Colonel James Miller was the first commander of the 81st Pennsylvania, a regiment drawn from the Irish neighborhoods of Philadelphia and from the coal-mining region of Carbon County. Eastern Pennsylvanians knew him well as a hero from the Mexican-American War, one of the select few volunteer officers who marched with the 2nd Pennsylvania Infantry during Scott’s Campaign against the Mexican capital. When the rebellion broke out in 1861, Miller did not hesitate to lead Pennsylvania’s Irish-American population against it. He did this, but died on June 1, 1862, at one of the Army of the Potomac’s first battles.
Here is Colonel James Miller, photographed in 1861. (The original image is with the G. J. Lynch collection at USAMHI.)
As the 81st Pennsylvania came together, some of Colonel Miller’s men wondered what kind of an officer he would make. One man noted a particularly distressing incident, shaking his confidence in Miller’s humanity. On October 2, 1861, the 81st Pennsylvania encamped at Easton, waiting for its ranks to fill. That day, a “poor old Irish woman” stopped by the camp intent on convincing Colonel Miller to release her son, a soldier in Company E. The young lad—only seventeen at the time—had enlisted without her permission. The unnamed mother had made repeated visits to the Easton bivouac, trying to find Miller, but the elusive commander always slipped through her grasp. Eventually, two men interceded on her behalf, a captain and a sergeant. They escorted her to Colonel Miller, who happened to be riding into camp on horseback. One of these men, Sergeant James H. Walker, described the interview in his journal:
the poor creature threw herself on her knees directly in his path and in a strain of most impassioned eloquence, implored for the release of her boy; vain were her pleadings; with a look and gesture of impatience the man before her bade her rise and give him no further trouble—as he trotted on she rose and with hands outstretched, implored and plead like one bereft of reason—at last finding herself left behind and the Col’s resolution unshaken, she uttered a shriek so heart rending that even the arch enemy of mankind might have been moved to pity[.] . . . [She] pursued her way homeward, wringing her hands, . . . [the] very picture of despair—I must confess the touching scene I had just witnessed, impressed me rather unfavorably with my commander—not of course with his abilities as a soldier but his feelings as a man. On my way to the station I could not help ruminating on the wonderful depth of love and hate so manifest in the Irish character.
I cannot find any additional information on the fate of the Irish mother and her young son, but from all appearances, it seems that her boy stayed in the ranks. This ought not to have happened. The letter of the law allowed parents to reclaim their children (under the age of eighteen) if they enlisted without permission. Thus, Colonel Miller should have released her son but did not.
After this incident, Miller did not have long to live. Seven months later, the 81st Pennsylvania engaged Confederate forces at Fair Oaks. Surging over a railroad embankment, the regiment struck a brigade of Virginians commanded by William Mahone. Unsure of their identity, Colonel Miller went forward to get a closer look. A volley rang out, striking Miller in the head, dropping him from his saddle. Some of Miller’s bluecoats fled the scene, earning them derision from the other regiments in their brigade. After the battle, the 81st Pennsylvania’s hospital steward received Miller’s body. In his journal, the steward wrote, “About 5 o’clock P.M. the body of Colonel James Miller was brought in. It was most horribly disfigured, nearly half of the left side of the head having been blown away. He could not have felt a moment’s pain. He was a true soldier, every inch of him. He fought through the Mexican war and was severely wounded at the storming of Chapultepec, and at last has fallen in battle, bravely fighting for the flag of the Union.”
One of the best renderings of the Battle of Fair Oaks is Fair Oaks, Sumner's Reinforcement by William Trego (1886).
The Battle of Fair Oaks cost the 81st Pennsylvania ninety-one officers and men killed and wounded. History remembers the death of Colonel Miller. I often wonder about the fate of the seventeen-year-old Irish soldier.