by Randy Knox
The Medal of Honor is the United States of America’s highest military distinction, and since its inception 154 years ago, only 3,495 military service members have received this decoration. One member of this extraordinary group, Adelbert Ames, resided briefly in Northfield, and his actions contributed to the defeat of the James-Younger Gang on September 7, 1876.
Ames graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point on May 6, 1861 at the age of 25. Upon graduation, he was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in the Second U.S. Artillery; he was promoted to 1st lieutenant just eight days later. Barely two months later, on July 21, 1861, at the core of the First Battle of Bull Run (also known as First Manassas), Ames’ valor in combat earned him an immediate brevet promotion to major and would later be recognized with the award of the Medal of Honor.
Ames was heavily involved in military engagements throughout the Civil War, participating in a number of major battles (Battle of Yorktown, Battle of Fredericksburg, Battle of Chancellorsville, Battle of Gettysburg and others). He rose rapidly through the ranks of the Army and was promoted to brigadier general of the United States Army on May 20, 1863, just two years and two weeks after graduating from West Point. A short time later he was promoted to brevet major general (Figure 1).
Ames distinguished himself during the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861, as a section commander of an artillery battery. He was not awarded the Medal of Honor, however, until nearly 33 years later on June 22, 1894. The citation reads:
remained upon the field in command of a section of Griffin’s Battery, directing its fire after being severely wounded and refusing to leave the field until too weak to sit upon the caisson where he had been placed by men of his command.
Beyer and Keydel provide further elaboration on the circumstances:
One of the men thus distinguished was Lieutenant Adelbert Ames, of the famous Griffin Battery, the D Battery of the Fifth U. S. Artillery, which went into the battle with Porter’s, the first brigade of the second division. When the fatal moment came where the two batteries. Griffin and Ricketts, were exposed to the tremendous close range fire of the enemy on the plateau near Henry House, and their infantry supports failed them completely, Ames who commanded a section was struck down by a shot shattering his thigh. Sitting on the limber he continued to direct the fire of his section in the midst of the terrible fracas of shot and shell until a wheel of the gun carriage was smashed and the gun disabled. Under the galling fire of the enemy Corporal McGough and the remaining men of the decimated gun crews fixed up a spare wheel as directed by Ames, and succeeded to bring this gun away, the other five and those of Ricketts’ battery were lost.
Figure 2 below is a painting by Sidney King, depicting the chaos, mayhem and carnage during the battle. Note that the painting shows seven guns. A Union artillery battery consisted of only six guns, thus this painting clearly shows not only Captain Ricketts battery, but part of Captain Griffin’s battery as well. Also note there are two guidons (unit flags) shown in the line of artillery– another indication of the presence of two companies. Lieutenant Ames was in command of one section (two guns, 16 men and 24 horses) of Griffin’s battery. Therefore this painting is a vivid panoply of battle that enveloped Ames’ unit.
Adelbert Ames died in 1933 at the age of 97, the last surviving Army General of the Civil War, and last living member of the United States Military Academy Class of 1861.
Randall S. Knox served in the United States Air Force and is a veteran of the Vietnam War. He is a retired Information Technology Project Manager. Randy volunteers regularly at the Northfield Historical Society museum store.