James Henry Lane was born at Matthews Court House, Virginia, on July 28, 1833. Lane's great-grandfather was one of the founders of Matthews County and had been active in the military and political affairs of colonial Virginia. Lane's grandfather, William Lane, was also a military man. He served as a private in the Revolutionary War and as a sergeant in the War of 1812. Walter G. Lane, James's father, was a justice of the peace, a colonel of the militia, and served one term in the Virginia Legislature.
James was first educated in a small, one-room school house in the Matthews Court House area. He was then privately tutored until his entrance to the "West point of the South," the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia. One of his professors at the Institute was Thomas J. Jackson. At the end of his sophomore year, Lane ranked fourth out of twenty-one students. In his last year, he ranked second. Lane graduated on June 4, 1854. After his graduation, he became a teacher at a private school on the plantation of Robert Doutha, not far from Charles City Court House.
In 1856, James Lane entered the University of Virginia to pursue courses of the scientific nature. A professor at the school, F. H. Smith, left us his impression of Lane: "Though he stayed but one year (1856 - 1857), [Lane] made his mark, and left in the memory of his teachers an abiding respect for his ability and solid character." Lane held several positions between 1857 and 1859. He taught mathematics at the Virginia Military Institute and was a principal at the Upperville Academy in Upperville, Virginia. In 1858, James Lane was awarded the position of Chair of the Department of Mathematics and Military Tactics at the State Seminary in Tallahassee, Florida. From there, he would become the Professor of Natural Philosophy and Instructor of Military Tactics at the North Carolina Military Institute in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1860.
The political turmoil of the 1860s would find Professor Lane quite prepared. A later biographer would paint this picture of the twenty-seven year old" "[Lane] was small of statue - a little over medium height - erect and soldierly in bearing, elert of movement, an excellent swordsman, of quiet disposition and a firm disciplinarian." Lane was soon in Raleigh, working as a drill master at a camp of instruction. On May 11, 1861, he was elected major of the First North Carolina Volunteers. Daniel H. Hill was the colonel and Charles C. Lee was lieutenant colonel. Hill, Lee, and Lane had all taught in Charlotte together. The regiment soon received orders to move to Virginia. Lane was present when the first major battle of the war was fought, the battle of Bethel Church. The battle was a Confederate victory. On September 2, Lane was promoted to lieutenant colonel of the first. A Richmond newspaper had this to say: "He is deservedly the most popular man, perhaps, in the regiment, and is every way worthy the honor conferred by his promotion, He possesses the necessary qualification to make an officer the idol of his men, viz.: theory and practice of military science, firmness in discipline, with the affable manners and sociality of a gentleman.
On September 21, 1861, Lane was unanimously elected colonel of the Twenty-eighth North Carolina Troops. When he departed the First, the men of the "Bethel Regiment" presented him with a sword, bridle and saddle, and two pieces of silver plate. Lane was with the Twenty-eighth by October 1861, around the same time the regiment was transferred to Wilmington, NC.
Lane and the members of the Twenty-eighth would first "see the elephant" on March 14, 1862, during the battle of New Bern. They reached the field in time to cover the withdrawal of the Confederate forces. Soon thereafter, they became a part of Brigadier General Lawrence O. Branch's North Carolina Brigade. On May 2, 1862, Lane and his regiment were ordered to Virginia.
The next few months would bring excitement and danger for Lane. He barely avoided capture during the battle of Hanover Court House (May 27, 1862) when he and his regiment were cut off from the main Confederate body. Also on May 27, Lane, the Twenty-eighth, and the rest of Branch's brigade, were placed under the command of Ambrose P. Hill and his "Light Division." At the battle of Mechanicsville, he was wounded in the head by a minie ball, and a few days later, he was wounded in the cheek during the fight at Frazier's Farm.
