Daniel Arnett & The Medal of Honor Moment – New Market Heights, Va. Sept. 29, 1864 by Jim Surkamp

by Jim Surkamp on March 1, 2018 in Jefferson County

James Tolbert, the highly regarded, firm, soft-spoken leader in matters involving human rights died in October, 2017 and was honored by an overflow audience at the venerable Zion Episcopal Church in Charles Town. In 2014, he recounted to Jim Surkamp at Fisherman’s Hall the life of his great-great-great uncle Daniel (also called David) Wilson Arnett who displayed a familial courage September 29, 1864 when storming a line at New Market Heights, Virginia – led by no less than four African-American sergeants – all in Arnett’s 5th U.S. Colored Troops regiment – who were all recognized with Congressional Medals of Honor for that day’s actions.

James Alvin Tolbert’s Greatest Uncle:


(Semblance only) – (loc.gov).

– (fold.3com Account required).

OK. My name is James Tolbert and I live here in Charles Town, West Virginia. My great-great-great-uncle was Daniel (nicknamed “David”) Arnett. who served in the 5th United States Colored Troop Infantry during the Civil War.



– (loc.gov).

18-year old Private D. Wilson Arnett could no longer hear a thing in his left ear, burst in the unearthly explosion of 8,000 pounds of gunpowder that in the wee hours of July 30, 1864 in front of Petersburg, Va. heaved horses, men and 400,000 cubic feet of earth into the air.

– (archive.org).

The Federals planted the dynamite underground at the end of a tunnel they dug in secret and it blew a huge crater in the Confederate line. From that moment on and into old age, Arnett could only hear a bit in his right ear, not at all in his left ear – only of faint, shouted orders, conversation, the birds and life in general. It mattered.


– (the-athenaeum.org).

Civil War historian James Price writes:

– (sablearm.blogspot.com).

Thursday, September 29, 1864 is . . . certainly one of the most, if not THE most important day in African-American military history.” He goes to say that the fighting Arnett bore with others “broke the outer ring of defenses protecting the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia.”


– (archive.org).

Arnett’s 5th U.S. Colored Troops infantry regiment had been given the heavy honor to lead an assault of 1,300 men – leading two other regiments: the 36th and 38th U.S. Colored Troops infantry regiments – on a fortified position of seasoned Confederate Texans, Arkansan sharpshooters and Virginia artillerymen.

– (archive.org).


– (archive.org).

As the fog burned off, you could see dead and wounded on the field from an earlier failed assault by another – Gen. Samuel Duncan’s 3rd Brigade, (also in Gen. Charles Paine’s Division) to the left and westward. Pvt. Arnett still had to be able to hear, understand, and follow any orders to cross that no man’s land – be it from the 5th’s commander, Colonel Giles Shurtleff, Capt. Ulysses Marvin, who commanded Arnett’s “I” Company or from the Company’s first sergeant, the company’s ranking black man – Robert Pinn.

– (ourwarmikepride.blogspot.com).
MOLLUS-Mass Civil War Photograph Collection Volume 74
– (cdm16635.contentdm.oclc.org).
– (findagrave.com).

– (wikipedia.org).

– (findagrave.com).

– (google.books.com p. 269).

– (commons.wikimedia.org).

– Civil War Medal of Honor – (civilwarhistory.wordpress.com).

– Powhatan Beaty – (wikipedia.org).

– James H. Bronson – (findagrave.com – added by Don Morfe on 27 February 2003).

– Milton Holland – (wikipedia.org).

– Robert A. Pinn – (wikipedia.org).


– (loc.gov; civilwar.org).

“Remember Fort Pillow and No quarter!!” exhorted the mounted Federal Major General Ben Butler, who commanded the overall Army of the River James – the wholesale massacre of surrendering black Federal troops that spring in Tennessee of which not a soldier listening that morning in the camp needed the slightest reminding.

– Fort Pillow – Leslie’s Weekly May 7, 1864 – (wikipedia.org).

During the tense wait, sipping his coffee as the dawn came, Arnett perhaps thought of the life-ways that led him to this hinge-point in history: being born October 28, 1846 in Martinsburg, then-Va.; and serving Charles J. Faulkner Sr., the one-time Minister to France and, earlier, a congressman, working as a teen coachman at Faulkner’s Boydville mansion.

– Charles J. Faulkner – Brady Studio – (loc.gov).

– Mrs. Lydig and Her Daughter Greeting Their Guest – Edward Lamson Henry
– (the-athenaeum.org).

