“With that Cool Courage”: The Death of Colonel James K. Marshall at Gettysburg

ECW welcomes guest author Michael Singleton

James Marshall (Top Left) while a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute, 1859. (VMI Archives)

On the afternoon of July 3, 1863, 24-year-old Colonel James K. Marshall was killed by rifle fire while leading Pettigrew’s brigade during the Confederate attack at Gettysburg now known as “Pickett’s Charge.”  Traveling mounted through the entirety of the assault, Marshall was fatally shot as he led elements of his brigade forward from the Emmitsburg Road.  He was one of 240 North Carolinians in his brigade killed outright in the attack.[1]

A school teacher in Edenton, North Carolina before the war, Marshall was a Virginia native and graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in the Class of 1860.[2]  At the war’s onset, Marshall was commissioned a Captain and commanded Company M of the 1st Regiment, North Carolina Volunteers. [3] He served in that capacity until the unit was disbanded late in 1861.  Marshall was elected colonel of the 52nd North Carolina in April 1862 and, as a part of Brigadier General James J. Pettigrew’s brigade, led the regiment through operations in southeast Virginia and eastern North Carolina from 1862-1863.  Pettigrew’s brigade and the 52nd were transferred north to the Army of Northern Virginia in May 1863 and were placed in Harry Heth’s new division in the army’s Third Corps.[4]

At Gettysburg on July 1, Marshall led the 52nd North Carolina on the right of Pettigrew’s brigade as it attacked Federal forces on and around McPherson’s Ridge. He was elevated to brigade command later that day after Pettigrew replaced the wounded Harry Heth as divisional commander. Thus, Marshall, at age 24, led the brigade to its fate before Cemetery Ridge two days later.[5]

Preserved in the archives of the Virginia Military Institute is a letter to James Marshall’s parents from his cousin F. Lewis Marshall, a Confederate ordnance officer stationed in Lynchburg, Virginia.[6]  Written over three months after Col. Marshall’s death, F. Lewis Marshall broke the final, heart-breaking news to his Aunt and Uncle that confirmed the death of their son “Jimmy”.  In surprisingly raw and painful detail, he refuted their previous beliefs as to James Marshall’s fate and relayed the tragic details of his cousin’s final moments at Gettysburg.

Ordnance Office
Lynchburg, VA
6th October 1863

My dear Uncle,

It becomes my painful duty to inform you, and my dear Aunt, that I have received information through a letter to Mrs. Dr. Warren, from a friend in Baltimore, that according to Lieut. Warren’s statement, Jimmy was killed instantly on the 3rd day’s fight at Gettysburg. Warren says that he was killed near him and that he was shot in the forehead and expired immediately. I fear there can be no mistake about it, as Warren lay wounded on the field for three days and makes the statement without any qualification. I saw Douglas Gordon last night who told me that his sister Mrs. Thomas of Baltimore had found out from a soldier in the Hospital there, where Jimmy’s grave was, and that he was awaiting an opportunity to inform you of the fact.

I was entirely confident from what Genl. Lee’s Surgeon said, that Jimmy was still alive and was confirmed in that opinion by the statement in your letter that Mr. Newton made you, as to his being sent to Sandusky. I need scarcely state how painful it is to me to give up hopes founded on these statements. Dr. Warren wrote you a few days ago, repeating, I believe, the very words in the letter announcing to Mrs. Warren that Jimmy was instantly killed; to which letter I have referenced in the beginning of this.

Capt. Stockton Heth (son of Jacob Heth) saw Jimmy a few moments before he heard that he was killed, and had a few moments conversation with him, in the midst of the lead and iron hail, and that Jimmy remarked to him in words to this effect “we do not know which of us will be the next to fall” and dashed on with his command with that cool courage for which he was so remarkable; and in a few moments was killed dead on the field. I have rarely seen the exhibition of more affection among relatives, than Jimmy inspired the Warrens with. His heroism and courage is the constant theme of their conversation as well as his beautiful traits of character in private life.

May God Almighty temper this sore affliction to your wounded hearts for the Redeemer’s sake.

