Fallen Heroes: Private James McMerter

Battle of South Mountain, Maryland, Sept. 14th, 1862

One of the reasons I became a historian in the first place was because I enjoyed discovering, and telling, the stories of people who’s history has been lost. Whenever I come across a person whose life has been all but forgotten, especially when that person volunteered to serve their country, I feel a special motivation to tell their story.


James McMerter was born in 1841, the son of Henry McMerter (1805-1845) and his wife Anna Adkinson (1807-1884). Henry was born in Ireland and had moved to Ohio in the late 1830s. Anna was English born, arriving in America with her parents in 1811. The couple were married in Steubenville, Ohio in 1841, settling in Mill Township, Tuscarawas County around the time of James’ birth.

The family was still residing in Mill Township when their second son, Henry (1844-1924), was born. The elder Henry died in March 1845 when a tree fell on him, leaving Anna a widow left to raise two young sons on her own. At the time of the 1850 Census, Anna, James and Henry were living in Warwick Township, Tuscarawas County. James, only 9 years old and needing to earn money for the family, was working on a neighbor’s farm.

Having lost the family’s breadwinner, it is very likely that all of the family earned money working on the farms of their neighbors while also managing their own small farm during the decade of the 1850s. When the Civil War began, it is probable that James saw enlisting as yet another means to help support the family. James enlisted in Company I, raised in Tuscarawas County, of the 30th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment for three years in August 1861.

Camp Dennison, Ohio army training camp, 1861. (Source: https://ohiomemory.org/digital/collection/p267401coll32/id/13252/rec/9)

The 30th Ohio was in service in West Virginia within a couple of months of being organized. It was primarily used in 1861 and 1862 to protect supply lines, control “bush whackers”, and drive Confederate forces out of West Virginia. The regiment, and Company I, took part in a number of small skirmishes and actions in 1862. The larger scale Battle of South Mountain, part of Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland, in September 1862 was the regiment’s first full-scale battle.

During the Battle of South Mountain, the 30th Ohio worked its way to the base of the mountain by Fox’s Gap as a Union artillery battery fired over their heads to protect their advance. Once at the base of the Mountain the regiment started working its way up the wooded hillside until they reached a clearing on the summit. They engaged a strong Confederate force under Confederate General D.H. Hill, that included an artillery battery, as they summitted the mountain.

At two o’clock, this battery opened upon us, and grape, shell, shrapnel and cannister came through the woods as no mortal man can appreciate, but those who have had similar experience. The regiment lay not three hundred yards distant, and exposed to all these terrible messengers of destruction.

Map of the Battle of South Mountain, 14 September 1862. (Source: https://www.loc.gov/item/gvhs01.vhs00120/)

The 30th, supported by Union artillery, was ordered to advance on the Confederate positions being manned by troops from North Carolina and “…for forty-five minutes, a terrible storm of leaden hail swept across the field.” The regiment expended its ammunition, fired so much that they fouled their rifles, but at the end of the day managed to succeed in driving the Confederate force off the mountaintop. Several members of the regiment were killed and many more were wounded, among them was James McMerter.

The extent of James’s wounds were not recorded but they were significant enough for him to initially be sent to an army hospital, and eventually to be returned to his home in Tuscarawas County. Two accounts, one with direct knowledge of the McMerter family, reported that James died of his wounds a month later after returning home. He was buried in the Oldtown Valley Methodist Cemetery.

James McMerter’s Headstone at Old Town Cemetery, Tuscarawas County, Ohio. (Source: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/44448839/james-mcmerter)

James, even after his death, was able to help his younger brother care for his mother with a pension received for his service. Eventually his mother would acquire land in York Township, Tuscarawas County where she would live until her death. Henry, his younger brother, went on to become a well respected and successful member of the community through his “energy and enterprise.”

A wonderful source on the history of the 30th Ohio Volunteer Regiment, and the quotes mentioned above about the Battle of South Mountain, can be found here: https://archive.org/details/historyofthirtie00brin/mode/2up

© Noel B. Poirier, 2021.

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