– Boydville mansion taken by Susan Seibert – (commons.wikimeida.org).

Arnett’s possible chance to escape bondage came in May, 1862 when Federal General Nathaniel Banks’ Army fled through, past Martinsburg and northbound ahead of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s men, eventually giving Arnett two years of residency in Akron, Ohio, where Arnett worked as a waiter.

– Nathaniel Banks – Brady Studio – (wikipedia.org).

– Martinsburg (then-Va.) Harper’s Weekly, December 3, 1864, p. 781 – (sonofthesouth.net).

– (wikipedia.org).

– Map of Summit Co., Ohio (Akron) – (loc.gov).

– Grocery Store along the Ohio and Erie Canal – (chubachus.blogspot.com).

– (semblance only) A Waiter at the Galt House – Edward King, The Great South; Illustration by James Wells Champney – (docsouth.unc.edu).


– (wikipedia.org).

He himself would enlist during that time near Akron August 28, 1863.


– Bomb proof quarters at Dutch Gap Canal – (archive.org).

– (Oberlin College Archives).

Their cups of coffee emptied, Colonel Shurtleff rose and said to them all: “If you are brave soldiers, the stigma — denying you full and equal rights of citizenship shall be swept away and your race forever rescued from the cruel prejudice and oppression which have been upon you from the foundation of the government.”

At about 7:30 AM, the 1300 men began in a column six companies wide and ten ranks deep – three regiments – across a complex 1100 yard expanse, the line of charge some eighty feet wide and the last 800 yards deadly. Passing thru 300 yards of pine forest then across an upland meadow they flowed forward as gracefully as if in a parade, then shells from the Virginia Rockbridge Artillery hit them. Next, the men scrambled down a slope to a small stream – about three inches deep, but marshy to the west where some of their forward push bogged down. They then began the climb up a 30-degree slope of hill coming up from the stream, which would very soon cease to protect from the – previously – “too-high” musket fire and shrapnel coming from the downward-aiming Confederates in infantry units and artillerymen.

– Camp of Colored Volunteers before Richmond – (archive.org).

– Detail charging U.S. Colored Troops – (archive.org).

– Chevaux de frise at the Confederate Fort Mahone defenses at Siege of Petersburg – (wikimedia.org).


Reaching the top of the hill, the men received carnage-making fire while they raced to and hacked and axed their way through a very dense abatis made up of fallen trees, their fine branches shorn leaving just big, sturdy limbs sharpened into spear points.

– by Pearson Scott Foresman – (wikipedia.org).


Shurtleff and his ten companies of 550 black men led all the 1300-man column, all with instructions to charge with bayonet. Every company-commanding officer was white, because black men were not yet allowed under law to be officers. With a lifetime of mistreatment and the shibboleth of “Remember Fort Pillow” to motivate, the men were also vowing to address the most immediate issue: pay inequity – with their teeth-clenched fighting resolve. Even still, this was the chance for the black soldiers to lead a major charge which was promised then denied at the very last minute on July 30, 1864 nearby at the Mine battle, a change of plans that confused all Federal assaults that day and what Gen. Grant would call “the saddest affair I have witnessed in this war.”

– (loc.gov).

– Grant’s Campaign – The Battle at Chapin’s [sic] Farm, September 29, 1864.- Sketched by William Waud – (loc.gov).

– Blacksmith, Antietam, MD by Alexander Gardner – (loc.gov).

– Crop of Fawx’s General Ulysses S. Grant at Cold Harbor – (loc.gov).

Besides Arnett’s “I” Company, led by Captain Marvin and Sergeant Pinn, Captain George B. Cock led “G” Company with First Sergeant Powhatan Beaty; and Captain Wales Wilbur commanded “A.” Company; “C” Company’s commander Capt. Gustavus Fahrion was not accounted for as present at the battle along with “D” Company’s commander Alexander Poundstone, leaving Sgt. Major Milton Holland and First Sergeant James H. Bronson in leading roles in battle for the two companies, respectively. Strangely Bronson had been promoted to first sergeant on August 22, 1863, but he later requested being “reduced to the ranks and reassigned to the regimental band,” a position granted in November, 1864. His service record lists him as “musician.”

– Cock – (fold3.com).

– Beaty – (fold3.com).

– Wilbur – (fold3.com).

Fahrion – (books.google.com).

– Alexander Poundstone – (fold3.com).

– Milton Holland – (wikipedia.org).

– Bronson – (fold3.com).


Reid, Whitelaw. (1868). Ohio In The War-Volume II. p. 915.
– (archive.org).

