James Keith Boswell Remembered

May 3, 1863. The day had dawned with a promise of battle, and Confederate General Robert E. Lee sent Jedidiah Hotchkiss with a message to General J.E.B. Stuart. Hotchkiss rode along a familiar route, one he had traversed in the deep darkness of the previous night, bringing news to Lee that General “Stonewall” Jackson had been wounded.[i] As mapmaker and topographical engineer for Jackson, Hotchkiss had played a major role in scouting the routes which had been used the previous day to launch a flank attack against the Union XI Corps which had slowed only with the night’s darkness.

Sunlight at Chancellorsville, near the site where Hotchkiss returned.

Worrisomely absent, James Keith Boswell – Jackson’s Chief of Engineers and Hotchkiss’s military superior and friend – had not emerged from the woods. Realizing that Lee’s orders to Stuart had become obsolete as the fighting unfolded throughout the day and overcome with exhaustion, Hotchkiss halted near the place where Jackson, A.P. Hill, and their staffs had met friendly fire the last evening. He had to find young Boswell. Though the young man sometimes irritated Hotchkiss with incessant mooning over an unsuccessful courtship and worried him with frantic promises to do something extreme in battle to win his lady’s favor, the mapmaker sincerely cared about his comrade. Hotchkiss moved along the turnpike and then he saw James Keith Boswell “some 20 steps in advance, by the roadside…”[ii]

This young man – born November 18, 1838 – had been trained as a civil engineer and, prior to the war, had constructed railroads in Missouri and Alabama. When the war began, he returned to his native state, Virginia, and offered his services in her defense. At first, James Keith Boswell served on General Magruder’s staff, but General Thomas J. Jackson specifically requested his transfer, and Boswell arrived in Winchester, Virginia, during the last week of February 1862.

James Keith Boswell (no known image restrictions)

Described as “an excellent, good-natured, honest Presbyterian” who was “well off, has a sweetheart in Fauquier [county] where the Yankees are, and he talks much about her,”[iii] Boswell became an integral part of Jackson’s staff and part of the younger clique of officers at Second Corps Headquarters. Historian James I. Robertson described Boswell as “one of Jackson’s most reliable staff officers”[iv] and his knowledge, creativity, and steadfastness to duty led to important roles in Jackson’s campaigns.

At the beginning of the 1862 Shenandoah Campaign, Boswell informed Jackson that Winchester was indefensible[v], eventually leading to the military decision to abandon this prominent town in the lower end of the Valley. Later in the campaign, just before the Battle of Port Republic, Jackson ordered Boswell to find a bridge and prepare a direct route to move sick and wounded soldiers to Staunton for proper medical attention. Finding the bridge gone and the river swollen by recent rains, the young engineer improvised and persuaded Captain C.R. Mason and his pioneers to construct two boats which he used to ferry the casualties across the river.[vi] The Seven Days Battles brought numerous challenges for Jackson, the staff, and the soldiers; Boswell lived at the center of the chaos, often sent to try to find roads or ordered to guide Jackson to various points.[vii] Then, during the march to Second Manassas in August 1862, he led the advance units of the Second Corps directly to the battlefield and into position.[viii]

Boswell admired his commander, noting in his journal that General Jackson was “one of the most pleasant men as a commander who could be found in the Confederate army. …Very reserved, not particularly companionable, but always extremely affable and polite.”[ix] Jackson, in return, clearly trusted his Chief Engineer, relying on his judgment frequently during the 1862 campaigns. To his fellow staff officers, Boswell was “genial, energetic, ever-faithful.”[x] However, he had the habit – entertaining or irritating – of taking spare time to make sure his friends knew about his romantic interests in Miss Sophia DeButts Carter and could apparently talk endlessly about her and his wonderings if she really loved him.[xi] Still, Jedidiah Hotchkiss and the others genuinely liked Boswell and cared about him as a comrade.

