin County as a Private with Company D of the 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.
* Note: Although the Pennsylvania Veteran’s Burial Index Card for James Downs indicates that he served in both companies D and K of the 47th Pennsylvania, the notation for K Company service appears to have been a typographical error. Downs’ entry in the Civil War Veterans’ Card File at the Pennsylvania State Archives states only that he was a member of Company D.
D Company was led by Henry Durant Woodruff, a native of Waterbury, Connecticut who had been reared and educated in Windsor, New York until the age of 18 when he relocated to Perry County, Pennsylvania. A citizen member of the local militia in Bloomfield and, professionally, a teacher and then innkeeper until 1861, Henry Woodruff had not only performed his own Three Month’s Service in response to President Abraham Lincoln’s initial call for troops following Fort Sumter’s fall to Confederate forces, but had actually raised the unit he commanded at that time – Company D of the 2nd Pennsylvania Infantry, which was composed of residents from Bloomfield and other parts of Perry County. After honorably completing his Three Months’ Service, Woodruff mustered out at Camp Curtin on 26 July 1861, and then promptly raised a second company to continue the fight to preserve America’s Union. Recruiting men from Bloomfield again, he re-enrolled on 20 August 1861, and was again commissioned as Captain, mustering in at Camp Curtin on 31 August. His unit became Company D of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, which had just been established weeks earlier by Tilghman H. Good.
Following a brief light infantry training period, Private James Downs and his fellow members of D Company were sent by train with the 47th Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C. where they were stationed roughly two miles from the White House at “Camp Kalorama” on Kalorama Heights near Georgetown, beginning 21 September. Henry D. Wharton, a Musician with C Company, provided the following update on 22 September for readers of the Sunbury American, his hometown newspaper:
After a tedious ride we have, at last, safely arrived at the City of ‘magnificent distances.’ We left Harrisburg on Friday last at 1 o’clock A.M. and reached this camp yesterday (Saturday) at 4 P.M., as tired and worn out a sett [sic] of mortals as can possibly exist. On arriving at Washington we were marched to the ‘Soldiers Retreat,’ a building purposely erected for the benefit of the soldier, where every comfort is extended to him and the wants of the ‘inner man’ supplied.
After partaking of refreshments we were ordered into line and marched, about three miles, to this camp. So tired were the men, that on marching out, some gave out, and had to leave the ranks, but J. Boulton Young, our ‘little Zouave,’ stood it bravely, and acted like a veteran. So small a drummer is scarcely seen in the army, and on the march through Washington he was twice the recipient of three cheers.
We were reviewed by Gen. McClellan yesterday [21 September 1861] without our knowing it. All along the march we noticed a considerable number of officers, both mounted and on foot; the horse of one of the officers was so beautiful that he was noticed by the whole regiment, in fact, so wrapt [sic] up were they in the horse, the rider wasn’t noticed, and the boys were considerably mortified this morning on dis-covering they had missed the sight of, and the neglect of not saluting the soldier next in command to Gen. Scott.
Col. Good, who has command of our regiment, is an excellent men and a splendid soldier. He is a man of very few words, and is continually attending to his duties and the wants of the Regiment.
…. Our Regiment will now be put to hard work; such as drilling and the usual business of camp life, and the boys expect and hope an occasional ‘pop’ at the enemy.
As part of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, Company D became part of the federal service when its members officially mustered into the U.S. Army on 24 September. Three days later, on 27 September – a rainy day, the 47th Pennsylvania was assigned to Brigadier-General Isaac Stevens’ 3rd Brigade, which also included the 33rd, 49th and 79th New York regiments. By that afternoon, the 47th Pennsylvania was on the move again. Ordered onward by Brigadier-General Silas Casey, the Mississippi rifle-armed 47th Pennsylvania infantrymen marched behind their regimental band until reaching Camp Lyon, Maryland on the Potomac River’s eastern shore. At 5 p.m., they joined the 46th Pennsylvania in moving double-quick (165 steps per minute using 33-inch steps) across the “Chain Bridge” marked on federal maps, and continued on for roughly another mile before being ordered to make camp.
The next morning, they broke camp and moved again. Marching toward Falls Church, Virginia, they arrived at Camp Advance around dusk. There, about two miles from the bridge they had crossed a day earlier, they re-pitched their tents in a deep ravine near a new federal fort under construction (Fort Ethan Allen). They had completed a roughly eight-mile trek, were situated fairly close to General W.F. Smith’s headquarters, and were now part of the massive Army of the Potomac. Under Smith’s leadership, their regiment and brigade would help to defend the nation’s capital from the time of their September arrival through late January when the men of the 47th Pennsylvania would be shipped south.