Four company commanding officers of the 5th USCT would be killed or wounded of the ten companies as the day wore on.

As the men overcame the obstacles the Confederate sharpshooters and artillerymen harvested the colored bluecoats, shooting down hill from just 150 yards away, the officers in front fell first – “G” Company’s George Cock fell wounded, leaving his bugler musician/first sergeant James H. Bronson bereft and in charge.

p. 751 – Battles & Leaders 2 in front of battery Robinett by Walton Taber from photo by Matt Morgan – (archive.org).

p. 644 – Battles & Leaders 2 by F. H. Schell detail bugle on the ground – (archive.org).



Arnett, especially could not hear in the chaos the shouted orders from Col. Shurtleff or from his own Captain Marvin, because of his deafness. Then both Shurtleff and Marvin fell wounded. A bugler (likely Bronson because he also had previous leadership positions and was highly decorated for bravery that day) – was seen rallying with his bugle giving his clarion call for the men to reform and charge on. Sgt. Pinn grabbed the colors and charged forward, bayonet bared, Arnett following most likely with company-mates Z. B. JacksonJacob Lee, and Charles TeetersJefferson CarpenterHenry Turner, and Peter Turner – who all fell on the field either killed or wounded in the advance. Powhatan Beaty and Milton Holland likewise grabbed their colors and led their men into the maw of gunfire. The 5th regiment was to have received the most visits that day from death and woundings – a total of 28 killed (eight of whom were officers), 177 wounded and 23 missing. – the most of 24 units that fought from the 18th Army Corps at the three locations: New Market Heights, Fort Harrison, Fort Gilmer.

– casualties Official Record – (ebooks.library.cornell.edu).

Raked with shrapnel and musket fire, the regiments, now led by the inspiring, unstoppable sable sergeants, raged ahead another hundred yards up a hillside.

– Assault of the Second Louisiana (Colored) Regiment on the Rebel Works at Port Hudson, May 27 From a Sketch by Our Special Artist Frank Leslie’s June 27, 1863 – (loc.gov).


– Jim Surkamp.

Just fifty yards from the hot musket and cannon barrels, they hit a wall of chevaux-de-frise (a criss-cross pattern of large pointed metal and wooden spears), that the men chopped through under close fire then resumed charging. As one axe man fell, another took up the axe. As one fell with the colors, another picked up the colors and charged on. Ahead was a small redoubt, some called a “fort” with battery on raised platforms with earthworks extending some distance to the right and left.

– Cheval de frise – (wikipedia.org).

– small redoubt or fort at Cobb’s Hill, Va. – (digitalcollections.baylor.edu).

J. D. Pickens, who commanded the regiments from Gen. Hood’s old Texas Brigade at New Market Heights, wrote later: “I want to say in this connection that, in my opinion, no troops up to that time had fought us with more bravery than did those negroes.”

Then a lifting in the murderous fire from the Confederates seemed to be saying: “We destroyed the charge, the black enlisted men will all flee without their white officers,” a deduction deformed by racism. The Confederate units, thus began moving to the northwest to Fort Gilmer about five miles away where they had been summoned to stave off a Federal attack there.

p. 675 – Rallying behind the turnpike fence Battles & Leaders 2 by Walton Taber – (archive.org).


– Unidentified African American soldier in Union infantry sergeant’s uniform and black mourning ribbon with bayonet in front of painted backdrop – (loc.gov).

But the Federal, sergeant-led bayonet charge pushed over the last embankment, closing in on the reserve unit routing the remaining Confederate reserve and even chasing and catching up to some the units making their way to Fort Gilmer.

– Battle of Nashville by Louis Kurz & Alexander Allison 1893 – (loc.gov).

– p. 732 – Arrival of First Confederate Cannon Captured by Gen. Butler’s Colored Troops – (archive.org).

Unidentified African American soldier in Union sergeant’s uniform holding a rifle -(loc.gov).


– Butler in the field by Mathew Brady – (loc.gov).

Federal Army commander Butler, who watched the proceedings from the original elevated meadow, summed it up later:
(They) ran at the double quick up to the first line of abatis — the axe man laid to, vigorously chopping out the obstructions; many of them went down. Others seized the axes. The colors of the first battalion went down, but instantly they were up again but with new color bearers. Wonderfully they managed to brush aside the abatis and then double quick. The reformed column charged the second line of abatis (the pointed poles). Fortunately they were able to remove that in a few minutes, but it seemed a long time to lookers-on. Then with a cheer and a yell that I can almost hear now, they dashed upon the fort. (might be referring to Camp Holley – see map-ED)

– p. 661 – Camp Holley from Butler’s Book – (archive.org).


