Off to Glory: Life as a Cavalryman Lithograph of Detroit, 1852, by by Robert Bürger & Cuno Dix. Wikimedia Commons
We do not know much about the life of James Bedell. His enlistment and discharge papers reveal only a slight glance into his background. Born around 1820 in Haverhill, New Hampshire, he moved to Michigan at some point during his life to take up farming, though the date is unclear. The 1860 Census lists him as living in Waterford Township with his 82-year-old mother Polly, his 55 year-old-older brother, William, and his 39-year-old younger brother, Harlin. Their father, John Bedell, had died in 1838. It was slightly unusual for three sons of that age to still be living together, though they potentially stayed to support their elderly mother. On January 1st, 1863 he and Harlin enlisted in the Union army at West Bloomfield, Michigan, for three years. Perhaps James enlisted on the 1st as a symbolic stand in favor of the Emancipation Proclamation that had just come into effect, or maybe he was simply motivated by the twenty-five-dollar advance bounty he received. Perhaps he enlisted to make a living for himself separate from his family. Regardless, they were soon mustered into Company F of the 7th Michigan Cavalry as Privates. His farming experience meant he had experience working with horses, making him well suited to life as a cavalryman.
The 7th Michigan’s Civil War saga began rather unusually before leaving Detroit for training. A young woman named Mary Burns had disguised herself as a man, enlisting in the 7th Michigan as John Burns to stay close to her beloved. Her true sex was discovered only ten days later, before the regiment departed for training, when she was recognized by a friend. She was charged with “masquerading as a man” and sent home. Whether or not Bedell had direct contact with Burns during this time is unclear; however, he certainly would have borne witness to the intrigue and scandal that initiated the 7th into its official wartime service.
Raised throughout the Fall of 1862 into January 1863, the 7th Michigan Cavalry trained at Lee Barracks in Grand Rapids. The regimental history describes this long organizational time as a result of lacking patriotism in the area brought on by the growing understanding that the war would take much longer than initially expected. Humorously, Asa B. Isham, the regimental historian, described the new recruits as understanding that they “faced the prospect of three years of battle and peril for the poor inducement of thirteen dollars a month, hard tack and bacon included.” The history dwells little on training, describing it only as a regular routine of dismounted drills with a drill master yelling “’ Oh stupid! Stupid! Even an ox may be taught to know right from left, but ye will never learn.”’ The camp was freezing, with harsh winds and barracks that did not keep the blasts out. Lacking horses, suffering from the cold, and under harsh criticism from instructors, the camp conditions certainly would not have fit the glorious image most of these men would have had about soldiering. The tedium, monotony, and harsh new living conditions of camp life frequently challenged the morale of even the more seasoned Civil War soldiers. Within a few months, the regiment’s horses arrived, adding mounted drill and horse care to the daily routine.
On January 27th, 1863, the regiment had enough men for service, and on February 20th they began to move to Washington. Arriving on February 27th, they were assigned to a camp on Meridian Hill. There, they would receive their Burnside carbines, having already received sabers and Colt revolvers at Grand Rapids. Although this breech-loading carbine permitted fast rates of fire, the 7th Michigan would later find itself mostly used as a sabre regiment, while other regiments in their brigade served the role of carbine skirmishers.
Late in March, the regiment left for Fairfax Court House, where they met with the 5th and 6th Michigan Cavalry, joining their brigade. Bedell had found himself in an unusual Union brigade as, unlike most, it was comprised entirely of regiments from one state. Fortunately for him, such organization contributed to an increased sense of camaraderie amongst the troopers. From May until June 24th, the brigade skirmished with John Mosby’s raiders between Bealeton and Centerville as they guarded the vital Union railroads. According to the regimental history, one of the troopers even briefly captured Mosby before he was outnumbered and forced to flee. However, there is scant evidence to back up the veracity of this claim; more than likely, an over-zealous trooper fabricated the story to enhance the reputation of the 7th, which found itself the only green regiment within a brigade of battle-tested veterans who likely questioned their new peers’ combat abilities. The 7th returned to Fairfax on June 24th, still a frustratingly green unit lacking major combat experience.