Once again, Company C Musician Henry Wharton recapped the regiment’s activities, noting, via his 29 September letter home to the Sunbury American, that the 47th had changed camps three times in three days:
On Friday last we left Camp Kalorama, and the same night encamped about one mile from the Chain Bridge on the opposite side of the Potomac from Washington. The next morning, Saturday, we were ordered to this Camp [Camp Advance near Fort Ethan Allen, Virginia], one and a half miles from the one we occupied the night previous. I should have mentioned that we halted on a high hill (on our march here) at the Chain Bridge, called Camp Lyon, but were immediately ordered on this side of the river. On the route from Kalorama we were for two hours exposed to the hardest rain I ever experienced. Whew, it was a whopper; but the fellows stood it well – not a murmur – and they waited in their wet clothes until nine o’clock at night for their supper. Our Camp adjoins that of the N.Y. 79th (Highlanders.)….
We had not been in this Camp more than six hours before our boys were supplied with twenty rounds of ball and cartridge, and ordered to march and meet the enemy; they were out all night and got back to Camp at nine o’clock this morning, without having a fight. They are now in their tents taking a snooze preparatory to another march this morning…. I don’t know how long the boys will be gone, but the orders are to cook two days’ rations and take it with them in their haversacks….
There was a nice little affair came off at Lavensville, a few miles from here on Wednesday last; our troops surprised a party of rebels (much larger than our own.) killing ten, took a Major prisoner, and captured a large number of horses, sheep and cattle, besides a large quantity of corn and potatoes, and about ninety six tons of hay. A very nice day’s work. The boys are well, in fact, there is no sickness of any consequence at all in our Regiment….
Sometime during this phase of duty, as part of the 3rd Brigade, the 47th Pennsylvanians were moved to a site they initially christened “Camp Big Chestnut” for the large chestnut tree located within their lodging’s boundaries. The site would eventually become known to the Keystone Staters as “Camp Griffin,” and was located roughly 10 miles from Washington, D.C.
On October 11, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers marched in the Grand Review at Bailey’s Cross Roads. In a letter home in mid-October, Captain John Peter Shindel Gobin (the leader of C Company who would be promoted in 1864 to lead the entire 47th Regiment) reported that companies D, A, C, F and I (the 47th Pennsylvania’s right wing) were ordered to picket duty after the left wing companies (B, G, K, E, and H) had been forced to return to camp by Confederate troops.
In his own letter of 13 October, Henry Wharton described their duties, as well as their new home:
The location of our camp is fine and the scenery would be splendid if the view was not obstructed by heavy thickets of pine and innumerable chesnut [sic] trees. The country around us is excellent for the Rebel scouts to display their bravery; that is, to lurk in the dense woods and pick off one of our unsuspecting pickets. Last night, however, they (the Rebels) calculated wide of their mark; some of the New York 33d boys were out on picket; some fourteen or fifteen shots were exchanged, when our side succeeded in bringing to the dust, (or rather mud,) an officer and two privates of the enemy’s mounted pickets. The officer was shot by a Lieutenant in Company H [?], of the 33d.
Our own boys have seen hard service since we have been on the ‘sacred soil.’ One day and night on picket, next day working on entrenchments at the Fort, (Ethan Allen.) another on guard, next on march and so on continually, but the hardest was on picket from last Thursday morning ‘till Saturday morning – all the time four miles from camp, and both of the nights the rain poured in torrents, so much so that their clothes were completely saturated with the rain. They stood it nobly – not one complaining; but from the size of their haversacks on their return, it is no wonder that they were satisfied and are so eager to go again tomorrow. I heard one of them say ‘there was such nice cabbage, sweet and Irish potatoes, turnips, &c., out where their duty called them, and then there was a likelihood of a Rebel sheep or young porker advancing over our lines and then he could take them as ‘contraband’ and have them for his own use.’ When they were out they saw about a dozen of the Rebel cavalry and would have had a bout with them, had it not been for…unlucky circumstance – one of the men caught the hammer of his rifle in the strap of his knapsack and caused his gun to fire; the Rebels heard the report and scampered in quick time….
On Friday morning, 22 October 1861, the 47th engaged in a Divisional Review, described by historian Lewis Schmidt as massing “about 10,000 infantry, 1000 cavalry, and twenty pieces of artillery all in one big open field.” Less than a month later, in his letter of 17 November, Henry Wharton revealed more details about life at Camp Griffin:
This morning our brigade was out for inspection; arms, accoutrements [sic], clothing, knapsacks, etc, all were out through a thorough examination, and if I must say it myself, our company stood best, A No. 1, for cleanliness. We have a new commander to our Brigade, Brigadier General Brannen [sic], of the U.S. Army, and if looks are any criterion, I think he is a strict disciplinarian and one who will be as able to get his men out of danger as he is willing to lead them to battle….