– Facing 60 – Edward A. Moore – Rockbridge Artillery – (archive.org).

Wrote Rockbridge cannoneer Edward Moore later:

. . . we hurriedly broke camp, as did Gary’s brigade of cavalry camped close by, and scarcely had time to reach high ground and unlimber before we were attacked. The big gaps in our lines, entirely undefended, were soon penetrated, and the contest quickly became one of speed to reach (by) the shorter line, fortifications some five miles nearer to and in sight of Richmond. The break through our lines was on our right, which placed the Federals almost in our rear, so that a detour of several miles on our part was necessary.


– Oberlin College Archives – (oberlinheritagecenter.org).

When Col. Shurtleff regained his senses and came to, on the battlefield he witnessed “the 5th USCT, followed by two other USCT regiments, (as they) swarmed through the abatis and over the Confederate parapets . . . chasing the rebels over a hill a quarter of a mile beyond the works they had captured.”

– p. 41 – Giles W. Shurtleff, “Reminiscences of Army Life”, Oberlin College Archives, RG 30/032, Series 7, Subseries 1, Box 1, “Writings re the Civil War”
– (oberlinheritagecenter.org).

Powhatan Beatty of Co. G left his men who retreated back to the first abatis. rose and ran forward in a hail of gun fire to retrieve their colors, returned to his men and charged forward towards the enemy.

Of Company G’s eight officers and eighty-three enlisted men who entered the battle, only sixteen enlisted men, including Beaty, survived the attack unwounded. With no officers remaining, Beaty took command of the company and led it through a second charge at the Confederate lines. The second attack successfully drove the Confederates from their fortified positions, at the cost of three more men from Company G. By the end of the battle, over fifty percent of the black division had been killed, captured, or wounded.

All of Company D’s officers had been killed or wounded in the first charge. So First Sergeant James H. Bronson, whose application was pending to be reduced back to private and to join the regimental band, took command of Company D, rallied the men, and led a renewed attack against the Confederate lines. They successfully broke through the abatis and palisades and captured the Confederate positions after hand-to-hand combat with the defenders.

Milton M. Holland Sergeant Major of Company C, after all the officers had been killed or wounded, gallantly led it.


– p. 662 – Map showing Fort Gilmer, Harrison, New Market Heights – Butler’s Book – (archive.org).

Arnett’s decimated Company, were then given ill-considered orders by their inexperienced Division Commander Charles Paine to go to Fort Gilmer and continue fighting.


Private Arnett and Sergeant Pinn were among them and fought there too. . .

Moore, whose Rockbridge Artillery had by then traveled the five miles from New Market Heights saw what happened from his new defensive position to the right of and close to Fort Gilmer:

The fact that a superb fight was made was fully apparent when we entered the fort an hour later, while the negroes who made the attack were still firing from behind stumps and depressions in the cornfield in front, to which our artillery replied with little effect. The Fort was occupied by about sixty men who, I understood, were Mississippians. The ditch in front was eight or ten feet deep and as many in width. Into it, the negroes leaped, and to scale the embankment on the Fort side climbed on each other’s shoulders, and were instantly shot down as their heads appeared above it.

Sergeant Pinn was shot through the right thorax, rendering his right arm useless for the rest of his life.


Butler’s Book (p.743) – (archive.org).

Pinn, Beaty, Holland and Bronson (Brunson) from the 5th USCT were all awarded a special medal from Gen. Butler and the Congress-approved Congressional Medals of Honor for their bravery that day. Nine men total in Shurtleff’s three regiments received the Congressional Medal of Honor. – List of African-American Medal of Honor recipients – (wikipedia.org).

Wrote Butler of inspecting the field later:
And, as I guided my horse this way and that way that his hoof might not profane their dead bodies, I swore to myself an oath, which I hope and believe I have kept sacredly, that they and their race should be cared for and protected by me to the extent of my power so long as I lived.
– p. 733 – Butler’s Book – (archive.org).


– (wikipedia.org).

Butler’s report to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton four days after the battle in part read: ‘My colored troops under General Paine…carried intrenchments at the point of a bayonet….It was most gallantly done, with most severe loss. Their praises are in the mouth of every officer in this army. Treated fairly and disciplined, they have fought most heroically.’

