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Southern Heritage <br>News and Views: TRAGEDY and ENIGMA

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


By Bob Hurst

We are constantly confronted with enigmas. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why are innocent children born with conditions that cause either an early death or a much-diminished quality of life? Why do voters so often seem to elect unscrupulous people to public office? Why do good things happen to bad people? On a somewhat lesser scale is the question of why do some people with seemingly less intelligence and ability get continued promotions and praise while others, with greater favorable attributes, get passed over? This article will address that question as it relates to an accomplished and capable Confederate officer during the War for Southern Independence.

James Henry Lane was a Virginian by birth, born at Mathews Court House in 1833 into a prosperous family. He entered Virginia Military Institute in 1851 and was graduated in 1854 with the honor of being named "most distinguished" academically. He continued his studies at the University of Virginia and graduated in 1857.

After a period of working as an engineer and a teacher, he returned to VMI as an assistant professor. In 1859 he took a position of professor of mathematics and commandant of cadets at West Florida Seminary (now known as Florida State University) in Tallahassee. The next year he left to join the faculty of the North Carolina Military Institute where the superintendent was Daniel Harvey Hill. ( D.H. Hill, of course, would eventually rise to great fame as a Confederate general and, later, as a respected college president.)

With the outbreak of war in 1861, the 1st North Carolina Regiment was formed with D.H. Hill as colonel and Jim Lane as major. Major Lane immediately began to prove his military and leadership abilities at the engagement at Big Bethel where D.H. Hill credited him with being responsible for the rousing Confederate victory. After this, the 1st North Carolina became known as the "Bethel Regiment" and James Lane picked up the nickname of "Little Major", which was a play on his small stature.

In the Fall of 1861, Lane became colonel of the 28th North Carolina Regiment. In April of 1862, he reorganized the 28th and the regiment was assigned to the Army of Northern Virginia in General A.P. Hill's Division. General Lawrence O'Bryan Branch was Lane's brigade commander. Only a month later, Colonel Lane received high praise from General Branch, and even General Robert E. Lee, for his masterful handling of his troops during the engagement at Hanover Court House, Virginia, where his forces were vastly out-numbered by the federals.

During subsequent months, Lane's troops were almost constantly in battle in Virginia at such encounters as Seven Days, Gaines Mill, Malvern Hill, Cedar Mountain and Second Manassas. Colonel Lane's troops continued to perform outstandingly during this period.

When General Branch was killed at the Battle of Sharpsburg (those in the North call it "Antietam"), Colonel Lane was quickly promoted to command of the brigade. Citing "gallant and meritorious service", his own troops requested his promotion to brigadier general. Lane was promoted to brigadier on November 1, 1862, upon the recommendations of generals Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and A.P. Hill.

Shortly after assuming command of the brigade after Sharpsburg (and before his promotion to brigadier general), Lane was called to report to General Jackson, who was in command of General Lee's Second Corps, to receive special orders for the brigade. This was the first time that Jim Lane had seen Thomas Jackson since VMI where Jackson had been an instructor. Lane recounts in his book about Jackson ( written some twenty-three years after the War had ended) that General Jackson greeted him warmly, expressed confidence in his abilities and called for God's blessings on Lane. Jim Lane was surprised that Jackson had even remembered him and was much moved by the conversation. He recounts that from that point on he felt a warm attachment to Jackson and characterized their relationship as akin to that of father and son.

Jim Lane's first command as a general officer was a month later at Fredericksburg, another Confederate victory, and Lane's North Carolinians again performed admirably. Just more than four months later, however, General Lane would fight his last battle under the command of General Jackson as it was at this encounter, Chancellorsville, that the immortal Stonewall received the wounds that would eventually cause his death ten days later.

From that point until the end of the War, General Lane's brigade covered itself with glory. From Gettysburg, where the brigade took part in Pickett's Charge, to the "Bloody Angle" at Spotsylvania Court House, to Cold Harbor, to Petersburg and, finally, to Appomattox, Lane's North Carolinians continually distinguished themselves. After Spotsylvania, a LONDON TIMES reporter had written that no one could forget the "Little General" as he gave the command for the volley that checked Hancock's Corps and saved the right wing of Robert E. Lee's army.

After Appomattox, General Lane gave a sincere tribute and compliment to his North Carolinians by reminding them that they were "first at Bethel, highest at Gettysburg and last at Appomattox".

General James Lane performed admirably from his first encounter to his last - from Bethel to Appomattox. So what is the enigma associated with this capable and effective leader who excelled from beginning to end? It is simply that he was never promoted beyond the rank of brigadier general. Despite his outstanding record, he was never promoted to major general although 72 others were and that's not even mentioning the 25 others who achieved the ranks of lieutenant general or full general.

So, the question becomes, "why them and not him?"

