Dictionary of Virginia Biography

James Dearing (25 April 1840–22 April 1865), Confederate army officer, was born at Otterburne, in Campbell County. His mother, Mary Anna Lynch Dearing, raised him and his siblings after his father, James Griffin Dearing, died in 1843. He attended two academies in the Lynchburg area and Hanover Academy, near Richmond, from which he graduated in 1858. Dearing received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point and in the summer of 1858 entered as a member of the class of 1862. He accrued ample demerits in each term, but excelled in mathematics, French, and English to sustain a ranking of thirteenth of fifty-six in his first term and sixteenth of fifty-four in his second.

Dearing resigned from the academy on 22 April 1861, shortly after publication of news that the Virginia Convention had voted to secede from the Union. He offered his services to the state, and the governor appointed him a second lieutenant in the Provisional Army of Virginia. Dearing subsequently became an officer in the Washington Artillery, a regiment recruited in Louisiana, and remained with that command for the first two years of the Civil War. He saw his first major action at the first Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) in July 1861. Not long thereafter Dearing caught the attention of a Richmond newspaper correspondent, who described him as a "tall, slight-built man, with a fair face and a good-natured, boyish expression that is decidedly winning," and added that he was "perfectly regardless of personal safety" and "a favorite with the men."

Dearing won election to the captaincy of the Lynchburg Artillery in April 1862 and fought at Williamsburg. At the Battle of Seven Pines (Fair Oaks) later that year, Major General James Longstreet singled him out for displaying "conspicuous courage and energy" on the battlefield. Heavy casualties in men and horses in the battery attested to the intensity of the contest and a consensus that the young Dearing had fully proved himself. He won promotion to major on 15 February 1863 and in June of that year was appointed to a panel to improve the artillery service.

During the 1863 campaign near Suffolk, Dearing's artillery battalion suffered serious losses. On the following 2 July at Gettysburg, he rode ahead of his command to assist Colonel Edward Porter Alexander, and the following day Dearing's guns supported Major General George Edward Pickett's charge on the center of the Union line. Before the opening of that salvo, Dearing rode along the firing line carrying a flag and encouraging his men. General Robert Edward Lee reportedly admonished him for needlessly placing himself in danger.

In January 1864 Dearing received a temporary promotion to colonel while serving as a cavalry commander under Pickett in the Department of North Carolina. While headquartered in Petersburg, Dearing met and on 27 January 1864 married Roxanna Birchett. They had one daughter, who married Frank Patteson Christian, later a judge of the Virginia Special Court of Appeals. Dearing received a commission as a lieutenant colonel on 5 April 1864 and was designated to command the horse artillery of the Army of Northern Virginia. Weeks later, on 29 April, he became a brigadier general in the division of Major General William Henry Fitzhugh "Rooney" Lee and served in the region between Richmond and Petersburg in cooperation with other commanders. He helped to deflect Union efforts to penetrate the defenses of Petersburg in June 1864. Dearing participated in Major General Wade Hampton's famed Beefsteak Raid near Petersburg in September 1864, and, although illness prevented him from taking the field at the end of the month, he also fought at Burgess Mill in October. Erroneous reports of his death in October led one writer to conclude, "General Dearing, though a mere youth, being only twenty-two years of age, was one of the rising men of the army."

While retreating with the army from Petersburg early in April 1865, Dearing and his brigade intercepted troops under the command of brevet Brigadier General Theodore Read who planned to destroy key bridges over the Appomattox River. On 6 April the opposing troops met near the High Bridge in Prince Edward County. During the fighting Dearing killed Read but received a bullet through his own lungs. While the Army of Northern Virginia retreated to Appomattox Court House and surrendered, Dearing was transported to a hospital in Lynchburg. There he had a tearful reunion with an old friend and fellow West Point cadet, United States brevet Major General Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, the only other member of their class who had become a general officer during the war. Mackenzie issued Dearing a pardon.

James Dearing died in a Lynchburg relief hospital on 22 April 1865, reportedly the last Confederate general officer to die of wounds sustained in the Civil War. He was buried in the family cemetery at Avoca, in Campbell County, but later was reinterred in Spring Hill Cemetery, in Lynchburg.

Sources Consulted:
William L. Parker, "Brigadier General James Dearing, C.S.A." (M.A. thesis, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, 1969), with birth date of 25 Apr. 1840 on 3 and death date of 22 Apr. 1865 on 83, and General James Dearing, CSA (1990), with variant birth date of 15 Apr. 1840 on 3, variant death date of 23 Apr. 1865 on 92, and portrait on 98; unsigned MS biography, n.d., in S. Bassett French Papers II, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg; numerous letters in Dearing Family Papers (1810–1927), Virginia Museum of History and Culture, Richmond; Official Register of the Officers and Cadets of the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, N.Y. (1859) 14, and (1860) 13; Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers (1861–1865), War Department Collection of Confederate Records, Record Group 109, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; Richmond Daily Dispatch, 15 Oct. 1861 (first quotation), 28 Oct. 1864 (third quotation); United States War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (1880–1901), 1st ser., esp. vol. 11, pt. 1:941 (second quotation), 18:334–335 and vol. 27, pt. 2:387–391 (battlefield reports dated 21 Apr. 1863 and 16 Aug. 1863, respectively), and vol. 46, pt. 1:1302–1303 (Fitzhugh Lee to Robert Edward Lee, 22 Apr. 1865, reporting Dearing's death); birth date of 25 Apr. 1840 and death date of 22 Apr. 1865 on gravestone; Diuguid Funeral Service and Crematory of Lynchburg Burial Records, 23 Apr. 1865; death notice in Lynchburg Virginian (extra ed.), 22 Apr. 1865.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Brian S. Wills.

How to cite this page:
Brian S. Wills, "James Dearing (1840–1865)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2022 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Dearing_James, accessed [today's date]).

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