“I’ll Get Myself Killed Trying to Make These Men Fight”

  James Dearing came from a celebrated line of warriors and would represent his pedigree well in the Civil War. While many scholars have brushed over his achievements, the young Campbell County native was recognized during the war as the personification of skill and bravery.
  He was the youngest of Lynchburg’s four generals. (The others were Samuel Garland, Robert Rhodes, and Jubal Early, although only Garland was actually living in Lynchburg when the war broke out.) Dearing’s story is largely forgotten, yet it includes all the dramatic elements for a fascinating tale of the Civil War.
  His maternal great-grandfather was Colonel Charles Lynch, brother of Lynchburg founder John Lynch. Charles Lynch was responsible for snuffing out a Tory conspiracy during the Revolutionary War, giving rise to the term “Lynch’s Law.”
  Dearing’s paternal grandfather and namesake had served as an officer in the quest for American independence and had fought under George Washington. Later, Dearing’s father was a colonel in the Campbell County militia.
  The prevailing opinion among descendants of James Dearing is that he was born at Otterbourne, near the confluence of the Otter and Staunton Rivers in southern Campbell County, in 1840. Other accounts have him born at the Dearing family farm near Troublesome Creek.
  Whatever the case, his father, James Griffin Dearing, died in 1843 shortly after purchasing Otterbourne and left his wife, Mary Anna Lynch Dearing, with four young children. The departed father provided well for his offspring, including provisions in his will for his sons’ educations. Accordingly, James Dearing the younger was educated by tutors and at several private schools. Young Dearing displayed a knack for horsemanship, and he excelled academically.
Despite his proficiency in mathematics and literature, James was most fascinated by tales of his ancestors’ soldiering. He often pretended to lead imaginary cavalry charges, prompting his family to nickname him “Little Soldier.” He even got himself into trouble drawing caricatures of men in martial poses. That was innocent enough, but he chose to exercise his artistic talents on the flyleaf of his father’s first edition copies of Sir Walter Scott’s Life of Napoleon. It came as no surprise to anyone when James—now in his late teens—announced his intent to enroll at the United States Military Academy at West Point and embark upon a military career.
  Dearing’s uncle, Charles Henry Lynch, was the natural person to turn to for help in enrolling at West Point. Following the elder Dearing’s death, Lynch had served as a surrogate father figure for “Jimmie.”
  Lynch was a well-connected, wealthy state senator and prominent figure in prewar Virginia. Lynch campaigned with the tongue of Cicero on topics of state and national interest and dispensed beatings to drunken Whigs who sassed him. He had a habit of carrying a brace of dueling pistols and “offering satisfaction” to constituents who took issue with his Democrat politics.
  As one might expect, people listened when Charles Henry Lynch spoke. Lynch cashed in some of his political capital when he asked a favor of Congressman Thomas S. Bocock, prevailing upon him to recommend Jimmie for West Point. To Lynch’s surprise, Bocock’s message was delivered to Secretary of War John B. Floyd and Dearing’s appointment was approved in 1858.
  Life as a West Point cadet quickly lost its charm for the cadet from Campbell. He complained that the officers spoke to him in a most “ungentlemanly” manner and he bristled against the rigors of life as a first-year cadet, or plebe. As the name suggests, plebes were treated as inferiors by upperclassmen. As William L. Parker explained in General James Dearing, CSA plebes were forced into degrading and punishing situations if they spoke out of turn, failed to ask permission to pass an upperclassman on the stairs, or guessed at an answer in the classroom. The smallest infraction could bring humiliating punishments such as being forced to stand on one foot for an hour or clean latrines barehanded.
Understandably, Dearing found the West Point hazing rituals unnecessary and ridiculous, but letters to his family in Campbell County suggest that he regarded the strict disciplinary code imposed by the faculty with even greater disdain.
Dearing bemoaned the tedium of the cadet’s experience. As biographer William Parker wrote, cadets viewed West Point as a terribly boring place filled with the same mind-numbing activities. Their monthly pay of thirty dollars left them with few options for entertainment and they were allowed to subscribe to only one periodical per month. After all, their focus was to be on their studies.
  Dearing was a banjo player, a fact which no doubt earned him some friends at the academy. He is said to have introduced the tune “Dixie” to West Point (even though the ditty was written by a Northerner in a Northern city).
Eventually, he ran out of money for food, and tobacco. He also developed a liking for card playing, preferring the game Whist. When cards began to negatively affect his grades, he did try to restrain his desire to play.
  Parker reports in his narrative that Col. Richard Delafield, the superintendent of the academy, forbade students from writing home for money. Anything purchased at the academy had to be charged to the student’s account. Dearing clearly violated rules by circumventing this inconvenience and having Uncle Charles make periodic deposits in a local bank. He also worked out an arrangement with a local woman to give her money with the understanding that she would order luxuries such as oysters for him. The superintendent’s policies caused many less wealthy young men to incur debt and lose furloughs as a result.
  As for the food served in the academy’s mess, everything was thrown carelessly into a pot of boiling water and heaped on the disappointed young men’s tin plates. From time to time, Dearing and his classmates would sneak away to a local tavern for a plate of decent food and a snort of whiskey. Apparently, he was never caught in the act, but was apprehended smuggling tobacco, pipes, and stems into one of the dormitories.
  Jimmie compiled fewer demerits in his first year than incorrigible classmate George A. Custer, but he rejected the notion that so many discomforts were necessary for building character. In his freshman year, Dearing compiled sixty-nine demerits. (His future commanding officer, Robert E. Lee, had accumulated zero in his four years as a cadet, indeed a formidable record.) Dearing’s number would have been higher were it not for a forgiving policy that permitted only two-thirds of his demerits to be charged against a plebe’s record. Cadets could receive demerits for small infractions such as having boots improperly shined, laughing in the ranks, or engaging in a snowball fight.

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