Chester Station Canister Shot “Lands” in Society Museum Display

By Henry H. Mitchell

Resting in a display case in the Pittsylvania Historical Society Museum in Chatham, Virginia, is a 35 mm (1 3/8 inch) ball with a painful history. The shot hit a tree before lodging in the back of the thigh of Pvt. James Lafayette Oakes, Co. B, 38th Virginia Infantry, during an engagement at Chester Station, Virginia, on May 10, 1864.

The shot resulted in no broken bones for Oakes, so he was able to walk a considerable distance to the field hospital, during which time the ball moved significantly in his leg. Surgical removal of the ball left a long black scar which Oakes carried for the rest of his life.

James Lafayette Oakes was born on Sept. 19, 1836, at Callands to James Washington and Evaline Oakes. He enlisted on August 14, 1862, into Company B (“Pittsylvania Vindicators”) of the 38th Virginia Infantry, Pickett's Division, Longstreet's Corps. After his injury at Chester Station, Oakes appears on the register of the Chimborazo Hospital No. 2 in Richmond, from which he was given 40 days' medical furlough on June 10. He is listed on the register of the CSA General Hospital in Danville on October 18, from where he was transferred on November 26 to the Pettigrew General Hospital No. 13 in Raleigh. He was paroled April 26, 1865, from a hospital in Thomasville, NC.

Oakes returned to farming at Riceville and then at Chestnut Level. He had first married Mary Ann Elizabeth Gardner of Callands on January 31, 1860; their children were George (11/8/60), Laura (1/8/62, and married a Hamlett), and William Thomas (7/12/67). He then married Nannie Ellen Eddy of Boone's Mill on May 15, 1870; their children were Mary Evaline “Molly” (6/12/71, and m. Moon), Eddie Lafayette (4/24/73), James David (12/24/74), Gillie Jane (9/28/78, and m. Dalton), John Calvin (2/29/80); Belle Boyd (2/11/83, and m. Ford); Walter Whittle (11/24/86); and Ernest Norman (1/17/90).

It can be speculated that James Oakes gave three of his children Civil War–inspired names: Belle Boyd from the famous Confederate spy; Walter Whittle probably from Lt. Col. Powhatan Whittle, commanding officer of the 38th from 1861 through Gettysburg; and Ernest Norman (by his own report) after a now-unidentified fellow soldier and friend of James.

James Lafayette Oakes died August 23, 1920 at the age of 83, and is buried at Chestnut Level Baptist Church. He left the canister ball in the possession of his son Norman, who in turn gave it to his grand-nephew Terry Lee Oakes of Blairs (son of Woodrow, grandson of Walter, and great-grandson of James L. Oakes), who placed the ball on loan to the collection of the Rawley Martin Chapter UDC for display in the Pittsylvania Historical Society Museum.

The ball may well have come from a hotly-contested “Napoleon gun posted on the [Richmond and Petersburg] turnpike [which] had annoyed us very much,” according to a report of the Chester Station battle by Brig. Gen. Seth M. Barton (who had succeeded Gen. Armistead as brigade commander after Armistead's death during Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg). Barton continued, “The rapid movement of the 9th and 38th prevented [the gun's] being carried off [by Union soldiers] and it was captured.” Major General Robert Ransom, Jr. was displeased with the efficiency of Barton during the Chester Station action, and as a result relieved him of his command. In a letter requesting that Barton be restored to command and signed by 85 of Barton's officers, Capt. G. A. Martin of Co. I, 38th Virginia Infantry, stated that “when the enemy were driven from their gun [Gen. Barton] was the first to take possession of it.”

During the the Chester Station engagement, Gen. Ransom's troops clashed with “the forces of General Butler, United States Army, estimated at from twenty to thirty thousand strong, upon the Richmond and Petersburg turnpike” (in the words of Capt. George K. Griggs, who was promoted to commander of the 38th and Colonel after Lt. Col. Joseph R. Cabell was killed in the engagement). Brig. Gen. Barton left the line of battle “about three minutes” (one of several complaints Ransom made against him) to request horses from Gen. Ransom for removal of the captured Napoleon gun. Barton reported, “Shortly after rejoining we were forced back beyond the gun, which again fell into the enemy's hands and was used. After a desultory fire of artillery on our new position the enemy withdrew, leaving us the field.”

The controversy between Brig. Gen. Barton of Virginia and his commanding officer Maj. Gen. Ransom of North Carolina prevented Barton from commanding his brigade again. Maj. Gen. Ransom was convinced that, because of Barton's perceived failure to carry out orders and make accurate reports during the Chester Station incident, “General Barton was not equal to a proper management of troops under the ordinary emergencies of battle.” Ransom did admit that “Of his gallantry I have no question, as he was under fire all the time, and if injustice has been done him an investigation will prove it. My conclusions may be wrong, but I do not believe it.”

Interestingly, on December 12, 1863, Bedford County native Sgt. Timothy E. Mitchell of Company F, 8th Virginia Cavalry, had written his wife Ardelia from his position “on picket near Rogersville, Tennessee,” that “our Brigadier General [William E. ‘Grumbles’ Jones] is a brave man and a gentleman, but I cannot say the same of Major General Ransom. He thinks nothing of shooting at his own men even for stopping for water.”

Upon reading official reports of the Chester Station engagement, one might surmise that Ransom may have been unreasonably harsh on Barton and his troops, whereas Barton may have been reacting responsibily to battlefield conditions, including canister shot from the front and an attack on the left flank and rear of the 38th. On the other hand, this was Barton's second conflict with superiors in 1864, having been blamed by Gen. Pickett in January for the failure of an attack on New Bern. Barton was reassigned to command another brigade in the defense of Richmond in September. In the retreat toward Appomattox he was captured along with Gen. Richard Ewell and many others on April 6, 1865 at Sayler's Creek, the last major engagement of the war.


James Lafayette Oakes and Kate

James Lafayette Oakes sits on his back steps with his dog Kate. The photograph was taken around 1915. The house was later known as the W. T. Shields home, now the property of Marshall Kendall, and is on the Spring Garden Road (VA 640), just east of its intersection with U. S. 29 north of Blairs. Kate survived her master, living until around 1930 with the family of J. L. Oakes's son E. Norman Oakes at Chestnut Level (where the elder Oakes also spent his last years), about 3 miles east of the location shown here. (This photograph is from the collection of Virginia Doss Oakes and Terry Lee Oakes.)



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