– Volume XLII – in Three Parts. 1893. (Vol. 42, Chap. 54), Chapter LIV – Operations in Southeastern Virginia and North Carolina. August 1-December 31, 1864.
Part III – Union and Confederate Correspondence. p. 65.


– Mustered Out by Alfred Waud; Harper’s Weekly May 19, 1866 – (loc.gov).

– Semblance D.W. Arnett – (loc.gov).

– Map of Jefferson County, Virginia (1852) by S. Howell Brown – (loc.gov).



– by Alexander Gardner – (loc.gov, not online but viewable at john-banks.blogspot.com).

Arnett survived, eventually returned to live in Shepherdstown, where political sentiment was more accepting of returning U.S. Colored Troops veterans than the more Confederate-disposed Charlestown part of the county.

Arnett, sometimes known as “Wilson Arnett,” would own a two-story very old dwelling on the east end of Shepherdstown still today called Angel Hill.

On October 15, 1873, he married 23-year-old Maria Louisa Carter.

– (wvculture.org).


– Arnett’s Pension Approval – (ancestry.com).

In 1890, Because of his lost hearing, the Federal government officially granted Arnett his pension, which was announced, in somewhat biting prose, in the Shepherdstown Register: “Wilson Arnett has received his pension money. His first payment was $759 and his monthly allowance will be $20 as long as he lives.”

– Shepherdstown Register, November 28, 1890, page 3 – (chroniclingamerica.loc.gov).



– Shepherdstown Register., September 17, 1896, page 3 – (chroniclingamerica.loc.gov).

– p. 281 – plat of Arnett property DB 99 pages 279-281 – (documents.jeffersoncountywv.org).

– Location of Daniel Wilson Arnett’s property on east High Street in Shepherdstown – (google.com/maps).

Then, a fire destroyed their Shepherdstown home on East High Street. Reported in the Shepherdstown Register: Late Sunday afternoon at about one o’clock, September 13, 1896 while the Arnetts were at church – “when an alarm was sounded and a crowd quickly gathered. The dwelling house of Wilson Arnett, a well-known colored man, in the eastern part of town known as “Angel Hill,” had caught fire, presumably from a spark from the chimney, and in a short time the entire upper portion was blazing fiercely. The fire engine was put to work, but almost immediately a section of the new hose purchased a short time ago burst causing some delay. When a stream was finally gotten on the house the blaze was extinguished, but the entire upper portion had been consumed. The house-hold goods in the second story were burned, but everything on the first floor was saved. This house was a very old one, and was probably built over a hundred years ago. Harrison & Schley had insured the house for $300 and the contents for $150 and these sums will probably cover the loss. The adjustment is now being made.”

Then another (more suspicious) . . .

About noon, Monday October 19th, 1896 a fire alarm was sounded in response to a fire discovered in the small frame dwelling house on High Street “occupied by the families of Samuel Ranson and Wilson Arnett. The engine was gotten out, but before it was put in use the blaze had been quenched by the bucket brigade. The fire was apparently incendiary in origin, paper having been placed beneath the weather boarding and set afire. A year or two ago combustible material had been placed against the same house in the night time, but the incendiary had been frightened away. A month or so ago Wilson Arnett’s dwelling was destroyed by fire and as a result of the two circumstances he is considerably alarmed.

– Shepherdstown Register., October 22, 1896, page 3 – (chroniclingamerica.loc.gov).


– Map of, and house at 317 W. Academy St., Charles Town, WV – (google.com/maps)

The Arnetts moved to Charlestown and made their home at 317 W. Academy Street.


– Marriage certificate 1902 – (wvculture.org).

The death on October 5, 1900 of 50-year-old Maria Louisa Arnett left “D.W.” alone, old and with his infirmities until mid-January 1902 when he met and married his acquaintance and now second wife, the 39-year-old Charlotte Adams.

They began a long term effort to obtain a added pension for Arnett’s poor heart condition, although he had a pension for his deafness.

Paragraph 44


– Jim Tolbert – (Jim Surkamp).

He was married to my great-great-great aunt Charlotte Arnett. Charlotte Arnett lived at 317 W. Academy Street here in Charles Town, West Virginia.

David (Daniel) Arnett after the Civil War, his wife applied for a pension because CHECK his wife was hard of hearing, also he developed heart trouble and he died from heart trouble.

She put in an application to the Pension Bureau (in the Department of Interior at that particular time). She wanted to get a pension and contained in his pension records are affidavits, also statements from several physicians, who had indicated that there was no indication on the record that showed that Arnett developed heart trouble from being in the military and being in combat. She tried from several directions to get a pension for his heart trouble.

