James Lee Gillespie was born in Albemarle County, near Charlottesville, Virginia on April 16, 1818. An extremely well educated man, Gillespie earned degrees (including a M.A. degree) from Randolph Macon and Hampden-Sydney. Following college, he was appointed a lieutenant of engineers in the regular U.S. Army and conducted surveys in Louisiana, but resigned his commission after a short time. Though nothing is known of the courtship that followed his return to Virginia, Gillespie married Mary H. Hall (born in 1818) in Fredericksburg, Virginia on April 24, 1838. The couple’s first child was William H. Gillespie, born on October 8, 1840; followed by Harriet B., possibly born in Mecklenburg Co., Va. in January 1843; and Mary E. (born ca. 1845). Despite a growing family, Gillespie sought further education (quite possibly a more successful way of sustaining his family) and attended the medical school at the University of Virginia, and was later an honor graduate from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia.
Gillespie came to Page County, Virginia and settled at Columbia Mills around 1851. According to one newspaper account from 1902, after settling there, “he succeeded in getting a post office, but in two or three month he and the Kites had some trouble and he moved to what is now Alma.” Apparently a close follower of events in the Crimean War, sometime during the fall of 1854, Gillespie named the little village in which he lived, Alma, after one of the four rivers that flowed into the Black Sea near Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula (in the Ukraine) in Russia. It was on the river Alma that Russian general, Prince Menshikov, resolved to make his stand against the British and the French and lost in the battle named for the river on September 20, 1854.
Gillespie, his wife, a son and two daughters were all recorded as residing in Massanutten District #2 (which actually bordered on Alma District #2) in the 1860 county census. James was listed as a doctor with $750 worth of real estate, while his son, William H., was listed as a teacher. Years later, locals noted here and there that Gillespie had a very successful practice and was a highly respected member of the community.
However, as tensions in the United States continued to develop in the coming years, Gillespie became outspoken against any ideas of secession. At least one newspaper account from the early twentieth century shows that he, along with John Shuler of Grove Hill, and John Lionberger of Luray, made anti-secession speeches in Page County – one of which took place in Newport, where Shuler was nearly injured or killed by a “fire-eater” who did not like the message that he was delivering. Following the firing on Ft. Sumter and the subsequent move by Virginia to secede, Gillespie was likely one of four men in Page County who braved the “mob” and voted against secession in the public referendum on May 23, 1861. A review of the Southern Claims Commission files reveals that Gillespie was not alone in his sentiment. A number of others in Page County wished to vote in the same manner, but feared for their lives and either remained away from the polls or were mislead into believing that a vote for secession would be the only thing that could avert war.
As his obituary revealed many years after the Civil War, Dr. James L. Gillespie was “a strong southern man [however] he thought secession was wrong and impractical and impolitic and for that reason was arrested.” The Minute books of the Court of Page County do indeed reveal that Gillespie was in the county jail as of June 26, 1861 under the charge of “treason against the government of the Confederate States.” Gillespie applied to the court for his release from jail but was denied this request as the county as a legal body could not sufficiently establish jurisdiction in the case. Following this denial, Gillespie applied once again to the court, asking for an examination of the charges against him in legal forum, but again the court denied the appeal based once again on “want of jurisdiction.” Minute books show no further information in this case, but Gillespie’s obituary reveals that at some point he was taken to Orange Court House, from whence he escaped. Crossing the lines, Gillespie was able to secure an audience with Union Gen. Henry W. Slocum, who, in turn, gave Gillespie a letter of introduction to President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln “recommended General Nathaniel Banks take him [Gillespie] and protect his home in the Valley of Virginia.” However, until the Union army occupied Page County in late April 1862, Gillespie served as a guide for Banks (from March – May 1862), and subsequently for Gen. James Shields (from May – June 1862).
By July 1862, Gillespie had made a number of contacts in the Union army – one of the acquaintances he established was with Col. Joseph Thoburn of the 1st West Virginia Infantry. Interested in securing Gillespie as an assistant surgeon, he requested an appointment from Governor Pierpont, and Gillespie received a commission on July 8, 1862. In the years to come, as a surgeon, Gillespie would have intimate knowledge of the carnage caused by war and most certainly, as a father, he wanted to be near his son, William, who was also serving in the Union army. With an opportunity to be in the same command with his son, Dr. Gillespie applied to fill a vacancy for another post as assistant surgeon with the 14th West Virginia Infantry and transferred on November 18, 1862 (William H. Gillespie commenced duty with the regiment as 1st lieutenant and adjutant on August 22, 1862). Gillespie continued service in the Union army until, due to poor health (most especially an acute case of bronchitis), he resigned his commission on March 12, 1864. Incidentally, later that same year, William became embroiled in some unclear controversy in the regiment and was placed under arrest on August 24, 1864. Though brought before a court martial, Lt. Gillespie was acquitted, but because of the tensions in the command, he resigned in the interest of the service on December 26, 1864.
After resigning his commission as assistant surgeon in 1864, Dr. James Gillespie moved to Sistersville, West Virginia. The time at his new home, however, was short-lived. While the younger Gillespie found an end to his military career, the elder Gillespie was called back to duty in 1865, and he served until April 30, 1866 as surgeon with the 7th Veteran Volunteers (also known as Hancock’s Veteran Corps) at Philadelphia, Pa.
After the war, as one article in an old Page News & Courier mentions, Gillespie was asked to return to Alma as a doctor, but he refused, perhaps because of bitter feelings over the treatment he endured early in the war. Instead, he moved to Des Moines, Iowa for a while. When his youngest daughter Mary died, he returned to Sistersville, West Virginia where, on February 7, 1878, he was among the charter members (and treasurer) of the Phoenix Lodge No 75 AF&AM. He is recorded in the 1880 census as residing in Lincoln, Tyler County, West Virginia. A year later, he made application for his veteran’s pension. Later the commander of the Ringold Post #68, Grand Army of the Republic in Sistersville, WV (1888-1891?), Gillespie died in February 1907 and was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Tyler County, West Virginia. His son, William died a few years later on November 9, 1897. Dr. Gillespie’s wife, who filed for a widow’s pension in 1892, died in 1907 and was buried near her husband and son.
Initially an outsider, Dr. Gillespie was still a resident of Page County for over a decade before he actually broke ties with the community. Though his Unionists sympathies may, in retrospect, seem alien to what has been told over the years about Page County’s history in the Civil War, Gillespie was just one of many who had like sympathies in the area – indeed, the majority of those with Unionist sympathies were actually descended from generations of residents here. Interestingly, like the rapidly fading prominence of the village of Alma, the Unionist experience in Page County has also faded from memory. However, in the end, the role and experience of Unionists in county history and Gillespie’s small but significant part in it, could easily dwarf in importance the legacy left from a man who seems to be only remembered for naming a Page County village.
From an article written for the Page News & Courier by Robert H. Moore, II. Article used here with permission.