James Merrifield, Cited Twice for Bravery, One Medal of Honor
by Gordon Thorsby
The Field of Franklin
James K Merrifield says he was eighteen when he enlisted on 8 August, 1862 in Co. D of the 88th Illinois as Private. Let’s be specific. He was almost eighteen. His birthday was August 29th but being rangy at 5’10, light complexion, light colored hair and blue eyes, he was close enough and he was in. He was apparently farming in Illinois at that age. (Born in Hyde Park, PA in 1844.)
James and the 88th IL were in many of the toughest fights in the Western Theater of the Civil War. At Chickamauga, he and the 88th were in Lytle’s Brigade where the brigade sustained losses of 55 killed, 321 wounded, and 84 missing. At Chattanooga in ‘63, the 88th, after taking the rifle pits went up and took the ridge. They were at Kennesaw Mountain, Peach Tree Creek, and it was at Franklin that James Merrifield did something more.
The 88th was resting in the rear of the breastworks when the Confederate assault broke the first line. All of the 88th’s muskets were stacked loaded with the bayonets fixed. Brigade Commander Emerson Opdycke reported in his after action, “The enemy were following our troops with great celerity and force…The fighting was now heavy, and I commenced moving the command to the left of the pike. When I gave the order “First Brigade, forward to the works,” bayonets came down to a charge, the yell was raised, and the regiments rushed most grandly forward, carrying many stragglers back with them. We deployed as we charged, which took us up in echelon forward on the center. “On came fresh columns of the enemy and the musketry exceeded anything I ever heard; the powder smoke darkened the sunlight… The carnage was awful.”
Courtesy of American Battlefield Trust
Under the weight of Opdycke’s counter-attack, the Confederates began to retreat to the outside of the works. The horrible confrontation near the Carters lasted only 15-20 minutes. From other reports: “As Rebel prisoners and flags were being gathered up, Pvt. James K. Merrifield, a member of the 88th Illinois, vaulted the works and wove his way among the dead and wounded.
Recalled by Merrifield in the ‘Confederate Veteran’, ”General Cockrell’s Missouri Brigade attacked when I noticed a man carrying a flag go down.” I ran the first distance, leaned over and “I picked up the flag, pulled it off the staff and put it in my pocket. …A fine looking officer was there, covered with dead bodies asked me if I would remove them from his leg as he was wounded. I pulled the bodies off [Garland] and gave the officer a drink of water. The colonel asked me that his sword and belt be removed.”
Merrifield proceeded to make him comfortable and unbuckled his sword upon his request. Suddenly a bullet zipped past the two men. Merrifield saw another flag farther out in the field and grabbing it, looked up and saw “another line about about three hundred feet distant moving toward the Union position.” With both flags he ran back to the lines.
Opdycke’s report continued his after action report, “I twice stepped to the front of the works on the Columbia pike to see the effect of such fighting. I never saw the dead lay near so thick. I saw them upon each other, dead and ghastly in the powder-dimmed star-light. My pickets, under Major Holden, of the Eighty-eighth Illinois, remained an hour later, when he brought them off without annoyance.”
A Confederate officer, Capt. John M. Hickey witnessed the incident regarding Merrifield and reported in the ‘Confederate Veteran’, “I was with Captain of Co. M, 2nd/5th Missouri Infantry. My left leg was seriously wounded [amputated the next day on the field]. We were close to the cotton gin and not far from the Carter House. My wound was serious that I could not move or get away. I was also shot through the forearm that shattered both bones and received another shot in my left shoulder. The soldier straighted [Garland] out and gave him water to comfort him.” Both he and Garland could not move as bullets began whizzing by again at a ferocious level. Hickey survived but Garland did not as a second bullet moments later killed him instantly.
Merrifield mustered out June 9, in Nashville and a couple of years later, he was working as a train conductor on the Missouri Pacific between St. Louis and Kansas City when he was cited second time for bravery. The train was rolling along near the town of Housatonia when Merrifield spotted an approaching twister. He warned the passengers to get off the train. Within minutes, the tornado slammed into the rail cars throwing the entire train from the track, demolishing several cars and picking up Jim and throwing him an unknown distance away. His reward became his name; “Tornado” Jim and his name carries to this day.
Awarded this day, 3/21/1896, A medal of honor has been awarded James K. Merrifield, late corporal, company C, Eighty-eighth Illinois infantry, for gallantry in action at the battle of Franklin, Tenn., November 30, 1864. Mr. Merrifield captured two battle flags from the enemy and returned with them to the union lines.”
For Cause and Country: A Study of the Affair at Spring Hill and the Battle of Franklin, by Eric A. Jacobson and Richard A. Rupp, O’Moore Publishing, 2008,pp. 335-336.
1896 April 3: The Winston County Journal, Louisville, MS.
“An Excerpt from the Confederate Veteran”, 8/4/1899, The Mower City Transcript, Lansing, MN.,
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XLVI, Part 1.
Sources used by Historical Data Systems, Inc., P.O. Box 25, Duxbury, MA 02331.