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Custer’s “Main Stay In a Tight Place”

The veteran 2nd Ohio Cavalry earned high praise for its service from legendary golden-haired Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer. According to the June 1, 1865, issue of the Cleveland Daily Leader, Custer “repeatedly said that the Second was his best regiment, and his ‘main stay in a tight place.’” If the report had listed the Ohio boys by name, it would have included James Downey, a private in Company B.

James Downey, pictured in a shirt of unknown origins. The case in which his portrait is enclosed includes the note pictured below. Ninth-plate ambrotype by an anonymous photographer. Jim Quinlan Collection.

James Downey, pictured in a shirt of unknown origins. The case in which his portrait is enclosed includes the note pictured below. Ninth-plate ambrotype by an anonymous photographer. Jim Quinlan Collection.

Downey had enlisted in November 1861, and spent much of the war in active operations with his comrades. The Daily Leader boasted, “The Second has served in twelve States and a Territory—has marched two thousand two hundred miles—has watered its horses in the Ohio, the Mississippi, the Osage, the Kansas, the Marais du Cygnes, the Arkansas, the Cumberland, the Antietam, the Shenandoah, Bull Run, the Rapidan, the Rappahannock, the Anna, the York, the Chickahominy, the James, the Appomattox, the Nottoway, and the Roanoke.”

Through it all, Downey managed to avoid injury—until the Battle of Five Forks on April 1, 1865. According to one soldier, the regiment went into the fight without breakfast, and advanced dismounted some five miles to rebel breastworks. There, they halted, threw up their own defenses, and held their own against the rebels until the Fifth Corps arrived on the scene and advanced. The Ohio boys followed with a yell and charged through pine trees so riddled with bullets that one soldier remembered that it was a surprise they were standing. They were repulsed and charged again, after which, their part in the attack ended.

Section 13, Plot 10500. ANC Project.
Section 13, Plot 10500. ANC Project.

The casualty list included about 35 troopers from the 2nd, including Downey. Carried to Washington, D.C., he succumbed to his injuries on April 26. He was about 21 years old.

This portrait is part of the Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) Book Project. Established by Jim Quinlan, owner of The Excelsior Brigade, its mission is to identify approximately 15,000 Civil War veterans interred on the hallowed grounds of the cemetery, and to provide a biographical sketch and photograph of each individual. If you have an image to share, or would like more information about the ANC project, please contact Jim at 703-307-0344.

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