Harris, James

15th & 32nd New York Independent Battery
Private, Artillery

James Harris
15th and 32nd Independent Battery

Born in Ireland in 1834, James Harris later immigrated with his family to the Yaphank area. He left his work as a waiter to enlist in the Union Army on May 16, 1863. Harris was twenty-nine years old at the time, and stood only five feet four inches tall. Despite his small stature, he was fired up to be a soldier in Mr. Lincoln's army, to join the cause and right the wrongs that so many were rallying around.

He was mustered into service in New York City, and was assigned to the 15th Independent Battery. He was one of several "Middle Island boys" to join this unit. In February of 1863 Captain McMahon had been replaced by Captain Patrick Hart, the unit would now be called Hart's Battery. The unit distinguished itself on the battlefield at Gettysburg, Following Gettysburg the battery was engaged at Rappahannock Station and Mine Run. The unit was then sent to Culpeper, Virginia where it stayed for the winter months.

In early May the battery, which was equipped with four brass guns, twelve pounder smooth bores, called Napoleons was assigned to General Grant's Army of the Potomac. Grant was now in constant pursuit of Confederate forces led by Robert E. Lee. They participated in the Wilderness campaign, and saw action at the North Anna River where they sustained several casualties. From here they moved on to Cold Harbor, where they suffered two men killed in some of the most brutal fighting of the war. The Battery The battery was active during the siege of Petersburg, which began in June of 1864. The 15th was close to the front, exposing the men to Confederate artillery. During the long siege, the battery suffered six casualties.

By this time, Grant was closing in on Lee, capturing key railroad junctions. Lee depended on the rail lines and ordered a counter attack in order to try and take back the Weldon Railroad. On August 18, 1864, the 15th battery left camp and moved to reinforce the Weldon Railroad. The next day, Confederate forces attacked but were repulsed by the Union artillery. On August 20, the battery began to throw up earthworks in front of the guns preparing for the next Confederate assault. Sure enough, the Confederates attacked on August 21, coming almost right up to the gun emplacements before being repulsed.

The Union line held, but paid a high price. The 15th Battery alone suffered 11 casualties in this engagement. Harris was struck in the left hip by a minie ball during this attack. The ball lodged against the right side of his spine. Pieces of bone broke off his spine completely. He was rendered disabled and was evacuated to Slough Barracks Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia.

In his report of the incident, Brigadier General Ayres detailed the fighting of the Fifth Army Corps at Weldon Railroad:

I have the honor to submit the following statement of the operations of this division on the 18th, 19th, and 21st of August, 1864, along the Weldon railroad:
The division took the advance along the road after reaching it, the First and Second Brigades forming the line of battle near the Blick house, the Fifteenth New York Artillery in support. It was then advanced about 1,100 yards, when the skirmishers began to engage those of the enemy. The enemy also opened with artillery. Soon after reaching the front edge of the woods the enemy's line of battle struck mine, outflanking it. I threw forward the Fifteenth New York into the line and two brigades formed around it. The enemy after persistent efforts was repulsed, leaving his dead in our hands… The Fifteenth New York Artillery was steady and cool.

In the afternoon of the 19th the enemy attacked in two divisions-one on my front, one to my right. The division which attacked my front was repulsed and a color captured. The enemy broke through several hundred yards to the right and swept down our rifle pits; carrying away General Hayes and about 250 of his men. I drew back a portion of my command, forming in line on the rising ground to the rear of the batteries…

During the night of the 20th the division was occupied in throwing down the works, slashing in front, and building a new line on the crest of the rising ground in the rear. Early in the morning the enemy commenced pushing the pickets, and about 8:30 a.m. opened with a heavy artillery fire on the front along the railroad and also from a position on the Vaughn road, crossing the fire at right angles over our position. Shortly after a heavy force of infantry attacked from the Vaughn road at right angles to the railroad. This attack, well to my left, was easily and splendidly repulsed, several hundred prisoners and a number of colors captured… Captain Hart, Fifteenth New York Independent Battery, served with distinction on the 21st

Harris, James
Weldon Railroad, the scene of fierce fighting as Lee tried to recapture the rail line.

After this incident, a wounded Harris was sent to New York to recuperate. On March 26, 1865, Harris was put in the 4th Company 2nd battalion of the Veteran Reserve Corp, also known as the Invalid Corp. Harris stayed here until he was discharged on July 14, 1865.

James Harris returned home to his wife. As time went on, however, his condition grew worse and medical attention became necessary. In November of 1869, at the age of 35, James Harris was admitted to the Asylum in Augusta, Maine. He returned to Yaphank for a while, but was later sent to the Central Branch Veterans Hospital where he passed away on August 16, 1892 at the age of 58.

Union gun emplacements at the Weldon Railroad.

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