James L. Kemper: "A Strong & Noble Soul"

by Diana Loski 
James L. Kemper   (Library of Congress)
James L. Kemper  (Library of Congress)

On the afternoon of July 3, 1863, the Confederates on Seminary Ridge were waiting coolly in the shade on an otherwise oppressive day. Across the mile-wide field that separated them from their counterparts in blue, the men stared, anxious but ready and eager to go. On the right flank of Pickett’s Division, a 39-year old general climbed easily into the saddle of his sorrel. His dark eyes flashed, and his calm demeanor helped to quell any disquiet among the troops of his brigade. He had been their leader for exactly 13 months, but on this day, no thought of bad luck entered his mind. He could not know it would be his last battle. His name was James Lawson Kemper.

Raised in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Madison County, Virginia, James Kemper entered the world on June 11, 1823; the son of William and Maria Allison Kemper. James’ maternal grandfather, Colonel William Allison, served on General Washington’s staff during the American Revolution. An uncle saw service in the War of 1812. Encouraged by his martial ancestors, James was intensely patriotic. After graduating from Washington College in Lexington a few days before his nineteenth birthday, James studied law. When the Mexican War flared shortly thereafter, he offered his services to the military. He arrived in Mexico after much difficulty and illness, and arrived too late to participate in battle. He returned to Virginia to begin work as an attorney.

Shortly after his 30th birthday, Kemper married the vivacious and beautiful Cremora Cave, who went by the name of Belle, on July 4, 1853. In all, seven children were born to the couple: William, Florence (Fanny), James Jr., Lucy, Jessie, Heber, and one infant who died shortly after birth. Their firstborn son, William, also died in childhood.1

Kemper entered the political arena shortly before his marriage – shaping what would eventually become his life’s ambition. He served five terms in the Virginia House of Delegates, leaving it shortly after the war started. In the years before the war, he served as the Chairman on the Committee of Military Affairs and was the President on the Board at Virginia Military Institute.

Although not an advocate of secession, much like Robert E. Lee, Kemper followed his state when Virginia seceded. He raised a regiment from the Piedmont region of Virginia, and was named colonel of the 7th Virginia Volunteers.2

Kemper was not a large man, but he carried himself well. He was known for his “fine bearing, fearlessness, dash,” and “ a high conception of duty .” He was from the outset “ a favorite with his men.” 3

Kemper led his regiment at the Battles of First Manassas and Williamsburg. At the latter, his brigade commander, General A.P. Hill, noticed his temerity and recommended him for promotion. He duly received his brigadier’s star on June 3, 1862 and began his service with Pickett’s Division. Kemper led his brigade at Antietam, holding the position for the timely arrival of A.P. Hill’s Division from Harper’s Ferry. In late 1862 he and his brigade were dispatched to North Carolina, rejoining Pickett’s Division when the Army of Northern Virginia were on their way northward into Pennsylvania.

Pickett’s Division formed the rear guard of Lee’s army and was therefore the last of the Confederate infantry to arrive at Gettysburg. They spent several days in Greencastle and Chambersburg. On July 1, one soldier in Kemper’s brigade wrote that they “ made 21 miles and camped for the night, heavy artillery firing heard in our front at Gettysburg .” Pickett’s troops, with Kemper and his brigade in tow, reached Gettysburg in the early evening of July 2, 1863.4

Kemper’s Brigade, consisting of five regiments: The 1st, 3rd, 7th, 11th, and 24th Virginia Volunteers, led the division in the march toward Gettysburg. His former command, the 7th Virginia, was led by the fearless Colonel Tazewell Patton. “Most everybody is anxious to invade the enemy’s soil,” commented one soldier from the 11th Virginia. Their patience was likely put to the test, as they were the last of the rebel infantry to arrive. Their most difficult test, however, lay in the hours ahead.5

General Lee, seeing that the Union flanks had held after the previous day’s fight, was determined to renew the conflict. Using an old Napoleonic maneuver, Lee extrapolated that surely the Union middle was their weakest point – needing more troops on the flanks to secure their position. He decided to attack where Napoleon had advised in his writings on warfare: the center of the line, which would supposedly be the weakest link.

Realizing that General Meade and his Army of the Potomac outnumbered them and had the advantageous defensive position on high ground, General Lee ordered a massive artillery barrage to soften the Union defenses. Lee decided that three divisions would make the assault, encouraged that at least Pickett’s troops were fresh and had not yet fought in the battle. Lee made his plans known to his second in command, General Longstreet.

