I was first introduced to the legendary soldiers of the Late Unpleasantness as a new Civil War reader in the 1960s. Lee, Jackson, and Stuart; Grant and Sherman, certainly, but also more accessible lesser deities like Mosby, Pelham, Forrest, Semmes, and Gordon. For the generations before mine, particularly in the South, those and dozens more were household names. Today, most beyond the Big 5 are largely unknown.

Painted Chamberlayne portrait
JH Chamberlayne in Confederate Uniform
From an oil portrait by John Elder

One of the heroes I remember from that period, and still find often in my reading, was the young artillerist John Hampden (Ham) Chamberlayne (1838-1882). I expect his prominence is due to a collection of his war-era letters published by his son in 1932. These letters are quoted in later works on the Civil War in the East, as well.

He may not have been well known during the War, but his letters have helped make him immortal. Let me see if I can put some flesh on his bones.

Chamberlayne was born into a privileged Virginia family in 1838 in Richmond. His father Lewis Webb Chamberlayne was professor at the Virginia College of Medicine, and his mother the former Martha Burwell Dabney. Ham was one of only 4 of the couple’s 13 children to survive to adulthood. He was well educated at private schools in Richmond, and entered the University of Virginia in 1855, where he was a fraternity man and member of the Jefferson Literary Society. He graduated with an MA degree in 1858.

He then briefly taught at his old prep school, the Hanover Academy, and studied law.

During the period from July 1859 to April 1861 Ham Chamberlayne entered heartily into the political and social life of Richmond. A man of brilliant intellect and attractive personality, he made friends easily … among both men and women [which] were both deep and lasting. It was at this time that he fell in love with Lucy Gratton …

But no woman, however much she meant to him, held the first place in Ham Chamberlayne’s heart. That place was reserved for his native State, Virginia … His love for Virginia was the moving passion of his life, no less so in the seemingly hopeless period of Reconstruction than during the stirring years of War…

In March 1860 he passed the bar and began to practice law in Richmond.

Soon after the War began in Spring 1861, he enlisted as Private in Company F of the 21st Virginia Infantry regiment. The company had been formed as militia in Richmond in 1859 by fellow lawyer R. Milton Carey, so in it Ham was among friends. The company operated in defense of Richmond through the summer, then in the mountains of Western Virginia through the rest of the year without seeing action.

In 1862 he transferred, as Sergeant, to the Purcell Artillery: an elite outfit soon to be commanded by “Willie” Pegram, another former Company F soldier. In June of that year he was commissioned Lieutenant and appointed Assistant Adjutant General on the staff of Colonel R.L. Walker in command of the Corps Artillery, but from the Seven Days (25 June-1 July) through Maryland Campaigns (5-21 September 62) he was detached to General A.P. Hill’s staff as Aide-de-Camp.

After Sharpsburg he wrote:

Shepherdstown Sept 19th [1862]

Dear Mother

I write very hurriedly on paper taken at Harpers Ferry. Since my letters from Fredk City I have been through a variety of wonderful events; we marched from Fredk to Wmsport, to Martinsburg, where I, with 3 of the Gen’s escort chased 30 Yankee pickets 2 miles; then we took Harpers Ferry: 46 splendid guns, 12000 prisoners; marched back to Maryland to Sharpsburg, where on the 17th inst we had an enormous battle all day, repulsed the enemy with great slaughter & then last night returned into Va.

I have had a multiple of adventures but time fails me now. I worked very hard at Harpers Ferry; all night once to get batteries on an “impracticable” mountain, then fought them at daylight for 1hr 35min when a white flag was raised. Gen Hill then did me the honor to send me in first to the enemy. I rode in, found Gen White the comdr, received & conducted him to Gen Hill. Since writing to you I have been often, perhaps always, dirty, tired, hungry but always in supreme health and spirits.

Col. Walker was sent down with trophies. I send this by James Cowardin. None of my personal friends except Gen W.E. Starke have been killed lately. He was killed 17th, Gen Sam. Garland 15th, both great losses.

Write whenever you can. I must go to sleep; in 50 hours I have slept 6. Quantities of love to Sr, Ht, Edd, & to Harvie & his, Hexalls, Grattans & all friends. Phil Jones is unhurt.

Address merely care Maj Gen A.P. Hill.
Don’t we make history fast.
Don’t know where we will go next.

Yours most affectionately,

J.H. Chamberlayne

My horse was hit at Harpers Ferry, not the Gray; so I got me a fine Yank, with a magnificent pistol a saddle & divers things.

Chamberlayne wartime photo
Captain Ham Chamberlayne (c.1864)

After fighting at Frederickburg and Chancellorsville, he was captured in combat at Gettysburg in July 1863 and imprisoned at Johnson’s Island, Ohio, and Point Lookout, Maryland. Released in 1864, he was promoted to Captain and commanded an artillery battery in the Army of Northern Virginia from July til War’s end in April 1865, fighting in the Wilderness, at Gaines’ Mill, and Petersburg.

After the war he tried to make a living by farming in Louisa County, Virginia, but could not make a go of it after 18 months …

… of hard work and extreme poverty, spent in the hopeless effort to extract from the none too generous soil of a small farm a living for his mother and one of his brothers and himself.

In 1867 he suffered a complete breakdown, needing a year to recuperate.

He briefly worked as a clerk for the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad in Radford, then took a job on the Petersburg Index newspaper in early 1869. This was the beginning of a career in journaliam which would carry him through the rest of his life.

In his last years he was active politically, being opposed to General William Mahone’s Readjuster movement, and served a term in the Virginia legislature. In 1873 he married Mary Walker Gibson, minister’s daughter, and was editor of the Norfolk Virginian. In 1876 he came home to Richmond, founding The State, an evening newspaper, which he owned and edited until his death in 1882.


Cannon decoration - Dietz


This masterful page decoration of cannon and flags is signed “Dietz” and is–as are the images and quotes above–from:

Ham Chamberlayne — Virginian. Letters and Papers of an Artillery Officer in the War for Southern Independence, 1861-1865. With Introduction, Notes, and Index by His Son C.G. [Churchill Gibson] Chamberlayne. Richmond, VA: Press of the Dietz Printing Co., Publishers, 1932.

Further details for the Captain are from material accompanying the collection of his papers at the Virginia Historical Society, and as found in Four Years in the Confederate Artillery: The Diary of Private Henry Robinson Berkeley. William H. Runge, ed., University of North Carolina Press, 1961, and R.E.L. Krick’s Staff Officers in Gray: A Biographical Register of the Staff Officers in the Army of Northern Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

2 Responses to “Ham Chamberlayne: don’t we make history fast”

  1. John A. Miller says:

    J.H. Chamberlayne was actually captured on June 28, 1863 outside of Monterey Pass at a small town called Fountain Dale. He was one of several captured by members of Company C, Cole’s Cavalry led by Lt. William Horner. Ham was foraging for fresh horses and supplies while his battery remained in Fayetteville, PA. Didn’t know if you were interested in a blog posting I did several years ago. https://southmountaincw.wordpress.com/2010/03/23/the-skirmish-of-fountaindale/

  2. Brian says:

    Thank you, John – for the correction about Chamberlayne and for sharing the link to that post. That’s a great story!

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