James St. Clair Morton

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James St. Clair Morton
James St. Clair Morton.jpg
Brig. Gen. James St. Clair Morton
Born(1829-09-24)September 24, 1829
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
DiedJune 17, 1864(1864-06-17) (aged 34)
Petersburg, Virginia 
Place of burial
Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
AllegianceUnited States of America
Service/branchUnited States Army
Union Army
Years of service1851–1864
RankUnion Army brigadier general rank insignia.svg Brigadier General
Commands heldChief Engineer, Army of the Ohio

Pioneer Brigade, Army of the Cumberland

Chief Engineer, IX Corps
Battles/warsAmerican Civil War

James St. Clair Morton (September 24, 1829 – June 17, 1864) was an American soldier, engineer and writer. He served as a general in the Union Army during the American Civil War, primarily serving in the Western Theater.

Early life and career[edit]

Morton was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Samuel George Morton and Rebecca Pearsall, the oldest of eight children. At the age of 14, he entered the University of Pennsylvania and when he was 18, he attended the United States Military Academy, where, in 1851, he graduated 2nd in a class of 42.[1] He was assigned to the Corps of Engineers and was the assistant engineer of construction of forts around Charleston, SC, such as Fort Sumter, from 1851 to 1852. Afterwards, he was the assistant engineer of construction at Fort Delaware until 1855, when he returned to the United States Military Academy to teach as an assistant professor of mathematics and military engineering for two years.[2][3] On April 1, 1854, Morton was promoted to second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers.[2]

Rejecting the contemporary military strategy of the time, Morton became a strong advocate of Dennis Hart Mahan and was considered one of his best-known students. He would write essays to Secretary of War John B. Floyd regarding Mahan's principals, and on request from Floyd, evaluated Colonel Joseph Totten's plans to defend New York City.[2] The findings were presented to Floyd in his Memoir on the Dangers and Defenses of New York City, which showed that improvement was needed.[4]

After leaving the United States Military Academy, Morton would be the chief engineer of the Sandy Hook Lighthouse district in New Jersey. Once his work there was completed, he was appointed by the Department of the Interior as chief engineer of the Washington Monument and the water works in the District of Columbia.[5] During this time, Morton would also be promoted to first lieutenant.

In 1860, Morton was selected by the Navy Department to examine the Chiriquí Province in Central America for the possibility of a railroad across the Isthmus of Panama. He concluded from his findings that it was possible, but contracted malaria while in the area.

While recovering in Washington, Morton was sent in March 1861 to Dry Tortugas, Florida to act as the supervising engineer for Fort Jefferson.[6] With the orders to put the fort into fighting condition, he attempted to help conceive a 420-gun fort and was promoted to captain on August 6, 1861.[3] When malaria affected Morton again in early 1862, he returned to Washington to recover. Once he was well, he helped with the repairs at Fort Mifflin, Pennsylvania.[3]

Civil War[edit]

In May 1862, Morton was assigned to the Army of the Ohio as chief engineer under General Don Carlos Buell. He immediately began construction of fortifications around Nashville, Tennessee and was ordered to stay and complete construction while the Army of the Ohio marched to Kentucky. The construction of these defenses, named Fort Negley, would take three months to complete and would become the largest inland masonry fort of the time.[7]

When General Buell was relieved of command in October 1862, Morton would become chief of engineers of the Army of the Cumberland under General William S. Rosecrans. Rosecrans, who was facing engineering problems, decided to organize the Pioneer Brigade, with the intentions of forming an engineer unit. This brigade would be composed of mechanics and laborers, totaling 2,600 men. They were ordered to train in Nashville for a month and on November 29, 1862, Morton was commissioned as Brigadier General of Volunteers, a position which President Abraham Lincoln had promised him.[5]

Stones River[edit]

In late December, about 1,700 men of the Pioneer Brigade would join the rest of the Army of the Cumberland on its march to Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Arriving on the outskirts of the city on the 29th, they were ordered to build bridges and abatis, to clear roads, and improve fords. On the morning of the 31st, the Pioneer Brigade was positioned to the rear of the Union army. Around mid-day, the brigade was ordered forward to support Captain James Stokes' Chicago Board of Trade Battery, which was positioned on a small knoll west of the Nashville Turnpike, behind the center of the Union lines. Upon arriving, they witnessed hundreds of fleeing soldiers, with the Confederate forces reforming for another attack. The Pioneer Brigade was immediately behind the front lines now and from their position, had a clear view of open ground in front of them, offering Stokes' battery a deadly advantage.

When the Confederates launched the attack, Morton ordered Stokes' battery to open fire with canister, which effectively drove the attackers away. He then advanced to a rise and held it under the fire of enemy artillery.

Stones River, January 2nd, 1863

This repulse helped General Rosecrans buy time as he regrouped stragglers and brought up fresh units to reform the line. While he was doing this, three more charges were thrust upon the forward line, with the last charge finally breaking them, causing them to retreat back to the turnpike. Morton had his brigade form upon Stokes' battery again. Once Rosecrans had formed a new line, the Pioneer Brigade and Stokes' battery were re-adjusted to fit the line, being moved to the front of the turnpike and the right of the new line. Additional troops that had been rallied were brought to the right of Morton.

