Saturday, December 06, 2014

James Tompkins of 5th Alabama: 'Bright and promising boy'

A private in the 5th Alabama, James M. Tompkins was mortally wounded at the 
Battle of Gaines Mill. (Image from blogger's collection)


James M. Tompkins, a 20-year-old private in the 5th Alabama, lay on the field for hours, desperately trying to stem the flow of blood caused by a bullet that had sliced open the femoral artery in his leg. Earlier on the afternoon of June 27, 1862, Tompkins and his regiment had pushed within 50 feet of the Federal lines during the Battle of Gaines' Mill (Va.) before they were beaten back. Finally taken to the rear, the young man died later that night, one of 8,700 Rebel casualties during their crucial, and bloody, victory seven miles northeast of Richmond.

"Lieutenant Ramsey and a private of the Fifth Alabama killed," Brigadier General Robert Rodes wrote in his battle report that night. "All the regiment and regimental officers acted handsomely, but the Fifth and Twenty-sixth [Alabama] were especially distinguished for their courage. No troops ever acted better."

James was the youngest son of Mary and Major John Tompkins, a wealthy plantation owner from Edgefield, S.C., who served a term in the state's legislature before he moved his family to Sumter County in Alabama in 1851. Two of James' brothers also joined the Confederate army: John R., a Yale-educated lawyer, politician and newspaper editor, served in the Confederate ordnance department and as adjutant on General G.D. Ramsay's staff; and DeWitt, who was wounded at Gaines' Mill, was a captain in the 14th South Carolina. Military service was embedded in the DNA of the Tompkins family, whose ancestors served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.

James Tompkins' body was recovered from the battlefield and buried next to his mother, who had died in 1843, in a family plot in Edgefield.  "He was a bright and promising boy,"  according to a post-war account, "just budding into manhood when, with so many of his generation, he was called from the school room to the battlefield; called to exchange his books for the haversack, the promise of a bright future for almost certain death at the hands of a countless, overwhelming foe."

 James Tompkins died of a leg wound suffered at the Battle of Gaines' Mill.
Reverse of the image of Private James M. Tompkins.
Close-up of period tag on the back of the Tompkins image notes he "fell in the
 Battle of Gaines Mill before Richmond."

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