On the 25th they crossed the Potomac, having received orders to move north to help repel Lee’s invasion. The 29th was a day of great change for the brigade. The 1st Michigan joined the brigade, and the overall command structure was upended. General Kilpatrick, a rash general with a reputation for getting his men killed for no reason, was put in charge of the cavalry division of the Army of the Potomac that housed the Michigan Brigade. Hearing that his new general’s nickname was “Kill-Cavalry” certainly unnerved Bedell and the 7th Michigan. More directly, the Michigan brigade, now complete with all four regiments, received a new general as well. They were now commanded by General Custer, the “boy general with golden locks”, a West Point graduate who would long after gain notoriety for his role in the Indian Wars. However, by mid-1863 Custer had not yet stepped into the limelight. In fact, he was now taking his first command mere days before the 7th Michigan’s first real baptism of fire in the Battle of Gettysburg.
Come On, You Wolverines! Painting by Don Troiani
During the Gettysburg campaign, the regiment participated in several more skirmishes. The most notable was at Hanover, though Company F was not engaged. Their real baptism by fire came on July 3rd. That morning, Custer’s Brigade found itself detached from Kilpatrick’s Division, instead supporting Gregg’s Division at the intersection of the Hanover and Low Dutch Roads. This position, later called East Cavalry Field, lies about 3 miles east of the town of Gettysburg. They soon found themselves within sight of J.E.B. Stuart’s battle-hardened Confederate Cavalry, who were attempting to flank the Union Army while Pickett’s Charge was simultaneously launched against its front. Custer received orders from Kilpatrick to return to its original position with Kilpatrick’s Division rather than stay with Gregg. However, once the fighting started Custer was determined to stay, and asked Gregg to give him official orders to remain in position. Custer detached the 5th Michigan Cavalry to provide support to some of Gregg’s troopers, but soon spotted Confederates troops preparing to charge the 5th Michigan.
After spotting the advancing Confederates, Custer and Gregg decided to counter-charge in an effort to limit the momentum of the Confederates’ own charge. In his book on the Michigan Brigade, Edward Longacre theorized that the 7th was chosen to lead this countercharge because in this particular instance, a saber-led charge was necessary but deadly, and the generals preferred “to commit a rookie regiment such as the Seventh, whose men would remain ignorant of the dangers until too late to turn back.” Leading from the front in a style that would soon become typical of Custer, he rallied his men with the shout “Come on, you Wolverines!” and charged with the 7th Michigan towards the oncoming Confederates. The charge was a disaster. The regimental history describes the chaos, though it likely gives the fresh regiment too much credit when it describes how well organized that charge was:
Every man yelled at the top of his voice until the regiment had gone probably one thousand yards straight toward the Confederate batteries, when, by some error of the guide of the leading squadron, the head of the column was deflected to the left, making a quarter turn, and the regiment was hurled headlong against a post and rail-fence that ran obliquely in front of the Rummel barn…The squadrons coming up successively at a charge, rushed pell-mell upon each other, and were thrown into a state of indescribable confusion…
With the rail halting the Union advance, the Confederates had time to rally. They fired upon the 7th Michigan, and although the regiment made an opening in the fence and tried to move forward towards the artillery, they soon spotted Confederate troopers and fell back, unable to hold the position. Sometime during this disordered engagement Bedell’s horse was shot out from under him. The 7th withdrew and reformed, continuing to fight, but the battle as well as the war was over for James Bedell. Without a horse, and possibly disoriented by the fog of battle, he was unable to flee with his regiment. Instead, he was taken prisoner. Ultimately, additional Union charges led the Confederates to withdraw. The rear of the Union army was safe, but that offered little comfort to Bedell who was now being led away by captors towards an uncertain future. For Harlin, who may have seen James unhorsed, it was undoubtedly horrifying to return to Union lines and been unable to find his brother.
In “Face of Battle at Gettysburg”, historian Scott Hartwig describes what it was like to be taken prisoner on a Civil War battlefield. Far from the image of modern combat, a soldier in the Civil War who attempted to surrender, even when in the midst of hand-to-hand combat like Bedell likely was, was nearly always able to. Captors generally showed restraint toward their prisoners. True to 19th-century standards of masculine honor and martial protocol, men who, just moments before, would have killed each other with abandon, would generally stay their hand, trusting in the honor of the captive’s word that he would no longer fight. Sometimes the captor would not even delegate a guard to take a prisoner to the rear. Hartwig found only one account of a soldier shot after his surrender, though he admitted that other accounts existed, and concludes that incidents of brutality to prisoners were rare and isolated. Unfortunately for Bedell, his account is one of those rarities.
