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James Burns Shaw was born on June 22, 1834 in Banffshire, Aberdeen, Scotland. Records reveal Shaw left Scotland for Canada in 1850 and his profession in adult life was that of a tailor. At the age of twenty-four, James married Jessie Steel in Ingersoll, Ontario, Canada, in 1858. Upon arriving in the United States three years later James enlisted in Captain Woodruff’s Company, later to be designated as Company K, 39th Illinois Infantry; on August 14, 1861 at Marseilles, Illinois. His assignment was shown as being that of a musician in the regimental band.

The 39th was organized at Chicago, Illinois. The organization of this Regiment began as soon as word was heard of the firing on Fort Sumter. General T. O. Osborn labored desperately to get it accepted under the first call for troops, but was unsuccessful. Next efforts were made to get it accepted into the State service of Missouri, but that too without unsuccessful. The Regiment had already assumed the name of His Excellency, the Governor of Illinois, and was known as the "Yates Phalanx". Governor Yates manifested an earnest desire to see it brought into the service, and sent then Captain O. L. Mann to Washington, with strong commendatory letters to the President and Secretary of War, urging the acceptance of the Regiment, which at the time had over 800 men on the roles. The Regiment was accepted on the day succeeding the first Bull Run disaster, and Austin Light, of Chicago, was appointed Colonel.

The Regiment left Chicago, Illinois on October 13, 1861 and reported to Brigadier General Curtis, at Camp Benton, St. Louis, Missouri where on October 29th, the Regiment received orders to proceed to Williamsport, Maryland; where it was fully armed and equipped. On December 11th it moved on to Hancock, Maryland where it crossed the Potomac River and was distributed in detachments along the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, to assist in guarding the important line of transit; and remained there for eight months

It next served in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia with Shield’s Division. On January 3, 1862, the advance of a rebel force 15,000 strong, under command of "Stonewall" Jackson, attacked Companies D, I and K, in the command of Major Mann, near Bath, Virginia, and, after a brisk little fight, were repulsed; then, with two pieces of artillery, and a liberal display of strategy and courage, the enemy was held in check for nearly twenty-four hours. It was also present during the Battle of Kernstown, Virginia on March 23, 1862, that resulted in the utter defeat of "Stonewall" Jackson's forces. The Regiment suffered but little during the engagement, owing to its position, which was the extreme left. The ensuing day it took the advance in pursing the enemy down the Shenandoah Valley, as far as New Market, where it was detached and sent into the Luray Valley, to protect bridges over the South Branch of the Shenandoah River.

The Thirty-ninth left the Valley the 1st of May 1862, with Shield's Division, and making a continued march of one hundred and fifty miles, reported to General McDowell at Fredericksburg. After one day's rest, the news of General Bank's defeat in the Valley arrived, and the Regiment was ordered back to the Valley, making forced marches over a distance of another one hundred and eighty miles. After a few days' rest, the Regiment was ordered to Alexandria, Virginia, and immediately embarked on transports for the James River, and reached Harrison's Landing in time to take part in the closing scenes of General McClellan's seven days' fight and seven nights retreat. While at Harrison's Landing, the Regiment was kept at the front, on picket duty, and had a series of unimportant skirmishes, until about the middle of August, when it participated in the second Malvern Hill fight, but without material injury. From this point a number of officers and men were sent away sick.

The Regiment was here assigned to the First Brigade, Peck's Division, Keyes' Corps, and retreated with the army to Fort Monroe. September 1, it was sent to Suffolk, Virginia, where it remained for the space of three months, fortifying the place, and making frequent expeditions to the Blackwater, where heavy skirmishes frequently occurred. On one occasion it participated in the capture of two pieces of artillery and forty prisoners.

On January 20, 1863, the Regiment again embarked, accompanying General Foster's expedition to Hilton Head, South Carolina where it remained in camp on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, for several weeks. On the 1st of April, the Regiment took part in General Hunter's expedition against Charleston, and, after landing on Folly Island, took a prominent part in the erection of batteries with which Morris Island was taken. The Regiment was next ordered on to Morris Island, where it was assigned to General Alfred H. Terry's Division, and again worked zealously and long in the trenches, parallels and forts, which resulted in the final, capture of Fort Wagner.