Thank God mine are all still preserved to me. Richard wrote me last on 22nd September and was safe up to that time. I heard from the rest in Amelia this morning they are all well, thank God. I saw a letter from cousin Lew Byrd a day or two ago. She writes with bright Christian cheerfulness–says Dr. Byrd is recovering from a most alarming illness he has lately suffered–that they have seven servants left, and that they are suffering for nothing. Will you give cousin Liz this intelligence about her sister. Give my love to Aunt Rebecca and all the family,

Your affectionate nephew

F. Lewis Marshall[7]

Colonel James Marshall was buried on the Gettysburg battlefield and was likely reinterred in the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.[8]

Marshall was just one of the estimated 5,426 Americans killed on both sides at the battle of Gettysburg.  An additional 26,413 Americans were wounded in the fighting.[9]  It is often too easy as historians and students of the Civil War to be swept away by the larger story of units on a map, markers on a battlefield, or to pass over statistics in a book. It is often too easy to talk of generals, strategy, or tactical movements while overlooking the individual human cost.  As Lieutenant Charles Fuller of the 61st New York bluntly stated, “The reality of war is largely obscured by descriptions that tell of movements and maneuvers of armies, of the attack and repulse, of victory and defeat, and then pass on to new operations. All this leaves out of sight the fellows, stretched out with holes through them, or with legs and arms off.”[10]

James Marshall’s story speaks truth to the individual tragedy that was each American death in the Civil War. Moreover, let the shock and anguish that must have been felt by Colonel Marshall’s parents underscore the pain experienced by the families of those who fought the war. The clarity of Col. Marshall’s fate provided by his cousin’s letter no doubt gave the smallest fraction of closure to his grieving parents.  All too many families never even got so much as that.


Michael Singleton received a B.A. in History from the Virginia Military Institute in 2013. Upon graduation from VMI, he received a commission in the U.S. Army and served on active duty as an infantry officer from 2013-2020.  Michael will be entering the U.S. history graduate program at the University of Southern Mississippi this August.

[1] Earl J. Hess, Lee’s Tar Heels: The Pettigrew-Kirkland-MacRae Brigade (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 148, 155.

[2] Hess, Lee’s Tar Heels, 52-53.  

[3] Service Record of James K. Marshall. Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers Who Served in Organizations from the State of North Carolina. NARA, Publication Number M270, Roll 0101 (retrieved from access to Archival Databases at https://www.fold3.com/image/30921883, June 28, 2020.)

[4] John H Robinson, “Fifty-Second Regiment,” in Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-’65 (Goldsboro: Nash Brothers, 1901), 223-234.

[5] Hess, Lee’s Tar Heels, 128-129.  

[6] Service Record of F. Lewis Marshall. Compiled Service Records of Confederate General and Staff Officer, and Nonregimental Enlisted Men. NARA, Publication Number M331, Roll 0163 (retrieved from access to Archival Databases at https://www.fold3.com/image/71852550 , June 28, 2020.)

[7] F. Lewis Marshall to Edward C Marshall, October 6 1863, MS-0165, Virginia Military Institute Archives, Lexington, VA. https://archivesspace.vmi.edu/repositories/3/resources/235. Accessed June 28, 2020.

[8] Bruce S. Allardice, Confederate Colonels: A Biographical Register (Columbia: The University of Missouri Press, 2008), 252.

[9] Allen C. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (New York: Random House, 2013), 443.

[10] Guelzo, Gettysburg, 444-445.

4 Responses to “With that Cool Courage”: The Death of Colonel James K. Marshall at Gettysburg

  1. Great read Mr Singleton. Thanks for sharing this history and Thank You for your service.
    ~Golf Company Parent

  2. “It is often too easy to talk of generals, strategy, or tactical movements while overlooking the individual human cost.” – I could not agree more. While these stories are all tragic in their own way, it makes the war more real somehow. Like knowing their names and their stories just amplifies the entire experience of the study. Everything else feels like context and they’re the main focus. Thank you for this post!

  3. Mr. Singleton, it warms the heart to finally see some balance and fairness on this site. Thank you.

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