Fighting With Jeb Stuart: Major James Breathed and the Confederate Horse Artillery

by David P. Bridges, Breathed Bridges Best, LLC, 2006, 414 pages, $32.95.

“They have our range, move up closer.” So remembered Confederate General L.L. Lomax when asked in 1903 about his fellow officer, Major James Breathed. When under fire from Union artillerists, Breathed would often move forward rather than back—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, will be especially compelling to those with an interest in J.E.B. Stuart or the horse artillery.

The name James Breathed may not immediately ring a bell, as he has lived in the shadow of the two shining stars of the Confederate cavalry, Stuart and “the Gallant Pelham,” so named by Robert E. Lee at Fredericksburg. Breathed was a quiet man, reserved in his life outside the fire of battle, but under combat conditions showed a coolness and passion that elicited the devotion of his men and the admiration of friend and foe alike.

Breathed was born near Berkeley Springs, Va. (now West Virginia), in 1838, the first child of Judge John and Ann Breathed. 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 in Rushville, Mo. When the war broke out, he boarded an eastbound train to offer his services to the Confederacy. Somewhere between Memphis and Pennsylvania, he sat next to Stuart. They were traveling for the same reasons, and the two men became good friends.

On April 19, 1861, Breathed enlisted for one year in the Berkeley Troopers of Cavalry, part of Stuart’s command. In November 1861, he received his commission as a second lieutenant, and two days later was transferred to the newly formed Stuart’s Horse Artillery, in which he served until the end of the war. Except for a brief period during the summer of 1864, when he was recovering from a bullet wound to the stomach, he was on hand for every one of the Army of Northern Virginia’s major campaigns.

The author has done splendid work in filling the book with photos, illustrations and, most important, maps of the key battles and skirmishes that Breathed and the horse artillery were involved in. This makes the book accessible to the casual Civil War reader and delivers a more comprehensive explanation of a little known and less understood arm of the Confederate Army.

On February 29, 1864, Breathed’s winter camp was attacked near Charlottesville, Va., by Union cavalry under Brig. Gen. George Custer. Though their camp was destroyed, Breathed’s men rescued their guns and drove 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 General Thomas Munford recorded that “we turned our backs upon it and I may say that we ‘never surrendered.’ ” On April 24, Breathed took the oath of allegiance to the U.S. government in Winchester, Va. 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 pain resulting from his stomach wound haunted him. He continued his medical practice until his death on February 14, 1870, at age 32. The cause of his death remains unknown. He had been wounded several times during the war, and the effects of those injuries, coupled with a laudanum addiction, probably fatally weakened him.

During the early years of the 20th century, Robert Bridges, chief editor of Scribner’s Magazine in New York, asked Priscilla to send him Breathed’s wartime papers. Novelist Thomas Nelson Page told her that Breathed’s life contained the “romance of the South” and he 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, was able to access those papers and pen a well-written account that explains one of the least appreciated arms of the Confederate Army and restores to prominence one of the forgotten heroes of the South.

 

Originally published in the July 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here