Saturday, July 17, 2021

A 'remarkable accident': How New York soldier died in Virginia

An illustration, probably by Larkin Goldsmith Mead, of the grave of Corporal James Bryant and 
a tree upon which the soldier's name, unit and death date were etched. (Library of Congress)
Larkin Goldsmith Mead of Harper's Weekly created this illustration of a deadly lightning strike that killed 1st New York Light Artillery Corporal James Bryant in Virginia.

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When Elizabeth Bryant sent her only son to war, she probably feared he could be maimed or killed in battle or victimized by disease. But there's no way she imagined how 25-year-old James Bryant would die at the front in Virginia on an ungodly awful morning.

At roughly 2 a.m. on June 3, 1862 -- two days after the Battle of Seven Pines (Va.) -- a nearly spent thunderstorm approached the 1st New York Light Artillery's camp near Mechanicsville, seven miles northeast of Richmond. Humidity was as thick as a pot of bad coffee. Between the cannons and caissons weary soldiers placed tarps over sticks and rails for shelter. 

Corporal James Bryant's grave
in Cold Harbor (Va.) National Cemetery.
(Find A Grave)
"The sentries perceived a dark cloud sweeping from the west at a very low elevation, and as it passed over the park a terrific discharge of the electric fluid took place," wrote Larkin Goldsmith Mead, a Harper's Weekly illustrator embedded with the Army of the Potomac. "The whole battery seemed enveloped in a sheet of flame."


"The flame seemed to strike one of the guns, leaped from thence to the supports of the tent, passing downward, and stunning and burning or partially paralyzing a whole platoon of twenty men," Mead wrote. Corporal James Bryant, "an intelligent and brave young man" from Bath, N.Y., was killed instantly -- the only soldier to die in the "very remarkable accident."

"The electric fluid passed under the rubber blanket of one man, lifting him several inches from the ground," Mead wrote. "Some [soldiers] had legs and arms partially paralyzed." 

Days earlier, another lightning strike killed a 44th New York quartermaster, knocked another soldier senseless, and ignited a box of cartridges. Luckily for the 1st New York Light artillery, none of its ammunition chests were ignited.

Comrades buried Bryant nearby under two large trees -- the corporal's name, unit, and death date were carved into one of them. Mead sketched Bryant's grave and also created an illustration of the lightning strike for Harper's Weekly, although it's unknown whether he witnessed the freak accident or relied on accounts of those who did. 

"The men are unanimous in the belief that lightning," Mead wrote, "is harder to beat than the rebels."

Bryant's remains eventually were disinterred from under the large tree and re-buried nearby, in Cold Harbor (Va.) National Cemetery. Elizabeth Bryant filed paperwork to obtain a mother's pension -- the request was approved at the standard rate of $8 a month.

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? Email me here.

  • Harper's Weekly, July 5, 1862.
  • James Bryant's pension file, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C., transcribed by Jennifer Payne (accessed July 17, 2021).
  • Krick, Robert K, Civil War Weather in Virginia, University of Alabama Press, 2007.

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