By Mac Wyckoff
"Both martyrs and the survivors in this terrible and desolating war,
live not alone for themselves, but for posterity. The former testify
their faith in the principles of liberty and seal
their devotion to their country, and its cause, with their own life's
blood. . . .They have not died in vain." These thoughtful words
written by Colonel James D. Nance in the aftermath of the Gettysburg
Campaign took on an ironic twist when he joined the ranks of the
martyrs during the fighting at The Wilderness.
James Nance, son of Drayton and Lucy (Williams) Nance, was born on
October 10, 1837. His pre-war education consisted of both military
and legal studies. After graduating from South Carolina Military
School, now called The Citadel, he passed the bar and in the months
prior to the war settled into law practice in Newberry, South
Carolina. With the outbreak of the war, Nance enlisted as the
captain of Company E of the 3rd South Carolina two days after the
bombardment of Fort Sumter. Two months later, his unit went to Virginia
and although they were present at 1st Manassas they were not involved in combat. The regiment remained at or near the front
line throughout the Summer and Fall, but during the military lull,
disease claimed many more lives than Union bullets.
In December of 1861, Nance got sick with jaundice and bronchitis
and was sent home to recover. His condition grew worse as he
developed erysipelas, pneumonia, and typhoid fever. Had Captain Nance
died that winter like many soldiers, his name would be just a name
on a list of millions of soldiers who fought in this war.
By spring, Nance had recovered and rejoined his unit. During the
regiment's reorganization on May 13,1862, he was elected colonel.
This election marked a turning point in the regiment's history. Older
cautious officers were replaced by younger, more aggressive and, in
some cases, more competent men.
A product of mid-19th century upper class South Carolina society,
Nance was intelligent, deeply religious, strongly devoted to the
South's cause, and almost humorless. His military training impressed
upon him the need for strict discipline. As part of Joseph Kershaw's
Brigade , Nance molded the regiment into one of best fighting units
on either side. Six weeks later these young tigers had their
opportunity to prove themselves.
By June of 1862, General George B. McClellan's huge army closed in
on Richmond in what looked like the final days of the war in Virginia. In a
dramatic turn of events, General Robert E. Lee took over and quickly
seized the initiative in what is known as the Seven Days Campaign.
Nance's regiment suffered their first casualties in the skirmishing
prior to the campaign and then lost heavily at Savage Station on June 29,
1862 and less so two days later at Malvern Hill. Despite greater
Confederate losses and mismanagement by the Southern high command, the Seven Days turned out to be
a major strategic success for the Confederates.Most of Lee's army moved
north where they won again at 2nd Manassas even without the assistance of
Kershaw's Brigade and others. The Confederate momentum propelled Lee's
united army across the Potomac River. Before Lee could continue further
north, he must eliminate the Union garrison at Harpers Ferry. Lee divided
his force into three wings with the key role of capturing Maryland Heights
assigned to Kershaw's Brigade. On September 13th, the major fighting was
done by Nance's 3rd South Carolina and the 7th South Carolina. Both units
lost heavily, but achieved their objective. Four days later, the 3rd was
engaged near the Dunker Church at Antietam.
At Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862, the 3rd South Carolina was
sent to Marye's Heights. Reaching a exposed position on a knoll in
front of the Marye House, Nance's men instinctively hit the ground to
save their lives. Nance went to the right in search of a safer place, but before he
could complete the task a bullet slammed into his left thigh just
above the knee. Refusing to leave the field, he continued to direct
and encourage his men while stretched out on the ground. Within minutes the seven highest
ranking officers in the regiment were hit and two companies lost over
70% of their men.
After a lengthy furlough, Nance rejoined his command at Gettysburg
just in time to witness "Pickett's Charge." During the retreat
south, an incident occurred which reveals Nance's strict discipline.
Lee had issued orders not to disturb private property. One night in
a heavy rain storm some of Nance's men gathered fence rails to block
the wind and start campfires. The next morning, Nance ordered all
company commanders to report to his headquarters. Thinking it was
only to receive some marching instruction, they were surprised to
come face to face with "those cold, penetrating steel-eyes of Colonel
Nance." They listened to a lecture as was "seldom heard." Nance ordered
them to surrender their swords, turn over command until further notice and
march in the rear subject to the jeers and ridicule of the troops.
