Hidden History: The Story of Miles James

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PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Miles James is a Virginia Beach native who was born a slave, and eventually received the Medal of Honor for his role in a Civil War battle.

James lost his arm during the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm near Richmond, but continued to load his gun and fight for his freedom. Fast forward more than a decade, and the exact location of his final resting place is not known.

However, historians like Jorja Jean know it is somewhere in Hampton Roads. 

“His story is in the shadows, partially because we don’t have a grave for him,” Jean said. “We think he lived in Ward Four and there was a graveyard near Campostella Elementary, and it was lost to redevelopment. We know that he was born and enslaved in Princess Anne County.”

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Sgt. James was born a slave, but at 34 years old he was serving as a corporal in Company B of the 36th United States Colored Troops. In 1864, he was badly hurt in the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm.

“He was hit in his left arm and he suffers a field amputation, they take his arm on the field and gets up and he picks up his pistol and he continues to lead the charge,” Jean said.  

Corporal James was later promoted to sergeant and was given the Medal of Honor. James was taken to Fort Monroe for medical treatment, and there he asked for permission to stay in the Army, even though he was missing an arm. He was granted permission to stay and he was later moved to Texas and given a sword instead of a musket. Soon after, he received a disability charge and moved back to Norfolk to work as a shoemaker.

James died in Norfolk on August 9, 1870. 

“He is only one of only 25 African Americans during the Civil War out of about 4 million [to receive the Medal of Honor],” Jean said. 

Now, the City of Virginia Beach is memorializing him in a different way with a Virginia Historical Highway Marker. Jean submitted an application for a Virginia Historical Highway Marker for James for his valor. 

The Virginia Beach Historic Preservation Commission signed off on it. 

Mark Reed with the Department of Planning & Community Development for the City of Virginia Beach is helping with the project. 

“It’s very important to document that he’s from here, a native of this area. He served with extraordinary valor in a horrible conflict,” said Reed. “The marker will help us to remember that history.”

According to Reed, the proposed location is along Princess Anne Road at the Municipal Center near the intersection with North Landing Road. 

Once the marker is approved, the Historic Preservation Commission will work with the City of Virginia Beach Public Works Department to get final approval for the location. 

Reed says the proposed location meets the general criteria for placement of a state highway marker as it is visible from the roadway, is located in public right of way or on public property and it is near public parking.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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