Longstreet was not keen on the frontal attack and told Lee so. General Lee, though, used to winning and refusing to leave the field of battle when he had already achieved a victory on Gettysburg’s first day, insisted that the attack would take place. General Pickett was enthusiastic about the charge. His men, many of them fresh recruits, were ready to prove themselves. He alerted his three brigade commanders, Generals Armistead, Kemper, and Garnett, about the upcoming assault.

Knowing that men on horseback would be easy targets, Pickett cautioned his commanders about it. Garnett, who had been injured en route to Gettysburg, needed to ride. A few other officers, including the ailing Colonel Eppa Hunton of the 8th Virginia in Garnett’s Brigade, needed to ride as well. Armistead walked, but Kemper decided to ride. It was a fateful decision.

At approximately one p.m. on Friday, July 3, the Confederate artillery began their volleys on the Union defenses. The Union replied with a massive barrage of their own. As the Confederates waited in the trees on Seminary Ridge, the explosions unsettled them. Kemper, with his characteristic calm “ cantered down…on his mettlesome sorrel ,” remembered Colonel Mayo of the 3rd Virginia. “ They greeted him with a rousing cheer, which I know made his gallant heart leap for joy.” 6

After about two hours of cannonading between the lines, the guns grew quiet and a light breeze stirred the grass in the fields between the opposing armies. A slight delay ensued as orders were passed down the line from division commanders to brigadiers to regimental colonels. The charge had to be orderly and concise – like a deadly dress parade. Suddenly, men in gray and butternut emerged from the trees on Seminary Ridge.

Rising to our feet ,” remembered one of Kemper’s men, “we saw a valley stretching out below, and a peach orchard in full bloom…Outside the trees there was a full view of thousands of blue coats.” 7

Those thousands were all armed, ready, and watching. Additionally, those who manned the cannons in the Peach Orchard and Little Round Top began to fire their guns. “ We had a splendid chance at them ,” remembered a captain in Colonel Freeman McGilvery’s Artillery Reserve Brigade. “We could not help hitting them at every shot.” 8

Kemper’s Brigade, posted at the far right of the charging Southerners, received the brunt of that Union artillery fire. As the men fell, the ranks closed, and the men marched on. “I wondered what we would do when the impact occurred,” mused a Confederate in Kemper’s ranks. “It looked to me like we would be swallowed whole if we got into that maelstrom.9

The Codori Farm, Gettysburg.   Kemper was wounded near the site.
The Codori Farm, Gettysburg. Kemper was wounded near the site.

Many of them, including James Kemper, would never get the chance to find out.

As the Confederates crossed the Emmitsburg Road, they were within musket range of the Union soldiers. “Make ready!” Union officers called to the rank and file behind the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge. “Take good aim…Fire!” A long, blinding sheet of black powder and bullets belched from the stone wall, and the men in gray began to fall. 10

The smoke, incessant fire, deafening noise and falling wounded caused some confusion in the gray ranks, especially for Kemper’s men, who had no one to their right to keep them in line. Their ranks began to drift from the flanks, pushing into Garnett’s men on their left, and causing a gap in their lines. General Stannard of the Union’s Vermont Brigade, as well as Second Corps commander General Hancock, took notice and the Vermonters soon rushed into the opening. They poured a deleterious flanking fire into Kemper’s men, who, in order to resist it while marching on, pushed even more into Garnett’s troops. Kemper, near the Codori farm at about this time, noticed cannons to their front and left and shouted for his men to take the guns.

General Kemper’s order had been, in the words of one of his officers, “injudicious.” Not having been a West Point graduate, it was an understandable error for the politician turned soldier. His order caused even more confusion and entangling of troops. The charge had become, in one officer’s description: “a wild kaleidoscopic whirl .” Immediately after Kemper gave the order, a Union soldier’s minié ball – perhaps more than one – struck the intrepid Virginian and he fell from the saddle, desperately wounded, just fifty yards from the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge.11

I fell just about the time our men began to give back [musket fire] ,” Kemper remembered. “I was close enough to the enemy to distinguish features and expression of faces and thought I observed and could identify the individual who shot m .” 12

While it is unclear how many bullets found their target in General Kemper, one of them hit the Virginian in the thigh and continued through the groin, lodging finally in the spine. Piercing organs on its way, the wound incapacitated the commander and paralyzed him.

Federal soldiers rushed forward to take him, placing him on a blanket. As they attempted to move Kemper, some of the general’s own men fought the captors and took their commander back. As they returned to Seminary Ridge, Confederate surgeons examined Kemper, who was in terrible pain. They pronounced the wound mortal.

