The Medal of Honor symbolizes the ideals of patriotism, courage, sacrifice, and integrity and is the highest award presented for military valor in action. Those recipients have shown bravery in combat, going above and beyond the call of duty, risking – and often sacrificing – their lives for the welfare of others.
First introduced for the Department of the Navy in 1861, the Medal of Honor would be created for the Department of the Army’s Medal of Honor in 1862. The Department of the Air Force, which originally used the same Medal as the Department of the Army, introduced their own Medal of Honor in 1965. Since its inception during the U.S. Civil War, more than 3500 recipients have been honored with the Medal of Honor.
This is the story of a Medal of Honor recipient.
Note: I want to start by stating that in numerous sources James B. Thompson is sometimes confused with James G. Thompson, also a Medal of Honor recipient. James G. Thompson served with the Fourth New York Heavy Artillery and holds the distinction of being part of a set of brothers who both received the Medal of Honor.
Old Church Hill Cemetery, which is located along Route 75 southwest of Port Royal, had long been on my list of places to stop and visit. The past couple times I drove past I had mentioned my desire to explore the old stones and on this trip, I was making the detour to visit the resting place of a Medal of Honor recipient. Arriving at the cemetery, I entered the Old Church Hill Cemetery on the southern side of the Route 75. On the opposite side of Route 75 is another part of the cemetery known as the New Church Hill Cemetery.
I parked near the coordinates the GPS claimed the grave was located. As I walked to the spot I scanned the area – the grave I sought was not in view. Looking at the flag holders marked with a GAR star, the grave was not anywhere in the vicinity of the coordinates.
“Did you find it?” My father asked as I walked back to the vehicle.
“No,” I answered. “Evidently the coordinates are off. I’m going to start walking the cemetery.”
“You want some help?” he asked as he got out of the vehicle.
“Sure,” I replied and we spread out searching for the grave of the Civil War veteran.
We had walked the majority of the cemetery before my father called out he had found the grave. I made my way over to where he stood at the weathered stone of James B. Thompson – if it was not for the plaque at the grave marking it as Thompson’s grave, I’m not sure either of us would have realized this was the resting place of the Medal of Honor recipient. Across the top of the weathered stone I could make out the words “Maj Jas B Thompson,” – nothing else on the stone was legible..
James B. Thompson was born in Juniata County on June 1, 1843, the son of John and Hannah Thompson. At the start of the Civil War he entered service at Perryville, Juniata County as a member of Company G First Pennsylvania Rifles, also known as the Thirteenth Pennsylvania Reserves.
Note: As I was looking at Thompson’s Pennsylvania Civil War Veterans file card, he is listed as being from Elk County rather than Juniata. This may be a clerical error due to the majority of the Pennsylvania Rifles did come from Elk County.
It was during the Battle of Gettysburg that Thompson would perform the act that would see him receive the Medal of Honor. On July 3, 1863, the First Pennsylvania Rifles clashed with the Fifteenth Georgia during the Battle of Gettysburg near the Devil’s Den. During the fighting he managed to capture the flag of the Fifteenth Georgia.
On December 1, 1864, Thompson received the Medal of Honor for his actions. The citation for his medal reads: “The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Sergeant James B. Thompson, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism on 3 July 1863, while serving with Company G, 1st Pennsylvania Rifles, in action at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, for capture of flag of 15th Georgia Infantry (Confederate States of America).”
Thompson spent his post-war years residing in Port Royal. Thompson was only thirty-two years old when he died. He was buried outside of town at the Old Church Hill Cemetery.
“What’s wrong?” My father asked as I studied the information on the plaque.
“It says he was a Sergeant on his citation, but the stone has him as a Major.”
“He may have been a Sergeant Major.”
“That would make sense,” I replied.
We finished paying our respects before carefully making our way back to the vehicle, leaving him resting almong the old stones on the hillside outside of Port Royal.