Jackson wasn’t the only general aware of Boswell’s talents as an engineer, guide, and problem-solver. Early in 1863, General D.H. Hill needed help with fortifications, and Boswell arrived to his aid. The task lasted about a week and tested the staff officer’s patience. Boswell recorded his thoughts privately in his journal: “He [Hill] thinks every point where he visits last the most important to be finished without delay.” Furthermore, Hill “interferes as usual and insists on acting as engineer. I am disgusted and will let him take his own way.”[xii]

Jedidiah Hotchkiss, one of Boswells friends (no known image restrictions)

About that same time, Boswell’s friends managed to get him a furlough to go see Miss Carter, hoping he would settle – once and for all – if she loved him. Unfortunately for all, Miss Carter refused James K. Boswell’s proposal, and he returned to camp, brokenhearted, searching for his rivals, and vowing to do something heroic to make her love him. Hotchkiss worriedly recorded Boswell’s exuded feelings and rants throughout the early spring, saying Boswell “felt very bitter toward Col. Carter [one of his supposed rivals for Miss Carter’s affections] calling him a coward and denouncing him about as vigorously as a good and consistent Christian, that my friend undoubtedly was, could well do. During the night he was constantly grating his teeth and breathing out threatenings as to what he would do. In his saner moods he said he would go into the next battle in such a way as to win promotion and that he would yet prove to this young lady that he was more worthy of her hand than the white livered colonel.”[xiii]

Thus, with a solid military staff officer record, an overwrought romantic nature, and slightly disturbed mind, Captain Boswell had approached the vast tangle known as The Wilderness with his general as Union General Joe Hooker paused the advance and seemed to invite attack. On the evening of May 1, 1863, Boswell and Major Thomas Talcott – one of General Lee’s aides – scouted close to the Union’s center and along the enemy’s left flank. They both concluded no attack could be made there and a frontal assault seemed to invite Confederate disaster.[xiv] Armed with this important knowledge, Lee and Jackson puzzled through the evening, eventually planning a Jacksonian flank attack on the Union right.

General Jackson by John Adams Elder (Image by © The Corcoran Gallery of Art/CORBIS)

May 2, 1863, unfolded as Jackson’s Corps moved through the Wilderness and to the attack position. Boswell moved along the lines “constantly seeking for information, regardless of danger all along the enemy’s front.”[xv] About suppertime, the gray-clad troops burst from the woods, racing toward the Union’s XI Corps lines and rolling them back in a panicked retreat. The Confederates pressed on until nightfall slowed the advance. Desperate to continue the pursuit and seeking a way to cut off some of the Union retreat, Jackson and part of his staff went forward to see what was happening.

Meeting General A.P. Hill and his staff on the Plank Road, Jackson quizzed Hill, anxious to know when he would advance and if he knew the land between Chancellorsville and U.S. Ford. Hill admitted his lack of familiarity and asked for a guide. Turning to Boswell, Jackson ordered him to accompany General Hill, then finished giving advance orders for the attack.[xvi]

As Jackson and his group moved further down the dark road, groping into a sort of no-man’s land between the armies, Boswell rode with A.P. Hill, following Jackson at a little distance. Minutes later, Jackson tried to re-enter Confederate lines. Friendly fire blazed along the battle line, hitting Jackson’s group and bringing Hill’s staff under fire. Jackson – the “famous” casualty of the night – was not the only one from Second Corps Headquarters to fall that evening. In the same volleys that felled Stonewall, James Keith Boswell – Chief of Engineers – took three bullets. One wounded his leg. The other two struck him full in the chest, tearing through his engineering sketchbook in his breast pocket, penetrating his flesh – killing him instantly.[xvii]

On the morning of May 3, 1863, Jedidiah Hotchkiss found Boswell “along the roadside.” Dead. There would be no happy ending. There would be no more scouting adventures or evening gatherings with his friends. There would be no reversal of Miss Carter’s feelings by Boswell’s courage in battle.  But perhaps Boswell had found satisfaction in the final instant, believing she might really care for him at last. Hotchkiss noted, “I found him looking perfectly natural, a smile on his face.”[xviii]

James Keith Boswell was later reburied in a marked grave in Fredericksburg Confederate Cemetery