Wounding and Treatment Camp Letterman, 1863. Wikimedia Commons
Apparently, Bedell was not an ideal prisoner. He was uninjured, though likely burdened with feelings of guilt or shame at having been captured. Perhaps he was deliberately walking slowly in hopes of being freed or slowing his captors, or perhaps he was simply disoriented from being unhorsed. In any case, the Confederate officer leading his group of prisoners decided Bedell was not walking fast enough. He struck Bedell in the skull with his saber, striking him down and leaving him for dead on the battlefield. Luckily, a Union scouting party found him, and brought him to the Cavalry Corps Hospital. He was able to recount the story of his capture to Surgeon Rulison on July 25th, as his head injury apparently did not diminish his mental capacity. Clearly neither the martial protocol nor cultural values regarding prisoners were applied in this case, with the brutality shown by the Confederate officer directly countering notions of the Civil War as purely a “brother’s war.”
On July 28th, Bedell was taken to Camp Letterman, a major hospital established northeast of town following the battle. In the Case Book of Henry Janes, the surgeon in charge of the camp, a page entitled “Skull, Fractures of, with Injury of the Brain,” describes James Bedell’s wound: “Wounded on the left side of the cranium by a sabre stroke crushing the skull from a point one inch above the lambdoidal suture extending anteriorly nearly 4 inches on a line parallel to the saggital suture.” Essentially, the Confederate officer’s sabre had struck the top of his head and opened his skull. Bedell was described as being in a depressed state, with weak pulse and being “indisposed to mental exertion.” However, all accounts state that whenever he was roused from sleep he was fully rational, having not lost mental clarity. On August 30th, things took a sudden turn for the worse. He had a severe chill, and his pulse increased rapidly. He remained in this state for sixteen hours. The doctor wrote, “The brain protrudes from the wound and he is entirely blind. Stomach very irritable, mind perfectly clear.” James Bedell died at five o’clock on August 30th. His last few hours had been extremely painful, yet his mind had remained clear through it all. He was conscious through hours of a severe chill, stomach pain, and eventual blindness, and all he could do was wait to die. Bedell died in a slow and extremely painful way far from home and anyone he knew. Although he retained his mental clarity, the other aspects of his death in no way fit the Victorian ideal of the “Good Death,” nor of his pre-war expectations about what the life—or death–of a Union cavalryman might resemble.
Although we may not know much about Bedell’s life, we ironically know a great deal about his death. His wound was deemed unusual, so doctors took much interest in the case. His case was even published in a circular written by the Medical Department after the war. His autopsy revealed that the sabre had penetrated far into the skull and disorganized both hemispheres of the brain. It was remarkable that he had survived, let alone lived for nearly two months after while retaining mental clarity.
Bedell was likely buried temporarily in the Camp Letterman cemetery. Afterwards, he was moved to the Michigan Plot of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg. It is unlikely that Harlin was able to secure leave to visit his brother, as the cavalry was needed to pursue the Army of Northern Virginia back south. When he died, his possessions consisted of: “a muster roll list, $75 dollars in back pay from April to July, a diary, a letter, and other articles.” No pension record was found. He had no wife or children, and apparently his elderly mother decided not to apply. However, in 1866 she did apply for a pension through Harlin, who was mortally wounded at the battle of Five Forks on April 1, 1865.
The Legacy of James T. Bedell A portion of Bedell’s file, courtesy National Museum of Health and Medicine.