Later in the month of July, Branch's brigade, along with the rest of the Light Division, was transferred to "Stonewall" Jackson's Army of the Valley. Lane would see action during the battles of Cedar Mountain, 2nd Manassas, Ox Hill, Harper's Ferry, and Sharpsburg. During the battle of Sharpsburg, General Branch was killed. Lane, being the senior Colonel in the brigade, was given command. On November 6, Lee was officially promoted to the rank of Brigadier General and Branch's brigade became Lane's brigade. His first test in his new leadership role came during the battle of Fredericksburg. The brigade held an exposed position that was soon flanked. Lane was forced to fall back, but kept fighting the entire time.
During the winter of 1863, Lane was presented with a new sword and buff sash, a saddle and a bridle, by the officers of his brigade. The men would lie in winter camps around Moss Neck until May. May brought the battle of Chancelorsville. During the battle, Lane’s men accidentally shot General Jackson as he returned from a night recognizance. No one sought to blame the North Carolinians as Jackson had gone out before they had filed into position. The next day, Lane lost his brother, a staff officer, in the maddening fray. Lane would later write of the day's activities: “There are periods in every man’s life when all the concentrated sorrow and bitterness of years seem gathered into one short day or night of agony. Though victory was assured, imagine my feelings as I lay all black with soot and smoke under an oak reflecting the fearful cost; and reflected, that in less than forty-eight hours one-third of my entire command had been swept away, one field officer, only, left fit for duty out of thirteen carried into action—the rest all killed or wounded—most of them being my warmest friends; my boy brother who had been on my staff lying dead on the field; and Stonewall Jackson, my old professor, whom as a boy I had not fully appreciated and whom, as my commanding officer, I dearly loved, lying mortally wounded and probably dying, shot by my own gallant command…”
There would be little time for rest. A month later, the second Northern invasion began. Lane would lead his brigade north, fight on the first and third days at Gettysburg, and come south again. Other battles would follow: Bristoe Station, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House. At the latter, Lane was nearly rendered hors de combat, had it not been for the quick actions of a member of the Thirty-seventh. Lane would write in his official post-battle report: "I am indebted for my own life to private P. A. Parker, Company D, Thirty-seventh regiment, who killed the Yankee that had leveled his gun and was in the act of firing upon me -- the Yankee was not more than ten paces from us at the time."
On June 2, 1864, Lane was wounded for the third time. A bullet tore into his midsection and he was carried from the field, not expected to live. He was taken to Richmond where he slowly recovered from the painful wound. He return to command the brigade on August 29, 1864. Lane would go on to lead his brigades in the battles of Jones Farm, and many small skirmishes along the entrenchments. On April 2, 1865, General Grant assaulted the Confederate lines and broke through the Petersburg cordon. The army retreated back to Appottamotax where General Lee surrendered to General Grant.
Lane made his way back to his parents' home in Matthews Court House. He stayed for several months. After receiving his pardon and borrowing $150, Lane went south to Concord, North Carolina, and opened a school. In 1868, Lane returned to Richmond, Virginia, where he had a school constructed. He served as principal of the school for a number of years. On September 13, 1869, Lane married Charlotte Meade, a longtime friend. In 1872, he accepted the position of professor of natural philosophy, chemistry, and instructor of military tactics at the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College in Blacksburg. Lane left the school in 1880, working in Wilmington, North Carolina, for a while, and in Missouri in 1881-1882. In 1882, Lane took the position of Commandant and Professor of Engineering, at the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College in Auburn, Alabama. In 1883, he was given the job of chair of the Civil Engineering and Mining Engineering Departments at the school. He would hold this, and other positions in the state of Alabama, until he retired on June 3, 1907.
General Lane suffered a stroke on Saturday morning, September 21, 1907. He died at three o’clock that afternoon and was laid to rest beside his wife in the Pine Hill Cemetery in Auburn, Alabama.
Photogrpahs of General Lane, Aurburn University
Letter Collection, General Lane, Aurburn University
Lane Collection, Virginia
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