The boys have plenty of work to do, such as piquet [sic] duty, standing guard, wood-chopping, police duty and day drill; but then they have the most substantial food; our rations consist of fresh beef (three times a week) pickled pork, pickled beef, smoked pork, fresh bread, daily, which is baked by our own bakers, the Quartermaster having procured portable ovens for that purpose, potatoes, split peas, beans, occasionally molasses and plenty of good coffee, so you see Uncle Sam supplies us plentifully….
A few nights ago our Company was out on piquet [sic]; it was a terrible night, raining very hard the whole night, and what made it worse, the boys had to stand well to their work and dare not leave to look for shelter. Some of them consider they are well paid for their exposure, as they captured two ancient muskets belonging to Secessia. One of them is of English manufacture, and the other has the Virginia militia mark on it. They are both in a dilapidated condition, but the boys hold them in high estimation as they are trophies from the enemy, and besides they were taken from the house of Mrs. Stewart, sister to the rebel Jackson who assassinated the lamented Ellsworth at Alexandria. The honorable lady, Mrs. Stewart, is now a prisoner at Washington and her house is the headquarters of the command of the piquets [sic]….
Since the success of the secret expedition, we have all kinds of rumors in camp. One is that our Brigade will be sent to the relief of Gen. Sherman, in South Carolina. The boys all desire it and the news in the ‘Press’ is correct, that a large force is to be sent there, I think their wish will be gratified….
On 21 November, the 47th participated in a morning divisional headquarters review by Colonel Tilghman H. Good, followed by brigade and division drills all afternoon. According to Schmidt, “each man was supplied with ten blank cartridges.” Afterward, “Gen. Smith requested Gen. Brannan to inform Col. Good that the 47th was the best regiment in the whole division.”
As a reward – and in preparation for even bigger things to come, Brigadier-General John Milton Brannan obtained brand new Springfield rifles for every member of the 47th Pennsylvania.
Next ordered to move from their Virginia encampment back to Maryland, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers left Camp Griffin at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, 22 January 1862. Marching through deep mud with their equipment for three miles in order to reach the railroad station at Falls Church, they were next sent by rail to Alexandria, and then sailed the Potomac via the steamship City of Richmond to the Washington Arsenal, where they were reequipped before they were marched off for dinner and rest at the Soldiers’ Retreat in Washington, D.C. The next afternoon, the 47th Pennsylvanians hopped rail cars on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and headed for Annapolis, Maryland. Arriving around 10 p.m., they were assigned quarters in barracks at the Naval Academy. They then spent that Friday through Monday (24-27 January 1862) loading their equipment and other supplies onto the steamship Oriental.
According to Schmidt and letters home from members of the regiment, those preparations ceased on Monday, 27 January, at 10 a.m. when:
The regiment was formed and instructed by Lt. Col. Alexander ‘that we were about drumming out a member who had behaved himself unlike a soldier.’ …. The prisoner, Pvt. James C. Robinson of Company I, was a 36 year old miner from Allentown who had been ‘disgracefully discharged’ by order of the War Department. Pvt. Robinson was marched out with martial music playing and a guard of nine men, two men on each side and five behind him at charge bayonets. The music then struck up with ‘Robinson Crusoe’ as the procession was marched up and down in front of the regiment, and Pvt. Robinson was marched out of the yard.
Reloading then resumed. By that afternoon, when the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers commenced boarding the Oriental, they were ferried to the big steamship by smaller steamers. The officers boarded last and, per the directive of Brigadier-General Brannan, the Oriental steamed away for the Deep South at 4 p.m. They were headed for Florida which, despite its secession from the Union, remained strategically important to the Union due to the presence of Forts Taylor and Jefferson in Key West and the Dry Tortugas.
Company D and their fellow 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers arrived in Key West in early February 1862. There, they were assigned to garrison Fort Taylor and drilled daily in heavy artillery tactics and other military strategies. During the weekend of Friday, 14 February, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers introduced their presence to Key West residents as the regiment paraded through the streets of the city. That Sunday, a number of the 47th Pennsylvanians mingled with local residents as they attended services at a local church.
From mid-June through July, the 47th was ordered to Hilton Head, South Carolina where the men made camp before being housed in the Department of the South’s Beaufort District. Picket duties north of the 3rd Brigade’s camp were commonly rotated among the regiments present there at the time, putting soldiers at risk from sniper fire and other hazards. According to historian Samuel P. Bates, the men of the 47th “received the highest commendation from Generals Hunter and Brannan” for their “attention to duty, discipline and soldierly bearing.”
During this phase of service, Company D lost several men to disease, a constant companion and foe of the 47th Pennsylvania throughout its long tenure of duty.