Finding an ambulance, Hotchkiss removed Boswell’s body from the battlefield and, with  Reverend Dr. Lacy, laid the staff officer to rest near Ellwood Manor, in the family graveyard. “I…wrapped his overcoat closely around him putting the cape over his head, and buried him thus, in his marital dress, lowing him to his resting place in a shelter tent I picked up on the field of battle, and then spreading it over him. Mr. Lacy made a noble prayer and we finished our sad duty just as the moon rose over the distant hills of his own loved native country. …We wept freely as we left his manly form to await the last trump. He was a Christian and has gained by the exchange of worlds.”[xix]

James Keith Boswell – the irrepressible romantic, the innovative problem solver, a trusted officer, and sincere friend – died on Chancellorsville battlefield in the same volleys that wounded his commander. Yet, most history books mention him only in passing or not at all. The Second Corps headquarters lost leaders and promising men at Chancellorsville; most notably, of course, Jackson who overshadows his young officers Crutchfield, Boswell, and many others.

Reading about Boswell’s brief life, love affair, and military actions, the tragedy of war is fully realized. This twenty-three year old officer should’ve had his whole life ahead of him. Instead, Boswell’s life ended short on a dark battle night along a lonely turnpike and even his memory would eventually be overshadowed by the other casualties.

Sources:

[i] Miller, William J. Mapping for Stonewall: The Civil War Service of Jed Hotchkiss. Elliott & Clark Publishers. 1993. Page 115.

[ii] Ibid, page 115.

[iii] Robertson, James I. Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend. Macmillan Pub. 1997. Page 328.

[iv] Ibid, Page 328.

[v] Ibid, Page 328.

[vi] Ibid, Page 427.

[vii] Ibid, Pages 487, 491, 547.

[viii] Ibid, Pages 547-549.

[ix] Ibid, Page 681

[x] Douglas, Henry K. I Rode With Stonewall. University of North Carolina Press. 1968. Page 211.

[xi] Miller, William J. Mapping for Stonewall: The Civil War Service of Jed Hotchkiss. Elliott & Clark Publishers. 1993. Page 102-104.

[xii] Robertson, James I. Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend. Macmillan Pub. 1997. Page 678.

[xiii] Miller, William J. Mapping for Stonewall: The Civil War Service of Jed Hotchkiss. Elliott & Clark Publishers. 1993. Page 105.

[xiv] Lively, Matthew W. Calamity at Chancellorsville. Savas Beatie, 2013. Page 26.

[xv] Miller, William J. Mapping for Stonewall: The Civil War Service of Jed Hotchkiss. Elliott & Clark Publishers. 1993. Page 115.

[xvi] Lively, Matthew W. Calamity at Chancellorsville. Savas Beatie, 2013. Pages 48-49.

[xvii] Miller, William J. Mapping for Stonewall: The Civil War Service of Jed Hotchkiss. Elliott & Clark Publishers. 1993. Page 115.

[xviii] Ibid, Page 115.

[xix] Ibid, Pages 117-118.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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6 Responses to James Keith Boswell Remembered

  1. This is a lovely remembrance of a brave (and interesting if goofy) young Confederate. Too bad he didn’t get a chance to outgrow his romantic excesses. Thanks for the post.

  2. This was an interesting read! Thank you for your research and for sharing it. I came across Boswell’s name when researching his sister Maggie Boswell who was a student in Winchester. I’d wondered about her brother and the apparent link between his death and that of Jackson. I also just read about Sophia DeButts Carter this week. The poor girl didn’t have the best of luck with suitors. Another sadly shot himself after she rejected him.

  3. Mathew Lively says:

    Nice tribute to an often overlooked and yet important person in the Jackson circle.

  4. cfuller says:

    excellent story

  5. Pingback: ECW Week in Review April 30-May 6 | Emerging Civil War

  6. Jacqueline Boswell says:

    I’ve been tracing my family genealogy. I can’t find a link between James Keith Boswell and my family, except for the uncanny resemblance to my father, brother, son, and cousin. The resemblance is actually creepy. I’m trying to figure out if his brothers had any sons.

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