To possibly answer this question we must return to the Battle of Chancellorsville. The day of May 2, 1863, proved to be a day of great triumph and great tragedy for the Confederacy and for General Stonewall Jackson. His famous flank march and savage attack on the Federal right is still considered one of the most effective actions ever taken in war. The only thing that prevented Jackson's forces from completely devastating Union general Hooker's entire line was the onset of darkness. The darkness set the stage for the great tragedy that was to occur.

Later that evening, as General Jackson was making a reconnaissance with members of his staff to survey the situation, the group was fired upon in the darkness by troops of the North Carolina 18th Regiment under Major John Barry. The 18th was a part of the brigade commanded by General Jim Lane. This regrettable action was obviously a result of the darkness, the confusion caused by both forces being in close proximity and the uncertainty concerning the enemies location.

Ironically, as General Jackson and his staff were beginning their reconnaissance mission around 9:15 PM, the group rode through the North Carolina 18th and one of the regimental officers asked Jackson if this wasn't the wrong place for him to be. The great Stonewall called back to the officer that the enemy had been routed and the danger was over.

General A.P. Hill and some of his staff members were on the same type mission but about 25 yards behind Jackson's group.The Federal forces were so close at one point that one of Hill's staff actually rode into a Union battery and was taken prisoner. Since the generals now knew the location of the Union lines they started back to the Confederate position. The two generals and their staffs totaled more than two dozen mounted riders since Hill's group had caught up with Jackson's.

In the darkness the group was mistaken by troops of the North Carolina 18trh to be Union forces. Shots were fired and this caused return fire from the nearby Federals. General Hill raced about shouting to the Confederates to cease firing but Major Barry of the 18th, thinking this to be a ruse, yelled to his men to keep firing. He did not recognize General Hill in the darkness. The mounted Confederate officers were only about twenty yards from the Confederate ground forces when a solid sheet of rifle fire was launched by the North Carolinians. Several of the officers were killed and more than a dozen dead horses were later found. General Jackson was wounded badly and an arm had to be amputated as a result. He died ten days later from various complications.

When General Lane questioned Major Barry immediately after the tragedy, the major said he knew nothing of Hill and Jackson going to the front and that, in the darkness, it was impossible to tell friend from foe so when the horses started galloping he had thought it was Federal cavalry and had ordered his men to fire. Even though General Jim Lane had no direct responsibility for the tragic and mistaken shooting of General Stonewall Jackson, there obviously was some malice displayed toward him since the shooting had been done by "Lane's troops".

Could this be the reason that James Lane never received the promotions that he deserved? Well, the greatest authority on General Stonewall Jackson certainly thinks that is a possibility. The renowned Jackson scholar, Dr. James I. Robertson, Jr., of Virginia Tech, wrote in his acclaimed biography of Stonewall Jackson that the tragedy at Chancellorsville "may explain why Lane never received promotion to major general, despite a sterling record to the end of the war." If that is indeed the case, what a shame. It is also a shame that Jim Lane has never received the credit he deserves for his outstanding service to the Confederacy.

Returning to his Virginia home after the War, Jim Lane found his family destitute, the house plundered and the livestock and crops taken. He eventually returned to teaching and in 1869 was married. He taught at what is now Virginia Tech for a number of years and in 1882 he took a position as Chair of Engineering at the Alabama Polytechnic Institute in Auburn, Alabama. That great school is now known as Auburn University. He would remain at this post for 25 years and is, in fact, buried in Auburn at Pine Hill Cemetery.

As he had been an outstanding military figure, Jim Lane was also a highly respected academecian and in 1896 the University of West Virginia conferred upom him an honorary doctorate in philosophy.

Jim Lane could never throw off the sorrow caused by the tragic mistaken shooting of Stonewall Jackson. The longtime Superintendent of VMI, Francis Smith, commented that anytine James Lane tried to speak of it his voice broke and tears would roll down his face. Smith also stated that he had a strong personal respect for the "ability and solid character" of Jim Lane.

I have had a personal interest in General James Henry Lane since I first read about him some years ago. Part of this interest is because of several common ties that we have. My undergraduate degree is from Auburn University. My graduate degrees are from Florida State University. My fraternity, Sigma Nu, was founded at Virginia Military Institute. Then, of course, there's this thing about the Confederacy. I think you understand.

Jim Lane lived an admirable life in every regard. Although he might not have received the recognition and acclaim due him, I can assure you that he will always have one big fan.

Note: Previous articles of CONFEDERATE JOURNAL are available in book form. Volume 1 (2005-2007) can be ordered online at and Volume 2 (2008-2009) can be ordered online at

Bob Hurst is a Son of the South who has particular interest in the Confederacy and the antebellum architecture of the South. He is Commander of Col. David Lang Camp, Sons of Confederate Veterans, in Tallahassee and is also 2nd Lieutenant Commander, Florida Division, SCV. He can be contacted at or 850-878-7010 after 9PM EST.


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