The Capture of Saint John’s Bluff, Florida and Battle of Pocotaligo, South Carolina
Sent on a return expedition to Florida, Company D saw its first truly intense moments when it participated with the 47th Pennsylvania and other Union regiments in the capture of Saint John’s Bluff from 1 to 3 October. Led by Brigadier-General Brannan, a 1,500-plus Union force disembarked at Mayport Mills and Mount Pleasant Creek from troop carriers guarded by Union gunboats. Taking point, the 47th led the 3rd Brigade through 25 miles of dense, pine forested swamps populated with deadly snakes and alligators. By the time the expedition ended, the brigade had forced the Confederate Army to abandon its artillery battery atop Saint John’s Bluff, and had paved the way for the Union to occupy the town of Jacksonville, Florida.
From 5-15 October 1862, a teenager and several young to middle-aged black men left the hardship they had known in Beaufort, South Carolina to enroll for service with Company F of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers. Initially assigned to kitchen duties, they would be officially mustered in for service with the regiment as Cooks and Under Cooks at Morganza, Louisiana in June 1864. More men of color would continue to be added to the 47th Pennsylvania’s rosters in the weeks and years to come.
From 21-23 October, under the brigade and regimental commands of Colonel Tilghman H. Good and Lieutenant Colonel George W. Alexander, the 47th engaged Confederate forces in and around Pocotaligo, South Carolina. Landing at Mackey’s Point, the men of the 47th were placed on point once again, but they and the 3rd Brigade were less fortunate this time.
Harried by snipers en route to the Pocotaligo Bridge, they met resistance from an entrenched, heavily fortified Confederate battery which opened fire on the Union troops as they entered an open cotton field. Those headed toward higher ground at the Frampton Plantation fared no better as they encountered artillery and infantry fire from the surrounding forests.
The Union soldiers grappled with the Confederates where they found them, pursuing the Rebels for four miles as they retreated to the bridge. There, the 47th relieved the 7th Connecticut. But the enemy was just too well armed. After two hours of intense fighting in an attempt to take the ravine and bridge, depleted ammunition forced the 47th to withdraw to Mackey’s Point.
Losses for the 47th were significant. Two officers and 18 enlisted men died; two officers and another 114 enlisted were wounded. Several resting places for men from the 47th still remain unidentified, the information lost to the sloppy records of Army Quartermaster and hospital personnel, or to the trauma-impaired memories of soldiers who hastily buried or were forced to leave behind the bodies of comrades upon receiving orders to retreat.
On 23 October, the 47th Pennsylvania returned to Hilton Head, where it served as the funeral Honor Guard for General Ormsby McKnight Mitchel, the commander of the U.S. Army’s 10th Corps and Department of the South who had succumbed to yellow fever on 30 October. The Mountains of Mitchel, a part of Mars’ South Pole discovered by Mitchel in 1846 while working as a University of Cincinnati astronomer, and Mitchelville, the first Freedmen’s town created after the Civil War, were both later named for him. Men from the 47th Pennsylvania were given the high honor of firing the salute over his grave.
By 1863, Private James Down and his fellow D Company soldiers were once again based with the 47th Pennsylvania in Florida. Having been ordered back to Key West on 15 November of 1862, much of 1863 was spent guarding federal installations in Florida as part of the 10th Corps, Department of the South. Companies A, B, C, E, G, and I garrisoned Fort Taylor in Key West while Companies D, F, H, and K garrisoned Fort Jefferson in Florida’s Dry Tortugas. Men from the 47th were also sent on skirmishes and to Fort Myers, which had been abandoned in 1858 after the third U.S. war with the Seminole Indians.
As before, disease was a constant companion and foe. The time spent here by the 47th Pennsylvania was notable also for the men’s commitment to preserving the Union. Many who could have returned home chose instead to re-enlist in order to finish the fight, including Private James Downs who re-enrolled for military service on at Fort Taylor in Key West, Florida on 10 October 1863, thereby gaining the designation of “Veteran Volunteer.”
A letter to the New York Times, reprinted in the 30 April 1864 edition of the Semi- Weekly Wisconsin in Milwaukee, provided insight into the mindsets of Private Downs and those who fought beside him:
Remarkable History of a Military Company
To the Editor of the New York Times:
Company D of the 47th Pennsylvania Regiment, a portion of which recently spent some time at the Soldiers’ Rest, in our city, on the way to Key West, can show the following record. There are in the company the following men:
William Powell, } Four brothers and a cousin.
John Brady, } All brothers.
Jacob Baltzer [sic], } Brothers.
George Baltzer [sic],
Benjamin Baltzer [sic],
George Krosier [sic], } Brothers.
William Krosier [sic],
Jesse Krosier [sic],
Edward Harper, } Brothers [sic] and Brothers-in-law
Marvin Harper, of the Captain.
Jesse Shaffer, } Two Brothers and a Cousin.
Wilson Tag, } Father and two sons; father
James Tag, served in Mexican War.