In 1863, the interest in Bedell was not as a person but rather as a medical oddity to be studied. Issued by Surgeon General William Hammond in 1862, Circular No. 2 declared that “medical officers are directed diligently to collect and to forward to the office of the Surgeon General, all specimens of morbid anatomy, surgical and medical” that would prove useful to furthering medical knowledge at a new Army Medical Museum. Bedell’s unusual skull wound (very few saber wounds were ever reported) and relatively long life after receiving the would qualified him as unique. Either immediately following his death or just prior to his reinterment from the Letterman cemetery to the National Cemetery, his skull was removed from his body and all signs of humanity were boiled off. It is highly unlikely his family was ever asked for consent or informed of what happened to their son’s body, even though Harlin continued his own service in the same unit. Bedell’s wound was so unusual that his skull was photographed for posterity. In the November, 1865 Reports on the Extent and Nature of the Materials Available for the Preparation of a Medical and Surgical History of the Rebellion, the image is not identified as his skull and the name is censored as J____ B____. It would continue to be published through the 1870s. Only later sources would identify the skull as belonging to a specific man with a name and a story. Doctors simply could not afford to see every case as an individual man, a human being; they saw too much suffering every day for that. Instead, doctors often saw the Civil War as a chance to increase medical knowledge through careful study of the gruesome and unusual wounds. Bedell’s skull was never reunited with his body. Although he mostly lies in the grave in Gettysburg, his skull remains in the collection of the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Now, though, we can look past the medical oddity of the case and see the man. We can see James Bedell, a farmer who suffered immensely in his final days on this Earth. Although the initial charge of the 7th Michigan ended in embarrassing failure, the Union did eventually achieve victory at East Cavalry Field. Bedell’s actions—though they ultimately led to his capture and death– helped to secure the rear of the Union line as it was battered by Pickett’s Charge on July 3rd, even if such actions contributed indirectly. Bedell had died as a result of his first major engagement. After the battle, Custer began his meteoric rise to stardom. Interestingly, unlike many of the battle decisions made by General “Kill-Cavalry” Kilpatrick, Custer’s disastrous call that day for the Wolverines to charge went down in history as an inspiring rallying call from a brave hero at the helm of his command, rather than as a rash command resulting in the unnecessary deaths of his men. In turn, Custer’s 7th Michigan—Bedell included—became permanently enshrouded in the romantic mythology surrounding the “boy general”—a mythology that would extend beyond the war years into the legendary Indian Wars on the western plains. Ultimately, just as Bedell’s individual humanity became subsumed by the medical casebooks produced by the war, so would the personal identity and story of the 43-year-old farmer who had enlisted to serve his country on Emancipation Day become obscured by the fame and glory of the celebrated 7th. However, quite ironically, those very casebooks, as well as the 7th’s reputation, have now led to the resurrection of this long-lost cavalryman as an individual worthy of our attention, 155 years later.
Just as we are unsure of many details of Bedell’s life, we are uncertain of his legacy. His sacrifice for this nation may well have provided vital information to new doctors as they learned how best to treat horrific battlefield trauma. Such information may have helped to save the lives of countless other men in uniform. James Bedell never returned home and never attained the fame of his commanding general, but his sacrifice and his story are worth remembering. Bedell’s strange tale of capture, brutally slow death, and bodily dismemberment remind us that behind each cemetery stone is a unique story capable of lifting the veil on the sometimes unimaginable consequences of the Civil War and its enduring legacy.
1860 U.S. Census, Oakland County, Michigan, population schedule, Waterford Township.
Busey, Travis and John Busey. Union Casualties at Gettysburg: A Comprehensive Record, Volume 1. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc, Publishers, 2011.
Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Veterans of the Army and Navy Who Served Mainly in the Civil War and the War with Spain, compiled 1861 – 1934, National Archives, Washington D. C.
Dr. Henry Janes Case Book. University of Vermont – Special Collections. Transcription at Gettysburg National Military Park.
Feeney, William. Manifestations of the Maimed: The Perception of Wounded Soldiers in the Civil War North. Dissertation. West Virginia University, 2015. ProQuest.
Hartwig, D. Scott. “’It’s All Smoke and Dust and Noise’: The Face of Battle at Gettysburg.” In Battle: The Nature and Consequences of Civil War Combat, edited by Kent Gramm, pp 12-61. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2008.
Isham, Asa B. An Historical Sketch of the Seventh Regiment Michigan Volunteer Cavalry: From Its Organization, in 1862, To Its Muster Out, in 1865. Huntington: Blue Acre Press, Republished 2000.
Longacre, Edward G. Custer and His Wolverines: The Michigan Cavalry Brigade 1861-1865. Conshohocken: Combined Publishing, 1997.
Michigan Women in the Civil War. Michigan: Michigan Civil War Centennial Observance Commission, 1963.
National Museum of Health and Medicine. James T. Bedell File.
Reports on the Extent and Nature of the Materials Available for the Preparation of a Medical and Surgical History of the Rebellion: Circular No. 6 War Department, Surgeon General’s Office, Washington, November 1, 1865. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co, 1865. Pp. 40.
Narrative and map by Jonathan Tracey, Gettysburg College.