The lesson in discipline would not be forgotten.
In September of 1863, he traveled to Chickamauga with Longstreet's
Corps where they were heavily engaged on Snodgrass Hill. They then
went to East Tennessee where Kershaw's Brigade was given the assignment
of opening the way to Knoxville. On November 17th the 3rd South
Carolina made a reconnaissance to locate the Federals. Nance's men got
themselves into a nasty little situation, but his leadership got them
out with only a couple of losses.The next day, the 3rd South Carolina
advanced toward the Federals on a hill, the 2nd South Carolina slide
around behind to capture the defenders. Nance had two close calls
with death. When the 3rd South Carolina got to within forty yards of
the Yankees they ceased firing leading Nance to conclude that they had
surrendered. He barely had time to throw himself on the ground to
escape their volley. He later admitted that he
might have misunderstood their intentions, but at the time he was
furious about the perceived deception. Moments later, the 2nd South
Carolina's flanking effort proved successful in forcing the surrender,
but a Federal soldier took a shot at Nance that missed and he did not
live long enough to try again. Although Nance escaped injury, this
was one of the bloodiest days of the war for his command. On November
29th, Kershaw's Brigade waited to attack Fort Sanders, but Longstreet
prematurely withdrew his men.
After the unsuccessful siege of Knoxville, Longstreet's Corps went
into winter camp. Longstreet drew up court martial charges against
the division commander Lafayette McLaws for the fiasco at Fort Sanders.
The departure of McLaws, resulted in Kershaw's promotion to division
command. Generals Lee, Longstreet, and Kershaw all recommended Nance
to fill Kershaw's shoes as brigade commander. Apparently Nance and
Colonel John Henagan of the 8th South Carolina alternated command of
the brigade while Nance's promotion to brigadier general remained hung
up in the Richmond bureaucracy for the rest of Nance's life.
Colonel Nance was one of several officers in the brigade who
attended a New Year's Eve Party with dinner and dancing. The next day,
Nance reflected upon the "sad reverses" that occurred to his country
during the just ended year of 1863. He concluded that there might be
a hidden purpose behind the defeats. "God's ways are not as ours; and
he often wounds that he may heal."
During the winter, Nance approved furloughs for several men to go
home to get married until he became suspicious that the men were simply
using this as an excuse to go home. Before denying a furlough, Nance
checked with his sister-in-law who was "much interested in all that
concerns the state of marriage." He decided to only approve leave for
those men already engaged. His sister was concerned about his status
as a bachelor. He responded that he was too busy with army
responsibilities to seek a girlfriend and assumed she didn't want him
to marry someone he didn't love.
In April of 1864, Longstreet's Corps rejoined Lee's army in Central
Virginia. On the afternoon of May 4th, Longstreet's men began a long
march toward The Wilderness. A major battle broke out on May 5th and
the next morning General A.P. Hill's Corps began to crumble under the
immense pressure of a Union attack along the Plank Road. About 6:00 a.m.,
Longstreet's Corps with Kershaw's Brigade in the lead, dramatically
arrived at almost the last possible moment to stabilize the situation. The 3rd
South Carolina formed in the woods with its left on the Plank Road
opposite the clearing of the Tapp Farm. By 9 o'clock, the brigade had
advanced several hundred yards to some trenches built the previous
day by Hill's men. As Nance stood behind the knee high breastworks
cheering his men, five bullets struck him. Captain D. Augustus
Dickert lay wounded a few yards from the lifeless body of his
commander and hero. He considered Nance "the best all around soldier
in Kershaw's Brigade."
A small monument on the battlefield reflects the high opinion that
the men had of him. It is one of only about a half dozen monuments
on the entire battlefield. It is assumed that members of the regiment
placed the monument on the spot where Nance fell, but their is no
information as to who put up the monument and when.
In the early 1990's it looked as if the monument would be relocated
to make way for a huge residential development. The National Park
Service traded property with the developers so that the historically
significant strip of land on the south side of the Plank Road where
the 3rd South Carolina fought could be preserved forever. The monument
reminds us of men like Nance who sealed "their devotion to their
country, and its cause, with their own life's blood." They "have not
died in vain" and will not be forgotten.
Catawba Wateree Genealogical Society