John Clay, } Six pairs of brothers.
William Vertig [sic],
Franklin Vertig [sic],
Isaac Baldwin, } Step-brothers.
These men all hail from Perry county, Pennsylvania. They are mainly of the old Holland stock, and lived within a circuit of fifteen miles. They are all re-enlisted men but two or three.
The company has been out over two years, most of the time at the extreme southern points. During eighteen months they lost but one man by sickness. They kept up strict salary regulations, commuted their rations of salt meat for fresh meat and vegetables, and saved by the operation from one hundred to one hundred thirty dollars a month, with which they made a company fund, appointing the Captain treasurer, and out of which whatever knick-nacks [sic] were needed could be purchased.
They always ate at a table, which they fixed with cross sticks, and had their food served from large bowls, each man having his place, as at home, which no one else was allowed to occupy. While the men were here, they showed that they were sober, cheerful, intelligent men, who had put their hearts into their work, and did not count any privations or sacrifices too great, if only the life of the country might thereby be maintained. During the whole term of their service, they had not had a man court-martialed.
They are commanded by Captain Henry D. Woodruff, a native of Binghamton, in this State, but long a resident of Pennsylvania. Their First Lieutenant is S. Ouchmuty [sic]; Second Lieutenant, George Stroop.
If any company can show a more striking record, it would be very interesting to know it.
1864 – The Red River Campaign and Life as a Prisoner of War at Camp Ford in Texas
On 25 February 1864, Private James Downs and his fellow regiment members set off for a phase of service in which they would truly make history. Steaming first for New Orleans via the Charles Thomas, the 47th Pennsylvanians arrived at Algiers, Louisiana on 28 February, and were then shipped by train to Brashear City. Following another steamer ride – to Franklin via the Bayou Teche – the 47th joined the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division of the Department of the Gulf’s 19th Army Corps. In short order, the 47th would become the only Pennsylvania regiment to serve in the Red River Campaign of Union General Nathaniel Banks.
From 14-26 March, the 47th passed through New Iberia, Vermillionville, Opelousas, and Washington while en route to Alexandria and Natchitoches. On 4 April 1864, the 47th Pennsylvania added to its roster of young black soldiers when 18-year-old John Bullard enrolled for service with Company D at Natchitoches, Louisiana. According to his entry in the Civil War Veterans’ Card File at the Pennsylvania State Archives, he was officially mustered in for duty on 22 June “as (Colored) Cook.”
Often short on food and water, the regiment encamped briefly at Pleasant Hill the night of 7 April before continuing on the next day, marching until mid-afternoon.
Rushed into battle ahead of other regiments in the 2nd Division, 60 members of the 47th were cut down on 8 April during the volley of fire unleashed during the Battle of Sabine Cross Roads. The fighting waned only when darkness fell. Exhausted, those who were uninjured collapsed beside the gravely wounded. After midnight, the surviving Union troops withdrew to Pleasant Hill.
The next day, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers were ordered into a critically important defensive position at the far right of the Union lines, their right flank spreading up onto a high bluff. By 3 p.m., after enduring a midday charge by the troops of Confederate General Richard Taylor (a plantation owner and son of Zachary Taylor, former President of the United States), the brutal fighting still showed no signs of ending. Suddenly, just as the 47th was shifting to the left side of the massed Union forces, the men of the 47th Pennsylvania were forced to bolster the 165th New York’s buckling lines by blocking another Confederate assault.
Casualties were once again severe. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander was nearly killed, and the regiment’s two color-bearers, both from Company C, were also wounded while preventing the American flag from falling into enemy hands. Private Ephraim Clouser of Company D was shot in his right knee, and Corporal Isaac Baldwin was also wounded.
Still others from the 47th were captured and held as prisoners of war until released during a prisoner exchange on 22 July. Sergeant James Crownover was wounded in action before being taken captive. He, Private James Downs, Corporal John Garber Miller and Private William J. Smith were four of the fortunate who survived.
Marched roughly 125 miles to a Camp Ford, a Confederate Army prison camp near Tyler, Texas, they were held as prisoners of war (POWs) until released during prisoners exchange between Union and Confederate forces that Summer and Fall. (Downs, Miller and Smith were released on 22 July while Crownover was held until 25 November.)
Following what some historians have called a rout by Confederates at Pleasant Hill and others have labeled a technical victory for the Union or a draw for both sides, the surviving, free members of the 47th fell back to Grand Ecore, Louisiana, where they resupplied, retreated further to Alexandria, and continued to fight on, scoring clear victories against the Confederates at Cane Hill and again along the way as they moved back through the southeastern part of the state via Simmsport across the Atchafalaya to Morganza, and then to New Orleans on 20 June.
