James Lafayette Oakes Civil War Story

Canister Shot From Yankee Gun Lands In Society Museum Display

By Henry H. Mitchell


Resting in a display case in the Pittsylvania Historical Society Museum is a 35 mm (1-3/8 inch) ball with a painful history. The shot hit a tree before lodging in the back of the thigh of Pvt. James Lafayette Oakes, Co. B. 38th Virginia Infantry, during an engagement at Chester Station, VA, on May 10, 1864.

The shot resulted in no broken bones for Oakes, so he was able to walk a considerable distance to the field hospital, during which time the ball moved significantly in his leg. Surgical removal of the ball left a long black scar which Oakes carried for the rest of his life.

James Lafayette Oakes was born on September 19, 1836, at Callands, VA, to James Washington and Evaline Oakes. He enlisted on August 14, 1862, into Company B (”Pittsylvania Vindicators") of the 38th Virginia Infantry, Pickett’s Division, Longstreet's Corps.

After his injury at Chester Station, Oakes appeared on the register of the Chimborazo Hospital No. 2 in Richmond, from which he was given 40 days' medical furlough on June 10. He was listed on the register of the CSA General Hospital in Danville, VA, on October 18, from where he was transferred on November 26 to the Pettigrew General Hospital No. 13 in Raleigh. He was paroled April 26, 1865, from a hospital in Thomasville, NC.

Oakes returned to farming at Riceville, VA and then at Chestnut Level, PA. He had first married Mary Ann Elizabeth Gardner of Callands, VA, on January 31, 1860; their children were George (b. 11/08/1860), Laura (1/18/1862), and married a Hamlet T), and William Thomas (7/12/67). He then married Nannie Ellen Eddy of Boone's Mill, VA, on May 15, 1870; their children were Mary Evaline "Molly" (6/12/71, married name:Moon), Eddie Lafayette (4/24/73), James David (12/244/74), Gillie Jane (9/28/78, married name: Dalton), John Calvin (2/29/80); Belle Boyd (2/11/83 married name: Ford); Walter Whittle (11/24/86); and Ernest Norman (1/17/90).

It can be speculated that James Oakes gave three of his children Civil War inspired names: Belle Boyd from the famous Confederate spy; Walter Whittle probably from Lt. Col. Powhatan Whittle, commanding officer of the 38th from 1861 through Gettysburg; and Ernest Norman (by his own report) after a now-unidentified fellow soldier and friend of James.

James Lafayette Oakes died August 23,1920 at the age of 83, and is buried at Chestnut Level Baptist Church. He left the canister ball in the possession of his son, Norman, who, in tum, gave it to his grand-nephew, Terry Lee Oakes of Blairsville, PA (son of Woodrow, grandson of Walter, and great-grandson of James L. Oakes), who placed the ball on loan to the collection of the Rawley Martin Chapter UDC for display in the Pittsylvania Historical Society Museum.