Shaw at that point was deemed unfit for duty, due to a “scrofulus affection of left knee joint”, and was discharged on September 22, 1862; but on October 3, 1864 Shaw reenlisted as a private at Saginaw, Michigan into Company K of the 29th Michigan Infantry and records list him as becoming a Principal Musician. The 29th Michigan Infantry was organized at East Saginaw, Michigan, mustering in on October 3, 1864, the same day Shaw reenlisted. It was immediately ordered to Nashville, Tennessee, and after arriving continued on to Decatur, Alabama on October 1864. There it served in the defense of Decatur against Hood's attack, on October 26th through the 29, 1864. It stood garrison duty at Decatur until November 24th when it moved to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, from November 24th through the 27th, and participated in the Siege of Murfreesboro from December 5th through the 12th before being moved to Anderson on December 27th and assigned guard duties on the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, until July 1865. It than moved to Dechard, to Murfreesboro, Tennessee again and garrisoned there until September 6th when it mustered out and was discharged at Detroit, Michigan on September 12, 1865. Before his discharge, Shaw had been promoted to Sergeant.

Shaw and Jessie had six children; James born in Illinois in 1866, Mabel born in 1868, Nellie born in Sacramento, California in 1872, Edwin born in 1875, Katie born in 1878 and Arthur born in 1882. James, his youngest, suffered badly from bronchitis as he did and needing to get to warmer weather the family left for California; but ended up in Portland, Oregon. Largely due to the wet cold weather his son James died in Portland, Oregon. Finally making it south to a warmer climate, they lost Mabel, his second child, who died at Grass Valley, California.

The Shaw family eventually gave up on the United States and migrated to Australia in 1885, setting up house at Penrith, New South Wales. Shaw’s eyesight began to go bad in 1897, which he blamed on a case of sunstroke he had gotten a few weeks before being mustered out of military service. As a result of his failing eyesight Shaw was unable to continue his occupation as a tailor and applied to the U.S. Government for an invalid pension. He made a trip to the U.S. Consul in Sydney, appeared before Consular Orlando Baker and on December 10, 1902 made a solemn declaration; in hopes a pension would be granted.

He stated that “while fighting General Jackson’s army at Bath in W. Virginia were compelled to wade the Potomac at a place called Sir John’s Run and that night to keep gard (sic) until reinforcements came we were in our wet clothes. I caught a sever cold which resulted in Bronchitis and was treated for this by our own Doctor at Cumberland Maryland. He advised me to take a furlow (sic) home for better treetment.(sic) I was there treated by Doctor Hathway who tended me about three months. Thinking I was able for duty went to Chicago to report and was discharged as not being fit for service. A very urgent call was made for troops in the begning (sic) of 64. I joined the 29th Mich. Vols. as Chief Musician and although trubled (sic) now and then during the rest of the war I stood it to the end and came back with the Regt at the finish of the war. But the climate of Ill. Being too cold in winter I took my Family and moved to California in 1872, was there until 85 and was treeted (sic) now and thenduring that time by Doctor Rankin of Hollister Call. Being told Bronchitis was not known in Australia we came heer (sic) in the spring of 1885 and I had fair helth (sic) until about seven years ago when I began to fail and am now worse than ever”

During the last years of his life, being unable to do for himself, Shaw was cared for by his daughters Nellie and Katie. James Burns Shaw died on December 29, 1915 at the age of 82; at his daughter Nellie’s home in Bankstown, New South Wales. He was buried in the Church of England’s Section 5 in Waverley Cemetery, grave numbers 660/663; beside his son Arthur, who had died in 1886.

Compendium of the War of the Rebellion”, Frederick H. Dyer

Illinois State Archives, Civil War Rosters

Records of Service of Michigan Volunteers in the Civil War, 1861 - 1815”, 1984

Records of the Adjutant-General's Office, Illinois & Michigan

Regimental Records, Illinois & Michigan

U.S. Consulate Records, National Archives

Waverley Cemetery Records

Yates Phalanx: The History of the Thirty-Ninth Regiment, Illinois Volunteer

Infantry, in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865”, Charles M. Clark, M.D.


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