By Mac Bryan
Born in Ireland, Pvt. James Allen mustered into service with Company F of the 16th New York Regiment on April 24, 1861 at Potsdam, in upstate New York at the tender age of 17. During Allen’s enlistment his regiment participated in all the battles of the Army of the Potomac from First Bull Run to Chancellorsville, until his term of service expired in 1863.
Fighting at Crampton’s Gap
During the Maryland Campaign of 1862, the 16th New York Infantry was assigned to Col. Joseph Bartlett’s Brigade, Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum Division of the VI Corps. On September 13th Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan ordered Maj. Gen. William Franklin, commander of VI Corps and some 12,000 troops, to move at daybreak to Crampton’s Gap about mid-way between Turner’s Gap and Harpers Ferry. Once there to seize the gap as soon as practical and when successful, to move into Pleasant Valley on the west side of South Mountain with the general idea of being in position to aid the garrison at Harper’s Ferry or to support efforts in cutting the confederate army “in two and defeating it in detail.”
At Three o’clock on the 14th of September, Gen. Franklin sent the division of Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum forward to attack confederate defenders stretched across a half mile of stone wall bordering the Mountain Church Road at the foot of Crampton’s Gap with Col. Joseph Bartlett’s Brigade on the far right taking the lead. The hill in front of them rose sharply, rising nearly 400 feet above the village of Burkittsville at the summit and was largely covered by wood lots providing cover for the few southern defenders.
According to Pvt. Allen first hand report, “The charge was made through a cornfield of large growth, and on going in our color-sergeant was killed by a bullet in the forehead. After entering the corn a comrade and myself by mistake became detached from the company, and when near a stone wall at the base of the mountain we learned that we were alone with a large squad of the enemy directly in our front.”
“Turning to me my comrade said with a grimace: ‘Now what have we to do, Jim?’ Charge the wall I reckon. That was what we came for. He was willing, and the two of us represented the Second Brigade at this particular point, being so fortunate as to drive the enemy from cover.”
“After gaining a few rods beyond the wall, my comrade had his left leg broken above the knee by a bullet, from which wound he afterward died. I helped the poor boy to a tree which would shelter him somewhat, and continued the charge alone up the rugged side of the mountain only a few rods behind the enemy, until they reached the road which led through the pass, where was a wall about seven feet high on the lower side, over which they went, leaping down into the highway. Then one of them turned and fired at me, cutting my coat and shirt, and grazing the skin under my right arm.”
“I stopped to load my gun, and while doing so came to the conclusion that it wasn’t safe to stay there alone, when only about five rods separated me from the squad, so I did my level best to get under cover of the wall. Once there, I was at a loss to decide what would be the next best move. To beat a retreat now would simply be to invite death, for the Confederates evidently thought there were more behind me, otherwise they never would have run from one man, and it seemed as if my wisest course was to let them continue in the same train of thought.”
“I made a sudden dash over the wall, and landed in the road in the midst of fourteen members of the 16th Georgia Regiment, one of whom was the color-sergeant, and seeing the flag I made up my mind to get it if possible.”
“I ordered them to surrender as boldly as if the entire division was at my back, and after some little hesitation, induced by my threats of what might happen, they complied. I took the colors from the sergeant, ordered the men to stack their arms, hang the cartridge boxes on the guns, and you can fancy I got between them and the weapons without loss of time.”
“I was having quite an interesting conversation with them when my colonel rode up the road, for I had gained a position far in advance of the regiment, and I told him he had better take charge of the prisoners; but he ordered me to hold on until he sent a detachment to carry them to the rear.”
“In a few moments I was relieved of what might have proved a troublesome charge if they had taken it into their heads to overpower me before the colonel came, and, retaining the colors, proceeded up the mountain.”
“On reaching the summit I rejoined my company and reported to the captain, showing the flag as proof of what I had done.”
For his initiative and bravery, Allen was promoted to corporal and received the medal of honor on September 11, 1890. Cpl. Allen passed away on August 31, 1913 at the age of 70 and is buried in Oakland Cemetery in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“Singlehandedly and slightly wounded he accosted a squad of 14 Confederate soldiers bearing the colors of the 16th Georgia Infantry (C.S.A.). By an imaginary ruse he secured their surrender and kept them at bay when the regimental commander discovered him and rode away for assistance.”