Still able and willing to fight after their time in Bayou country, the soldiers of Company D and their fellow members of the 47th Pennsylvania’s Companies A, C, E, F, H, and I left their hospitalized and captive comrades behind as they boarded the McClellan and steamed away for the East Coast beginning 7 July 1864.
Among those still languishing in prison at Camp Ford near Tyler, Texas was Private James Downs. He was finally released on 22 July, and ultimately reunited with his regiment after recovering from his ordeal. In his 20 August letter to the Sunbury American, Henry Wharton later detailed the ordeal the POWs were enduring at this time:
While at Tyler, Texas, they were vaccinated or innoculated, with impure matter which impregnated their blood and now they are afflicted with ulcerated limbs and sore eyes. The fiends, pretending to give these men a preventive for small pox, filled their systems with a loathsome disease that will cling to through life. Is not this an inhuman act? Samuel Miller is in the hospital at New Orleans.
Joseph Shipman, who was serving with Company F of the 19th Iowa Infantry and was also captured on 29 September 1863 and held as a POW by Confederate forces from that time until he was discharged during the same prisoner exchange as Private Downs (22 July 1864), provided further details of life at Camp Ford via a letter to his brother in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, which was penned in New Orleans on 28 July and published on 13 August in the Sunbury American:
MY DEAR BROTHER,
You will have heard by the papers ere this reaches you, of our return and exchange from a ten months captivity in Rebeldom….
We were started on foot for Tyler, Texas, 400 miles distant, which place we reached in 23 days, including delays and stoppages.
I have not time to tell you now of the many abuses and insults that we were compelled to submit to, but I am certain no prisoners ever endured more than we did during the cold weather of last winter.
We were paroled on the 5th inst., left Tyler on the 9th for Shreveport, La., distant 119 miles. We made the trip through in four days, three-fourth of the men were barefooted and so ragged that it was impossible for many of us to conceal our nakedness. We were taken on steamers from Shreveport to the north Red River where we were met by the Commissioner of exchange for this Department with an equal number of Confederate prisoners and the exchange took place on the 22d. We left on the 23d for this Port [New Orleans], arrived here on the 24th, where we are now comfortably quartered with a whole new suit, plenty to eat and drink, all of which we have been strangers to for the last ten months, our food while we were prisoners consisted almost exclusively of corn meal and beef, and very small rations at that.
Fifteen members of the 47th Pennsylvania were inmates of the stockage at Tyler with us for a short time. Some four or five of Captain Gobin’s company [Company C] of Sunbury among them, they came out and were exchanged with us on the 22nd inst., among them was Samuel Miller, an old acquaintance of mine.
Your affectionate brother,
JOSEPH R. SHIPMAN,
Co. F, 19th Iowa
Sheridan’s 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign
Attached to the Middle Military Division, Army of the Shenandoah beginning in August, D Company bid farewell to several of its leaders who had served honorably with the 47th Pennsylvania, including Company D’s Captain Henry Woodruff, 1st Lieutenant Samuel Auchmuty, Sergeants Henry Heikel and Alex Wilson, and Corporals Cornelius Stewart and Samuel A. M. Reed. All mustered out 18 September 1864 upon expiration of their service terms.
Those members of the 47th who remained on duty, like Private James Downs were about to engage in their regiment’s greatest moments of valor.
Battles of Opequan and Fisher’s Hill, September 1864
Together with other regiments under the command of Union General Philip H. (“Little Phil”) Sheridan and Brigadier-General William H. Emory, commander of the 19th Corps, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers next helped to inflict heavy casualties on Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederate forces at Opequan (also spelled as “Opequon” and referred to as “Third Winchester”). The battle is still considered by many historians to be one of the most important during Sheridan’s 1864 campaign; the Union’s victory here helped to ensure the reelection of President Abraham Lincoln.
The 47th Pennsylvania’s march toward destiny at Opequan began at 2 a.m. on 19 September 1864 as the regiment left camp and joined up with others in the Union’s 19th Corps. After advancing slowly from Berryville toward Winchester, the 19th Corps became bogged down for several hours by the massive movement of Union troops and supply wagons, enabling Early’s men to dig in. After finally reaching and fording the Opequan Creek, Sheridan’s men came face to face with the Confederate Army commanded by Early. The fighting, which began in earnest at noon, was long and brutal. The Union’s left flank (6th Corps) took a beating from Confederate artillery stationed on high ground.
Meanwhile, the 47th Pennsylvania and the 19th Corps were directed by General William Emory to attack and pursue Major General John B. Gordon’s Confederate forces. Some success was achieved, but casualties mounted as another Confederate artillery group opened fire on Union troops trying to cross a clearing. When a nearly fatal gap began to open between the 6th and 19th Corps, Sheridan sent in units led by Brigadier-Generals Emory Upton and David A. Russell. Russell, hit twice – once in the chest, was mortally wounded. The 47th Pennsylvania opened its lines long enough to enable the Union cavalry under William Woods Averell and the foot soldiers of General George Crook to charge the Confederates’ left flank.