By this time, Pickett’s Charge had failed, having lasted about fifty minutes in total. Pickett escaped unwounded, but the other two division commanders, Pettigrew and Trimble, were wounded – Pettigrew slightly, Trimble seriously. Both Armistead and Garnett were shot down—Garnett killed and Armistead mortally wounded and captured. The 7th Virginia’s colonel, the brazenly brave Colonel Tazewell, was also mortally wounded near the wall. The losses listed for Pickett's Division, while varied over the years, were over 60%; numbers that they would never regain for the war effort.  

General Lee, having watched the assault and its dismal outcome, rode to Kemper’s brigade and approached the wounded brigadier. With his suffering “ almost beyond endurance ”, Kemper lay in the blanket with closed eyes. As Lee spoke to him, he opened his eyes.13

General Kemper,” he said, “I hope you are not seriously wounded.”

Kemper told General Lee that surgeons had pronounced his wound as mortal. Lee replied that he hoped it was not as serious as that, then asked if there was anything he could do. “ Yes, General Lee ,” Kemper answered, “ do full justice to this division for its work today.” 14

The shells were still coming fast ,” one retreating soldier recalled. “ I saw just ahead…coming towards me General Lee…He looked very sad, said what command do you belong to, I replied Gen. Kemper’s he said brave men you are I saw you fighting my fault not yours gather all your comrades and go back to where you stayed last night I said Gen. I think we are all that is left.” 15

Pickett’s Division had truly fallen with heavy losses, never to be regained.

Due to the deadly nature of Kemper’s wound, he was left behind when Lee’s army retreated in the stormy darkness on July 4. Recaptured by the Union, he lay for a few weeks at the Lutheran Seminary, as those who cared for him expected him to die each day. M.L. Stoever, a professor at Pennsylvania College, visited the ailing general daily, and the two struck up a friendship. “I was impressed with his pleasant countenance,” Stoever remembered. 16

As Kemper miraculously kept on living, his brigade and even his family thought otherwise. “ I believed that General Kemper was dead ,” proclaimed Colonel Eppa Hunton. “ I heard they were making his coffin when I left Gettysburg.” Kemper’s wife, Belle, and his brother, John, searched the casualty lists and other reports. When they couldn’t learn his fate, John started for Gettysburg. At Winchester, he met some of the brigade, who told him that the general “ was certainly dead .” Finally, near the end of July, Kemper’s family learned that he still lived.17

The stalwart survivor was finally taken to a Baltimore hospital, still in critical condition, and still expected to die. In September, he was taken briefly to Fort Monroe; but exchanged soon after for Union general Charles Graham, who was wounded and captured at Gettysburg. Even then, Union surgeons believed that Kemper would not long survive his supposedly fatal wound. No one dared extract the minié ball lodged near his spine.

Kemper, able to walk slowly and with difficulty, attempted to join his brigade in early 1864; but the doctors warned him that any vigorous activity would surely cause the bullet in his body to reposition and undoubtedly kill him. With a heavy heart, he relinquished his command and bade farewell to his brigade. “I have been assigned to command the Reserves Forces of the State of Virginia, ” he told them. “I believe it an imperative duty to accept.” For the remainder of the war, Kemper served the Confederacy in that capacity.18

After Appomattox, Kemper returned home. In the summer of 1865 he signed the oath of allegiance to the Union and was pardoned by Andrew Johnson. Though he never apologized for his role in the Confederate army, he championed reconciliation with the Federals. He told his fellow Virginians to “ leave the past severely alone,” and to hold “a magnanimous bearing under wrong .” He understood well the cost of national animosity. He bore the physical pain of it daily, for the remainder of his life. 19

After the war, James and Belle welcomed two more children into the family. In early 1871, after the birth of their youngest son a few weeks earlier, Belle failed to recover and died from the effects of childbirth. Her death devastated her husband, who never remarried.20

In perpetual agony from his war wound, but seeing the need for the South to overcome her devastation from the war, Kemper, still the eloquent politician, was persuaded to run for governor. He won handily, serving as Virginia’s 34th governor for four years, from 1874 to 1878.

The Old Dominion found itself in dire financial straits after the war. The lack of funds caused a dearth of social services which led to riots and a spike in crime. Kemper, respected for his sacrifices on the battlefield, immediately set about to fix the problems. Intending to realign a district for political purposes in Petersburg, some were incensed when Governor Kemper vetoed it. People burned his likeness in effigy for his stance on giving civil rights to former slaves. He reduced interest rates and cut expenditures to balance the state budget. By the time he left office, Virginia was in better economic shape. The grateful members of the legislature offered the popular governor a seat in the U.S. Senate, but Kemper declined. His health was growing more fragile, his side nearly paralyzed, and his motherless children needed him at home.21

James Kemper retired to his family estate, Walnut Hills, near Orange, Virginia. His unmarried daughter, Florence, took care of her father in his final years.

