Yankee helps to honor his Rebel relative

Jan. 17, 2014
Written by Alvin Benn

Confederate officer James Breathed might not be well known to Civil War buffs, but he’s finally earning his place in the sun after 144 years, thanks to a Yankee descendant.

Historian David P. Bridges has chronicled Breathed’s short but eventful life, first as a doctor and then, during the war, as an artillery officer serving under legendary cavalry officer Jeb Stuart.

Years of research helped pave the way for Bridges’ book. He’s been touring the South and made a stop at the First White House of the Confederacy on Thursday afternoon.

“(Breathed) was torn between taking lives and saving lives,” said White House regent Anne Tidmore. “It was a painful decision he must have had to make, but he did what he felt was right.”

That determination to serve the South propelled Breathed into some of the war’s bloodiest battles, including Gettysburg and Chancellorsville.

During Bridges’ research, he discovered that Breathed was his great, great uncle — a fact that led him to pursue additional information about his ancestor for more than a decade.

He wound up writing about much more than one man and learned that he had 25 more Civil War ancestors. His writing amounted to another profession in an already extensive resume.

In addition to being an author of several Civil War books, he also has been a minister, an educator and a Civil War re-enactor, something that taught him a valuable lesson.

“I learned how rigorous and difficult a life it was for the soldiers of that war,” he said as he waited for visitors to arrive at the First White House. “It took perseverance and courage to line up and fight the way they did.”

Bridges’ books have helped him to inform Confederate descendants about a man who was rarely in the spotlight — something that has given him much pleasure.

“Thomas Nelson Page, a famous Virginia novelist, said Breathed was an ‘unsung, forgotten hero of the Southland,’ ” said Bridges. “I realized I had an extraordinary man who had not been discovered or was forgotten. That’s why I dedicated 12 years of my life to researching my uncle.”

Included in his collection of Civil War books are a pair of books that focused, in part, on Breathed, who died as a result of lingering Civil War wounds. He died one day before his 32nd birthday.

Born in 1838 near what today is Berkeley Spring, W.Va., Breathed graduated from the University of Maryland Medical School and was practicing in Missouri when the war began.

He enlisted as a private in the Army of Northern Virginia in 1861 but quickly ascended through the ranks to become a major by the end of the war.

How did a doctor find himself ordering artillery fire on advancing Yankee troops during America’s bloodiest war?

According to Bridges, it resulted from a chance meeting between Breathed and Stuart on a train. It wasn’t long before Stuart promoted Breathed to lieutenant, and his faith in the doctor soon was rewarded.

Unlike other Confederate officers trained in military maneuvers, Breathed, who would be promoted to major by the end of the war, developed his own style of combat. His “horse artillery” tactics soon were recognized by his superiors, including Stuart.

Breathed’s heroics during the war eventually were likened to those of Alabama’s John Pelham, who became known as “The Gallant Pelham.”

Pelham, who was killed in battle, was not only Breathed’s commander, but also a good friend with much in common.

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