The 19th Corps, with the 47th in the thick of the fighting, then began pushing the Confederates back. Early’s “grays” retreated in the face of the valor displayed by Sheridan’s “blue jackets.” Leaving 2,500 wounded behind, the Rebels retreated to Fisher’s Hill (21-22 September), eight miles south of Winchester, and then to Waynesboro, following a successful early morning flanking attack by Sheridan’s Union men which outnumbered Early’s three to one.
Afterward, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers were sent out on skirmishing parties before making camp at Cedar Creek. The day of the Opequan encounter (19 September 1864), Corporals John V. Brady and John G. Miller of Company were both promoted to the rank of Sergeant, and Privates Jacob P. Baltozer, William D. Hays, Noble Henkle, William Powell, John E. L. Roth, and Benjamin F. Shaffer all received promotions to the rank of Corporal.
Moving forward, they and other members of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers would continue to distinguish themselves in battle, but they would do so without two more of their respected commanders: Colonel Tilghman Good and Good’s second in command, Lieutenant Colonel George Alexander, who mustered out 23-24 September upon expiration of their respective terms of service.
Fortunately, they were replaced by others equally admired both for temperament and their front line experience: 2nd Lieutenant George Stroop, who was promoted to lead Company D, and at the regimental level, John Peter Shindel Gobin, Charles W. Abbott and Levi Stuber.
Battle of Cedar Creek, October 1864
It was during the Fall of 1864 that General Philip Sheridan began the first of the Union’s true “scorched earth” campaigns, starving the enemy into submission by destroying Virginia’s crops and farming infrastructure. Viewed through today’s lens of history as inhumane, the strategy claimed many innocents – civilians whose lives were cut short by their inability to find food. This same strategy, however, almost certainly contributed to the further turning of the war’s tide in the Union’s favor during the Battle of Cedar Creek on 19 October 1864. Successful throughout most of their engagement with Union forces at Cedar Creek, Early’s Confederate troops began peeling off in ever growing numbers to forage for food, thus enabling the 47th Pennsylvania and others under Sheridan’s command to rally.
From a military standpoint, it was another impressive, but heartrending day. During the morning of 19 October, Early launched a surprise attack directly on Sheridan’s Cedar Creek-encamped forces. Early’s men were able to capture Union weapons while freeing a number of Confederates who had been taken prisoner during previous battles – all while pushing seven Union divisions back. According to Bates:
When the Army of West Virginia, under Crook, was surprised and driven from its works, the Second Brigade, with the Forty-seventh on the right, was thrown into the breach to arrest the retreat…. Scarcely was it in position before the enemy came suddenly upon it, under the cover of fog. The right of the regiment was thrown back until it was almost a semi-circle. The brigade, only fifteen hundred strong, was contending against Gordon’s entire division, and was forced to retire, but, in comparative good order, exposed, as it was, to raking fire. Repeatedly forming, as it was pushed back, and making a stand at every available point, it finally succeeded in checking the enemy’s onset, when General Sheridan suddenly appeared upon the field, who ‘met his crest-fallen, shattered battalions, without a word of reproach, but joyously swinging his cap, shouted to the stragglers, as he rode rapidly past them – “Face the other way, boys! We are going back to our camp! We are going to lick them out of their boots!’”
The Union’s counterattack punched Early’s forces into submission, and the men of the 47th were commended for their heroism by General Stephen Thomas who, in 1892, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his own “distinguished conduct in a desperate hand-to-hand encounter, in which the advance of the enemy was checked” that day. Bates described the 47th’s actions:
When the final grand charge was made, the regiment moved at nearly right angles with the rebel front. The brigade charged gallantly, and the entire line, making a left wheel, came down on his flank, while engaging the Sixth Corps, when he went “whirling up the valley” in confusion. In the pursuit to Fisher’s Hill, the regiment led, and upon its arrival was placed on the skirmish line, where it remained until twelve o’clock noon of the following day. The army was attacked at early dawn…no respite was given to take food until the pursuit was ended.
Once again, the casualties for the 47th were high. Sergeant William Pyers, the C Company man who had so gallantly rescued the flag at Pleasant Hill was cut down and later buried on the battlefield. Corporal Edward Harper of Company D was wounded, but survived, as did Corporal Isaac Baldwin, who had been wounded earlier at Pleasant Hill. Perry County resident and Regimental Chaplain William Rodrock suffered a near miss as a bullet pierced his cap.
On 23 October 1864, Order No. 70 was issued, directing that John Bullard be transferred from the 47th Pennsylvania’s Company D to I Company. Bullard, who had mustered in as a Cook while the regiment was stationed in Louisiana, would continue to serve with I Company for the duration of the war and muster out with his regiment on Christmas Day in December 1865.