By 1889, Kemper began to ail frequently. He remained “a great sufferer”, due to “an unextracted ounce ball in his body” that remained lodged near his spine. There was one bright spot, in the birth of his first granddaughter a few years before he passed away.22

On April 7, 1895, James Kemper’s Gettysburg wound finally proved mortal, as doctors had said over thirty years earlier. He died at Walnut Hill, his beloved estate, on a Sunday morning. Flags were lowered to half-mast throughout Virginia as news spread of the old warrior’s passing. He was buried a few days later in the Kemper family graveyard near Orange, Virginia.

He was a strong and noble soul,” remembered John Bell Bigger, an associate and friend who long admired Kemper’s integrity – a rare quality for one involved in lifelong political pursuits. “[He was] unswerving in his action in times of thought and right. Devoted to his native state, a brave soldier and a great statesman, he has left an enviable record behind him.23

Whether calmly riding his sorrel at Gettysburg or standing firm while he was burned in effigy in Richmond, General Kemper did not stray from duty – an admirable trait indeed, considering the price he paid.

Sources: Carper, William Randolph Account, 11th Virginia File, Gettysburg National Military Park (hereafter GNMP). Edward Compton Diary, 7th Virginia File, GNMP. The Confederate Veteran. December 1903 issue, Nashville, TN. James Kemper Obituary, The Richmond Times, April 8, 1895. James Kemper Presidential Pardon, 1865. Copy, GNMP. Jones, Robert R. “Forgotten Virginian: The Early Life and Career of James Lawson Kemper.” Partial Manuscript, Kemper Participant Accounts File, GNMP. Jones, Robert R. “James Lawson Kemper: Native Son and Redeemer”, copy, Kemper Participant Accounts File, GNMP. Kemper Family Tree, Ancestry.com. Kemper, James. “Resignation Speech”, May 2, 1864. Copy, GNMP. Krick, R.K. “James Lawson Kemper, Confederate General and Governor of Virginia.” Manuscript, Fredericksburg NMP. Letter, Maria Botts to Mrs. Belle Kemper, July 13, 1863. 1st Virginia File, GNMP. Lovins, Edwin. “The ‘Old First’: The First Virginia at Gettysburg.” The Times Dispatch, October 16, 1904. 1st Virginia File, GNMP. Malone, Dumas, ed. Dictionary of American Biography . Vol. X. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1946. Mayo, Joseph. “Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg.” Southern Historical Society Papers. Vol. XXIV. Richmond, VA: 1906. United States 1860 Census, United States 1880 census, Ancestry.com. Stewart, George R. Pickett’s Charge . Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Company, 1959. Harold Walthall Account, 1st Virginia File, GNMP. Stoever, M.L. Account, Civilian Accounts File, Adams County Historical Society. Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders . Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959.

End Notes:

1. James Kemper Obituary, The Richmond Times, Apr. 8, 1895. US 1860 and 1880 Census.

2. Warner, p. 169. Malone, p. 322.

3. Malone, p. 322. Jones, “James Lawson Kemper”, p. 70.

4. Lovins, “The Old First”, The Times Dispatch, Oct. 16, 1904.

5. Stewart, p. 200. William Randolph Carper Account, 11th VA File, GNMP.

6. Mayo, p. 332.

7. Walthall Account, 1st VA File, GNMP.

8. Stewart, p. 187.

9. Walthall Account, 1st VA File, GNMP.

10. Stewart, p. 200.

11. Stewart, p. 205. Mayo, p. 332.

12. Jones, “Forgotten Virginian, p. 307.

13. Ibid., p. 309.

14. Mayo, p. 322. Stewart, p. 257.

15. Compton Account, 7th VA File, GNMP.

16. M.L. Stoever Account, Adams County Historical Society.

17. Krick, p. 4. Letter, Maria Botts to Belle Kemper, July 13, 1863, copy GNMP.

18. Kemper Resignation Speech, May 2, 1864. Copy, GNMP.

19. James Kemper Pardon, 1865, copy GNMP. Jones, “James Lawson Kemper”, p. 77.

20. Malone, p. 322.

21. James Kemper Obituary, The Richmond Times, Apr. 8, 1895.

22. The Confederate Veteran, p. 503.

23. James Kemper Obituary, The Richmond Times, Apr. 8, 1895.

Princess Publications
Share by: