Civil War Captain Died Trying to Spare A Life

In the ungentlemanly business of war, Capt. James Rickards did the noble thing and paid the price.

One can be too gentlemanly. In fact, that might have been James Rickards’ last thought. During the Civil War Battle of Antietam, Rickards, a captain in the First Delaware Infantry, stopped a subordinate from shooting what seemed to be an injured enemy. “You wouldn’t shoot a wounded man!” he cried, just as the rebel raised his own weapon. Rickards seems to have entered the Army as an unknown. But, in 1861, he appears on the roll of the first of 10 regiments raised by Delaware for the Union army. What is reported in the regimental history suggests an educated man of some sophistication. Initially, the First Regiment was a 90-day unit, raised in response to Lincoln’s call for volunteers to put down the rebellion. Mustered in May, it spent the next three months guarding railroad lines against insurgents. By August, when the 90-day regiment was discharged, it had become obvious that the war would take more time. Union forces were defeated in July at the First Battle of Bull Run. Most of the men re-enlisted for three years. Rickards was appointed second lieutenant in Company B, suggesting a man of some maturity who had likely also served the first time around. In October, the new regiment was assigned to Fort Monroe near Norfolk, Va., where it spent the winter. “The usual monotony of a winter camp did not manifest itself to any great extent in our regiment,” wrote regimental historian William Seville. “The energy of the men was … conspicuous in devising methods of passing the time.”

The religiously inclined organized a Soldiers Christian Association, which held frequent meetings “with spirit and fervor.” But Seville listed Rickards among the “mirthfully inclined.” He and another lieutenant sought and received permission to build a theater. “In the course of a few weeks,” reported Seville, “a building was completed large enough to seat 400 persons, provided with a roomy stage, shifting scenery, a drop curtain, appropriately painted, an orchestra enclosure, chandeliers equipped with tin sconces for candles, footlights and dressing rooms.” The opener was “La Tour de Nesle” by Alexandre Dumas, concerning a 14th-century scandal in which a French king’s three daughters-in-law were charged with adultery. Rickards played a Norman knight who was gruesomely executed for his role. “Lt. Rickards (also) won for himself quite an enviable reputation as a comedian in the part of Diggory in the ‘Spectre Bridegroom’ and in the comic roles of other pieces,” recalled Seville, who wrote that tickets were in high demand and restricted to those with good disciplinary reports. It was mostly a time of waiting. In March 1862, members of the regiment stood on rooftops at Newport News, Va., to watch the ironclads Monitor and Merrimack battle it out. “One of the facetious boys of Company F pronounced [Monitor] ‘a cheese box on a raft,’” wrote Seville.

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Photo by Steve Boyden, Delaware Historical Society

1st Delaware Infantry Regimental Flag

About this time, Rickards was promoted to captain of Company C. In May, the First participated in the almost bloodless seizure of Norfolk, then was assigned to camp at Suffolk, Va., where proximity to the Great Dismal Swamp sickened three-quarters of the regiment. “The hospital was full to overflowing throughout the following month of August,” he wrote. In August 1862, things began to move. After Union forces lost another battle at Second Bull Run, a rebel army under Robert E. Lee moved north toward Maryland. Quickly, Union forces on the Virginia Peninsula got word to join in the pursuit. “All was bustle and activity in the camp thenceforth,” wrote Seville. By Sept. 17, the army had marched to a spot along Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Md. The First, with its brigade and division, crossed the creek, marched about a mile and formed into a line facing southwest. In their front was a cornfield, a post-and-rail fence and then a sunken road filled with five regiments of Alabama infantry. Beyond them was a hill crowned with rebel artillery. “Then was heard the command ‘Fix bayonets!’ and every man knew that, at last, he was about to meet the enemy in a deadly encounter,” recalled Seville. Their muskets were unloaded; this was to be a bayonet charge.

The Alabamans let the men of the First advance until they could see the eagles on their uniforms. The first volley killed or wounded almost a third of the First’s 708 men. The color guard, which carried the regimental flags, was wiped out, and the colors themselves lay on the ground. The First’s survivors retreated to the cornfield. Flags were a big deal during the Civil War. They showed where the regiment was located on a confused battlefield and, just as important, were seen as representing the unit in an almost spiritual way. Allowing the enemy to capture a regiment’s flags was a huge disgrace. Rickards and 30 volunteers charged from the corn to rescue the colors. As they neared the goal, Sgt. John Dunn noticed a rebel infantryman limping forward, using his musket as a crutch. “I’ll drop that fellow,” he told Rickards and raised his gun, which Rickards promptly slapped down. If there was any comfort to the men of the First, it might have been that the man who shot Rickards with his “crutch” died first in a hail of musket balls. Rickards lived a few minutes more. The flags, however, were retrieved, and Lt. Charles Tanner later received a Medal of Honor for his role. The remains of Rickards lay in state for two days at Wilmington’s city hall on Market Street, one of only two Delawareans so honored during the Civil War. The flags, now being preserved by the Delaware Historical Society, are just down the street.

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