Following these major engagements, the 47th was ordered to Camp Russell near Winchester from November through most of December. On 14 November, 2nd Lieutenant George Stroop was promoted to the rank of Captain. Rested and somewhat healed, the 47th was then ordered to outpost and railroad guarding duties at Camp Fairview in Charlestown, West Virginia five days before Christmas.
1865 – 1866
Assigned first to the Provisional Division of the 2nd Brigade of the Army of the Shenandoah in February, the men of the 47th moved, via Winchester and Kernstown, back to Washington, D.C. where, on 19 April, they were again responsible for helping to defend the nation’s capital – this time following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Encamped near Fort Stevens, they received new uniforms and were otherwise resupplied.
Letters home and later newspaper interviews with survivors of the 47th Pennsylvania indicate that at least one 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer was given the high honor of guarding President Lincoln’s funeral train while others may have guarded the Lincoln assassination conspirators during the early days of their imprisonment and trial.
As part of Dwight’s Division of the 2nd Brigade of the Department of Washington’s 22nd Corps, the 47th Pennsylvania also participated in the Union’s Grand Review on 23-24 May.
Captain Levi Stuber of Company I was promoted to the rank of Major with the regiment’s central staff during this time. On 1-2 Jun 1865, 1st Lieutenant George W. Kosier was promoted to the rank of Captain and leadership of Company D prior to the mustering out of Major George Stroop, who had completed his term of service; 2nd Lieutenant George W. Clay was promoted to the rank of 1st Lieutenant.
On their final southern tour, Company D and their fellow 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers served in Savannah, Georgia from 31 May to 4 June. Again in Dwight’s Division, this time they were with the 3rd Brigade, Department of the South. Relieving the 165th New York Volunteers in July, they quartered in the former mansion of the Confederate Secretary of the Treasury.
Duties at this time were largely Provost (military police) or Reconstruction-related, including the repair or rebuilding or key portions of the region’s infrastructure which had been damaged during the long war. On 5 July 1865, Private James Downs was promoted to the rank of Corporal.
Then, beginning on Christmas day of that year, he and the majority of the men of the 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers finally began to honorably muster out at Charleston, South Carolina, a process which continued through early January. Following a stormy voyage home, the 47th Pennsylvania disembarked in New York City. The weary men were then shipped to Philadelphia by train where, at Camp Cadwalader on 9 January 1866, the 47th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers were officially given their discharge papers.
After the War
Following his honorable discharge from the military, James Downs returned home to Pennsylvania. In 1869, he wed Elizabeth Howell. Together, they welcomed daughter Laura sometime around 1875, followed by sons Harry (on 11 April 1876), and Milton (in 1877).
By 1880, James and his family were residing in Phillipsburg, and on 22 February 1886, their welcomed another son, James Irving Downs, who opened his eyes for the first time in Philadelphia.
As with many members of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, James Downs suffered health problems connected to his military service and the time he spent as a prisoner of war. By 1891, his financial and medical condition prompted him to file for his U.S. Civil War pension.
A resident of Tyrone in Blair County, Pennsylvania in 1910, he was widowed by 1920, and residing at the Pennsylvania Memorial Home in Brookville, Jefferson County, Pennsylvania. Records show that he likely suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and/or dementia, which described his medical issues as nephritis (kidney disease), valvular heart disease, and insanity.
Following a fall from a window at the Memorial Home, the old soldier drew his final breath there on 16 September 1921, and was laid to rest in what is now Row 2 of the Veterans’ Circle at the Brookville Cemetery in Brookville, Jefferson County.
1. Bates, Samuel P. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: 1869.
2. Downs, James in Camp Ford Prison Records. Smith County Historical Society. Tyler, Texas: 1864.
3. Downs, James in Civil War Veterans’ Card File, 1861-1866. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State Archives.
4. Downs, James, in U.S. Civil War Pension Index (Application No.: 1058759, Certificate No.: 830263, filed from Pennsylvania by the veteran and his attorney, M.B. Stevens & Co., on 24 September 1891). Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, 1891.
5. Downs, James, in U.S. Civil War and Pennsylvania Soldiers’ Home Records. Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania, 1920-21.
6. Downs, James (as “J. Downs”), in Pennsylvania Veterans’ Burial Index Cards. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
7. Hain, Harry Harrison. History of Perry County, Pennsylvania. Including Descriptions of Indians and Pioneer Life from the Time of Earliest Settlement. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Hain-Moore Company, 1922.
8. Schmidt, Lewis. A Civil War History of the 47th Regiment of Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers. Allentown, Pennsylvania: Self-published, 1986.
9. U.S. Census. Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania: 1920.