Colonel James Cameron

Grave of James Cameron, Lewisburg

Too often when I go wandering about cemeteries, I have a certain set of graves I’m in search of and I allow myself time to seek out those graves and rarely allow myself extra time to wander about the cemetery to study other stones. This time was different. This was my third visit to Lewisburg Cemetery and while I had a couple graves to stop at during this trip, I had given myself plenty of extra time to study other stones within the cemetery.

I had stopped at the grave of H. Richard Kauffman and was planning on stopping at the resting place of Christy Mathewson. As I drove closer to Mathewson’s grave, I saw there were already a couple people standing at his burial plot, so I changed plans and entered a part of the cemetery I had not visited on the previous trips. Note: more about Kauffman and Mathewson can be found here: Richard Kauffman and here: Christy Mathewson.

Almost immediately one grave caught my attention. From where I initially spotted the grave, I could not make out exactly what I was seeing, but it looked like a cowboy hat. Curiosity led me to walk over to it. It was not a cowboy hat at the foot of the grave, but instead it was a cavalry hat that sat on top of a sword. Reading the headstone, I recognized the man’s name – this was the resting place of the brother of Simon Cameron. The memorial for Colonel James Cameron tells of his heroic demise: “Fell while gallantly / leading on his men at / The Battle of Bull Run / July 21, 1861.”

James was born March 1, 1800 in Maytown, Lancaster County. James was one of eight children to Charles and Martha Cameron. In 1808, the Cameron family moved to Sunbury and Northumberland County. In 1814, tragedy struck the Cameron family when Charles died leaving Martha to raise eight children on her own. Note: for a reason unknown to me, many articles state Charles died in 1809, the year after the family moved to Sunbury. After checking and double checking, it appears his father died in 1814.

James held numerous jobs growing up, but by the time he was nineteen, James was working in a print shop. In 1819, William married widow Rebecca Galbraith and they had eight children, most of whom sadly passed at a young age. In 1824, Cameron had become the editor of the Lycoming Gazette, but had only owned it from August to December of that year, when he sold the newspaper to William Packer. In 1827, Cameron had taken over as the editor of The Political Sentinel (Lancaster, Pa), but how long he remained as editor of this newspaper is not known.

In 1847, James would be a part of the Mexican-American War, going with the Pennsylvanian troops as a sutler – a person who follows the army and sells goods to the soldiers. After the war, Cameron returned to Pennsylvania where he practiced law.

With the start of the US Civil War, Cameron went to Washington, DC to serve. He would accept the position of colonel of the 79 New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment. This unit was known as “The Highlanders,” because the initial group of volunteers was almost completely composed of men of Scottish descent.

Note: Exactly how Cameron received this position remains a debate. Most sources state he was given this command due to being of Scottish descent. However, the influence of his brother Simon in Washington, DC affairs may have played an important part in James being given the commission of colonel. In 1861 – when James was commissioned Colonel – Simon was a part of President Lincoln’s cabinet, serving as Secretary of War. Simon would only hold that position for a short time, being replaced in 1862 by Edwin Stanton

On July 7, 1861, the 79 New York Infantry, under the command of Major Colonel Irvin McDowell, moved out of Washington, DC and into the Virginia. The unit first came under fire on July 18, 1861, when they encountered Confederate forces at Blackburn’s Ford. The men of the Infantry had come under fire from a Confederate Battery, but were unable to return fire.

On July 21, the unit would be involved in the first major battle of the US Civil War – the First Battle of Bull Run. The regiment had been called up in the early afternoon and had arrived at Henry House Hill. Cameron, in an attempt to rally his men and others nearby, dismounted from his horse and gave the men the order to charge up the hill. Cameron, who led his men in the charge, was struck in the chest by an enemy bullet- collapsed on the field and died almost immediately.

Cameron’s body was placed on an ambulance wagon after much debate with the driver who claimed the wagon was for the wounded not the dead. The driver finally agreed to transport the colonel’s body but had only gone a short distance before the wagon was taken by the Confederate army to remove their own wounded from the battlefield.

When the Union army retreated, Colonel Cameron’s body was left on the battlefield and would be buried in a mass grave. There were attempts to retrieve his body, but neither side wanted to budge on the issue of the Union recognizing the Confederate States. A letter was sent asking for the body. The response was they would return the body under a flag of truce if the letter was addressed to General Beauregard of the Confederate States of America. It would not be until March of 1862, after the Confederate army pulled out of the area, that Cameron’s body was able to be recovered.

Sergeant John Kane was sent to find the body and have it returned to the family. He found a slave who had been forced to bury the dead in the aftermath of First Bull Run. This slave took Kane to the spot where Cameron was buried in a mass grave with other enlisted men. Cameron’s body was identified by the clothing he had worn.

Cameron’s body was taken back to Washington, DC and then transferred to Lewisburg Cemetery, where it was reburied. I finished remembering the local hero who was the first man from Northumberland County to fall during the US Civil War before continuing my exploration of the Lewisburg Cemetery.

Note: In the newspapers at the time, it was recorded that Colonel Cameron was the first officer of his rank to die in the Civil War. In the years since, his name was replaced by the Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth. Ellsworth was killed at the Marshall House on May 24, 1861 during the Union Army’s capturing Alexandria on the day after Virginia seceded from the Union. In the month before Virginia’s secession, James W. Jackson, who owned the hotel, raised a large Confederate flag on the inn’s roof, which could clearly be seen in Washington, DC.

After the Union Army crossed the Potomac River, Colonel Ellsworth and seven others entered the Marshall House and removed the flag. While coming back down the stairs, Jackson came out of the shadows, leveled a double-barrel shotgun at Ellsworth and fired, killing the Union soldier instantly, making him the first Colonel and first Union officer to die in the Civil War.

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