Did you know… Adelbert Ames?

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The American Civil War

Adelbert Ames( October 31, 1835 – April 13, 1933) was a Federal Civil War brevet major general, the last full general of the Civil War alive in 1933.

After Michael Shaara’s book, “Killer Angels”, and the subsequent Gettysburg movie, everyone has heard of Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine. Lesser known is Adelbert Ames, the previous commander of the 20th, and a Medal of Honor recipient for his role at the First Battle of Manassas.

Ames was born in 1835 in Rockland, Knox County, Maine, about eighty miles north of Portland, and sixty-five miles south of Brewer, where Chamberlain was born. His father was a seaman, and the family invested in clipper ships before buying the Ames Mill, which later famously produced the Malt-O-Meal cereal product. Adelbert grew up smelling the sea air, working onboard ship, and spent a brief time as a merchant marine before entering West Point. He graduated in May 1861, fifth in a class of forty-five, and took his place as a junior officer with the 5th US Artillery under Griffin.

First Manassas

Only three months after graduation, Ames got his baptism of fire in the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run). Griffin’s Battery D was ordered to bombard Henry House Hill, and later fall back to Dogan’s Ridge. The artillery battle lasted for hours – 11 guns engaged in a fierce artillery duel across 300 yards (270 m) against Stonewall Jackson’s 13. Unlike many engagements in the Civil War, here the Confederate artillery had an advantage. The Union pieces were now within range of the Confederate smoothbores and the predominantly rifled pieces on the Union side were not effective weapons at such close ranges, with many shots fired over the head of their targets. Ames took a minie ball in the right thigh. He refused to leave the gun he commanded. He did not receive his Medal of Honor until 1894, but the citation reads: “Remained upon the field in command of a section of Griffin’s Battery, directing its fire after being severely wounded and refusing to leave the field until too weak to sit upon the caisson where he had been placed by men of his command.

Looking down from Marye’s Heights

Ames longed for higher command and realized that advancement would not come in the artillery, so he petitioned for a transfer to infantry. On August 20, 1862, his transfer was granted, to the 20th Maine. At Antietam, the regiment was held in reserve and saw little fighting. At Fredericksburg, Ames led one of the last charges up Marye’s heights, where a Confederate gunner had boasted, “A chicken could not live upon that field once we opened fire on it.” Ames was given command of the 20th Maine after Antietam.

At the battle of Chancellorsville, Ames was detailed as an aide-de-camp for General Meade, leaving Joshua Chamberlain to famously take over command of the 20th. Meade’s influence got him the rank of brigadier general.

At Gettysburg, Ames recovered the error of Francis Barlow, who had moved through the town to what is now known as Barlow’s Knoll, too far in front of the remainder of IX Corps. As Ewell battered the regiment, Barlow was wounded and captured. Ames took command, engaging the enemy as he retreated to Cemetery Hill. The following day, Ames took part in the hand to hand combat. The 20th Maine presented him with their battle flag in appreciation.

Ames was transferred to the department of the South, and saw action in Carolina and Florida, before being again transferred to the Army of the James and taking part in the Siege of Petersburg. He came under the command of General Benjamin Franklin Butler, “the Beast of New Orleans”, and later married Butler’s daughter, Blanche.

Fort Fisher

In one of his final acts of heroism in the war, Ames led the assault on Fort Fisher, fearlessly exposing himself out front. The majority of his staff died from Confederate sniper’s bullets all around him, but Ames came through unscathed.

Following the war, Ames was appointed military governor of Mississippi, with his command later extended to Arkansas. Ames tried to safeguard and advance the rights of African Americans in his territory, and was elected to the United States Senate following Mississippi’s re-admission to the Union. During his first term as senator, he married Blanche, and later had six children.

Gathering the dead after the Colfax Massacre, Harper’s Weekly

He was elected governor of Mississippi (January 4, 1874-March 29, 1876). Even his enemies agreed that the governor had impeccable integrity, was incorruptible, and sincere. Blanche hated the heat and humidity of the South and at first, declined to join him, staying with her father’s family in the Lowell, Massachusetts area. Later she came and wrote a series of letters detailing her experiences as a Northern woman living in the South during Reconstruction. Ames was in constant strife with the Democrats of the South, who opposed Reconstruction policies that favored African American rights. A rebellion of Democratic whites against the state militia, mostly black, led to the Colfax Massacre, in which 150 blacks were killed.

Ames tried to restore peace by negotiation, but the white Democrats did not keep their end of the bargain, terrorizing anyone who might vote Republican to keep them from the polls in the next election. When Ames did not budge, the Democrats drew up arguments of impeachment, attempting to prove embezzlement and malfeasance. The case fell flat since everyone knew Ames was honest, but it was clear that the Democrats would gain removal by terror if necessary. Ames worked out a deal that he would resign if all charges were dropped.

Once out of office, Ames went north to Minnesota for a time, encountering Jesse James, who targeted the bank holding Ames’s investments simply because he was there – Ames helped defeat the robbery. Finding no peace, he moved on to New York City, and then to Massachusetts.

Ames was called back into military service during the Spanish American War, and was at the Battle of San Juan Hill, assuming command of the 1st Division of V Corps at the siege of Santiago. Ames died in 1933 at the age of 97, at his winter home in Florida, but was brought back to Massachusetts for burial.

Ames suffered at the hands of John F. Kennedy in “Profiles in Courage”, where Kennedy, relying on inaccurate revisionist Reconstruction history wrote of Ames in Mississippi: “No state suffered more from carpet-bag rule than Mississippi …,” Kennedy wrote in Profiles in Courage. “His administration was sustained and nourished by Federal bayonets.” When Ames’s daughter made Kennedy aware of his error, he ignored her. Ames was the great grandfather of George Plimpton, who petitioned Kennedy on his ancestor’s behalf.

Lord, Stuart B. “Adelbert Ames, Soldier and Politician: a Reevaluation.” Maine Historical Society Quarterly 13(2) (1973): 81–97.

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