The Medal of Honor is the highest military award given to the soldiers of the United States Army. It is awarded for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.” At the Battle of Gettysburg, only 63 of the 80,000 Union soldiers who fought there received the honor. One of those men to receive America’s highest award was James Jackson Purman. His gallantry may not have been as high as those of other men who won the award, but for the men he led, his actions were no less important.
James Jackson Purman was born in Pennsylvania in 1841. At the time of Gettysburg, he was serving as a Lieutenant in Company A of the 140th Pennsylvania. On July 2nd, 1863, his company was involved in the fighting in the Wheatfield on the Union left flank. At the risk of his own life, he, along with Captain James Pipes, voluntarily moved a wounded comrade to safety, before falling himself with a wound to the leg. He lay on the ground there until the next day, when he was finally removed from the field. His leg was amputated, but while being treated, he fell in love with one of the nurses, Mary Witherow, whom he later married. On October 30th, 1896, over thirty-three years after the fight at Gettysburg, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery under fire in moving his comrade to safety (Captain Pipes was also awarded the same honor).
Following Gettysburg, he worked as a schoolteacher before starting work with the U.S. Pension office in 1881. James Jackson Purman died in Washington, D.C. on May 11, 1915, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery along with his wife. But his legacy, and the legacy of those men who fought at Gettysburg, continues to inspire the people of America to this day. Recently, acclaimed actor Stephen Lang brought Purman to life in a one-man performance, where he portrayed Purman as if he was giving a speech at the 50th Anniversary Commemorations of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913. That performance, as well as a Q&A with the actor, can be found here.
In the next edition of THE GETTYSBURG DIARY, a look at the often-overlooked attack on Culp’s Hill on the third day of the battle.