As the front line continued to withdraw, they appeared from the woods directly in front of Morton and then slowly took refuge behind his lines. The Confederates, still in pursuit, began to appear from the woods, allowing Stokes' battery to open fire with canister. Morton rode to the front of his troops and said, "Men, you haven't much ammunition, but give them what you have and then wade in on `em with the bayonets!" With that, the lines were ordered to stand and open fire, putting gaps into the oncoming Confederate lines. The lines wavered and then began to withdraw. Upon seeing the success, Rosecrans order the brigade to charge forward and occupy the fields just outside the woods. The Confederates rallied three times and pressed forward again, but each time, were forced back.

The following day brought the New Year, with only minor skirmishing. The Pioneer Brigade was ordered to the rear and allowed to rest.

On January 2, Confederate General John C. Breckinridge attacked the Union left center and was successful in capturing a number of guns. As the Pioneer Brigade moved towards the action, the Confederates had already begun retreating, and Morton had his brigade participate in their pursuit.

The Confederates withdrew from the city on the 4th, leaving the Union victorious. Morton would report 12 killed and 23 wounded. In addition, Stokes' battery had 3 killed and 10 wounded.[8]

After the battle, Morton supervised the construction of Fortress Rosecrans, doing so until June 1863. Covering 200 acres, these earthworks would become the largest fort built during the Civil War.

Tullahoma Campaign and Chickamauga[edit]

While Morton and the Pioneer Brigade did not have a large role in the Tullahoma Campaign, their record would be marred by some incidents that occurred, including drunkenness among the ranks. He would also be reprimanded for delaying General Alexander McCook's XX Corps, which got stuck behind the Pioneer Brigade. McCook would personally take this to Rosecrans, who would scold Morton in front of other officers while at his headquarters.

Despite this, Morton was promoted to major in the Regular Army on July 3, 1863.

During the Battle of Chickamauga, the Pioneer Brigade fell into the wrong place again, this time in front of retreating Union troops. Morton had been ordered to survey the front by Rosecrans, and after getting separated from the General, found himself among General McCook's troops, which were to the right of General James Longstreet's breakthrough of the Union lines. Morton and the Pioneer Brigade soon got caught up in the retreat, despite having just been pulled up.

This embarrassment to the army brought about a number of demotions and transfers. Morton, who had been slightly wounded while standing near Rosecrans during the battle, was not immediately relieved of his command. However, on October 10, he was relieved and General William Farrar Smith took his place.

After seeking a transfer, which was denied, Morton requested that he be reduced in rank, from his volunteer rank of brigadier general to his Regular Army rank of major. He was mustered out of the volunteer service on November 7, 1863[2]

Returning to Nashville on November 14, he served as the supervising engineer of construction of defenses in the area until January 30, 1864. Following this, he would act as assistant to the Chief Engineer in Washington until May.


Morton returned to the field in May, serving as the Chief Engineer in the IX Corps under General Ambrose Burnside. On June 17, 1864, during the Second Battle of Petersburg, Morton was surveying the area in front of General Orlando B. Willcox's division, which was about to attack, when he was shot in the chest and killed. His body was returned to Philadelphia and he was buried with military honors at Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Following his death, Morton received the following posthumous brevets in the Regular Army:

  • Brevet Lieutenant Colonel – for gallant and meritorious services at the Battle of Stones River, Tennessee (January 2, 1863)
  • Brevet Colonel – for good conduct at Chickamauga, Georgia (September 20, 1863)
  • Brevet Brigadier General – for gallant and meritorious services at the assault on Petersburg, Virginia (June 17, 1864)[3]


  1. ^ Callihan, David L. "They Did Their Work Bravely: Civil War Generals Buried in Pennsylvania". Heritage Books, 2004. pg. 48.
  2. ^ a b c d West, Mike. "Fabulous military career cut short". The Murfreesboro Post. Retrieved from http://www.murfreesboropost.com/fabulous-military-career-cut-short-cms-11132
  3. ^ a b c d "The Union Army (Volume 8); A History of Military Affairs in the Loyal States, 1861-65 – Records of the Regiments in the Union Army". General Books LLC, 2010.
  4. ^ Morton, James St. Clair. "Memoir on the Dangers and Defense of New York City: Addressed to the Hon. John B. Floyd, Secretary of War". Washington: W. A. Harris, 1858.
  5. ^ a b Fitch, John. "Annals of the Army of the Cumberland". Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1864. pgs. 180-181.
  6. ^ Reid, Thomas. America's Fortress. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. p. 43,62. ISBN 9780813030197.
  7. ^ Nashville Parks and Recreation. "Fort Negley"
  8. ^ Blakenmeyer, Geoffrey L., "The Pioneer Brigade" Archived September 1, 2009, at the Wayback Machine