On 24th April 1861, 17 year-old James Allen enlisted in the army at Potsdam, New York. Joining Company F of the 16th New York Infantry, he would see action in all the major battles of the Army of the Potomac from Bull Run to Chancellorsville. He was discharged at the end of his term on 26th May 1863. Allen’s most notable day in the service took place on 14th September 1862, when he was engaged with his regiment at the Battle of South Mountain, Maryland. Allen’s extraordinary actions would eventually see him awarded the Medal of Honor. (1)

Private James Allen, 16th New York Infantry

Private James Allen, 16th New York Infantry

James Allen was born in Ireland on 5th May, 1843. In September 1862 the then 19-year old was part of the Union force attempting to prise the Confederates from the South Mountain passes, as the Army of the Potomac attempted to fall on the then divided Army of Northern Virginia. Allen and his comrades in the 16th New York found themselves facing the enemy in Crampton’s Gap. He and his brigade advanced towards the Rebel positions under cover of a hedge and cornfield, where they formed into line of battle and prepared to advance. (2)

The 16th New York moved through the unharvested corn and towards the enemy who were positioned at the base of the mountain. They began to come under combined fire from Rebel artillery and infantry, with the latter located behind a stone wall and in a wood to their front. What became a forty-five minute firefight developed, and casualties began to mount. The regiment’s color-sergeant fell dead, shot through the forehead by a bullet. As the regiment realigned itself in the tall corn, Allen and one of his comrades named Richards became separated, and suddenly found themselves alone near the stone wall. Richards turned to the Irishman, asking “Now what have we to do, Jim?”. Allen replied: “Charge the wall, I reckon. That was what we came for.” (3)

They both charged forward at a group of Rebels behind the wall, who assumed the soldiers were part of a larger force. Much to the two Federals surprise, the enemy turned tail and fled. While pursuing the retreating Confederates Richards went down, struck with what would turn out to be a mortal wound in his left leg. Placing him against a tree, the Irishman continued to advance up the slope of the mountain. As the Rebels moved into the pass proper, one turned and fired, cutting Allen’s coat and shirt and grazing the skin of his right arm. Undeterred by his narrow escape, Allen stopped to load his gun and continue the fight. At this point the Irishman suddenly realized how horribly exposed he was. He quickly sought cover behind a wall that ran along the pass, behind which lay the enemy. There James Allen pondered his next move, one which would be the most important of his life. Retreat was not an option, as it would expose him to Confederate fire, and would make clear to the Rebels that they were being assailed by a solitary soldier. He saw only one possible way out. (4)

Allen decided that the best course of action was to continue to fool the Confederates into believing they faced superior numbers. In order to do this he had to maintain his confident display, and there was only one way to achieve this. No doubt after a deep intake of breadth, Allen threw himself over the wall and into the midst of the Confederates. Regaining his wits, he found himself confronted by 14 soldiers of the 16th Georgia Infantry. One of the men carried the regiment’s colors, and Allen determined to take it as a prize. He roared at the Rebels to surrender, doing so in such an authoritative and threatening manner that all the men complied. He retrieved the colors, and ordered his prisoners to stack their arms and remove their cartridge boxes. Once this was achieved, the Irishman quickly interposed himself between the Confederates and their weapons. (5)

Allen and his Confederate prisoners were engaged in conversation when Colonel Seaver of the 16th New York rode up. The commanding officer sent for a detachment to take control of the prisoners, and Private Allen continued up the mountain with his unit, still carrying the enemy colors with him. The fighting for the day was concluded, and the young Irishman had successfully pulled off a master-stroke of deception. Seaver was impressed enough to mention the incident in his official report. James Allen continued to serve following his discharge from the 16th New York in 1863, spending the final two years of the war as a member of the military railroad service. However, nothing would match his experience of 14th September 1862. (6)

James Allen was promoted to Corporal for his actions at Crampton’s Gap. Greater recognition was to follow on 11th September 1890, when the Irishman was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. His citation read: Single-handed and slightly wounded he accosted a squad of 14 Confederate soldiers bearing the colors of the 16th Georgia Infantry (C.S.A.). By an imaginary ruse he secured their surrender and kept them at bay when the regimental commander discovered him and rode away for assistance. After the war Allen moved to St. Paul, Minnesota where he lived at 173 South Wabasha Street, becoming a member of the Garfield Post of the Grand Army of the Republic. The color he captured ended up in Washington, and in later life Allen made efforts to secure the flag as a family heirloom, even making representations to Congress in relation to it. The courageous Irishman lived into his seventies, passing away on 31st August, 1913. He is buried in Oakland Cemetery, St. Paul, Minnesota. (7)

(1) Jones 1897:137; (2) Jones 1897:138, Official Records; (3) Jones 1897:138, Official Records, St. Paul Globe; (4) Jones 1897:138; (5) Jones 1897:138-139 (6) Jones 1897:139 (7) Jones 1897:139, Broadwater 2007: 8, St. Paul Globe;

References & Further Reading

Broadwater, Robert P. 2007. Civil War Medal of Honor Recipients

Congressional Medal of Honor Society

Jones, J. W. 1897. The Story of American Heroism: Thrilling Narratives of Personal Adventures During the Civil War

The Saint Paul Globe 4th September 1896. Badges of Daring, The Medal of Honor Conferred by Congress on American Soldiers. One St. Paul Man Wears One.

Official Records Series 1, Volume 19 (Part 1), Chapter 31. Report of Lieut. Col. Joel J. Seaver, Sixteenth New York Infantry, of the battle of Crampton’s Pass

Chronicling America

Civil War Trust Battle of South Mountain Page

James Allen Find A Grave Record