However, she did get a small pension – he got a small pension – for his deafness.

He was also in the same group – the same company (Company I) – with Robert Pinn. Pinn was a Medal of Honor winner.
And when Arnett and his wife were trying to get the pension, Robert Pinn was asked for an affidavit,


– Robert Pinn – (wikipedia.org).

Pinn had returned to his home in Stark County, Ohio, and opened a contracting business. Later he attended Oberlin College, studied law and, after being admitted to the bar, served as a U.S. pension attorney. – (last paragraph) – (civilwar.org).

Pinn, a friend of Arnett’s from Company I and one of that regiment’s Medal of Honor recipients, received a a supplement to his pension for a severe injury; described in his application. Pinn’s legal training helped him in the process to a certain extent:

Robert A. Pinn, the soldier named in this bill, now 59 years of age, served as sergeant in company I, Fifth United States Colored Troops, from Septmeber 5, 1863 to September 20, 1865 . . . records show that he was wounded at Fort Gillmore (sic), Va. September 29, 1864 through the right thorax, and the files of the ension Bureau show that he was pensioned on account of this wound, which resulted in entire loss of the use of the right arm at $8 per month from discharge, at $15 from June 6, 1866, at $18 from June 4, 1872, at $24 from march 3, 1883, and at $36 from August 4, 1886.

He filed a claim for an increase of his pension on August 22, 1892 and filed medical testimony to the effect that he required assistance in dressing and in preparing his food etc. but was denied.


– Robert A. Pinn. April 30, 1902. – Ordered to be printed – (genealogybank.com).

While Pinn agreed with the Arnetts to write a letter of support he gave limited endorsement.

and Pinn only mentioned that he did serve with him (Arnett) and was also there when the cannons were going off at New Market Heights, Virginia; but he, of course, could not verify that (Arnett’s) heart trouble was from that, only that he served in the same unit with Arnett.


Paragraph 45


Charlotte Arnett . . . even approached Congressman Brown from the State of West Virginia, trying to get a pension on Arnett’s behalf. But in the long run, she did not get that pension, because the army doctors had all certified that the heart trouble did not come from being in close proximity with the cannons.


– (findagrave.com).

– Shepherdstown Register Aug. 8, 1912 – (archive.org).

He died. He was buried in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. His gravesite is clearly marked, of course.


The house that Charlotte and David (Daniel) Arnett lived in is still in the family at 317 West Academy Street, and every time I approach that particular house, I think of Aunt Charlotte and of course Uncle David.

47. October 26, 2017 – Jim Tolbert dies leaving a great legacy of his own.

James Alvin Tolbert, Sr. | 1932 – 2017 | Obituary

James Alvin Tolbert, Sr. of Charles Town, WV passed on October 26, 2017. He was a guest of Hospice of the Panhandle, Kearneysville, WV. He was born in Charles Town on September 3, 1932 to the late Edward and Ollie Lightfoot Tolbert. He was the youngest of four siblings. He graduated from Page-Jackson High School in 1950.

After graduation James began his working career serving in US Air Force as a dental laboratory technician in Japan during the Korean War. After his military service, he attended West Virginia State (University) in Institute, West Virginia, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology in 1958. He became a medical technologist at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD before beginning a career with the Department of Veterans Affairs as a nuclear medical technologist at the Martinsburg VA Medical Center. He then served as a Personnel Staffing Specialist at the Baltimore Medical Center and retired in 1988 as a Personnel Staffing Specialist in the Washington, D.C. Central Office.

As a Life Member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, James served in numerous capacities and on various committees. He was President of the Jefferson County Branch from 1968 to 1974 and President of the West Virginia State Conference of Branches from 1986 – 2007. He also served as the Region III Chair for Michigan, Kentucky, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, West Virginia, and Illinois. ?

From 1983 to 1985, he served as Most Worshipful Grand Master, Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of WV, F&M, Inc.; Past Master and Secretary, Star Lodge #1, Charles Town; Past Recorder, Nile Temple #27 of the Shriners, Martinsburg; Prior, I.M. Carper Consistory #192, 32nd Degree, Martinsburg. James was also a member Allegheny Chapter #9 of the Royal Arch Masons of Fairmont and a member of Gibraltar Commandery #10 of the Knight Templars, Fairmont. He was Grand Inspector General, 33rd Degree, United Supreme Council, Prince Hall Affiliation, Washington, DC; Deborah Chapter #38, Order of the Eastern Star, Charles Town, Grand Historian, Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of WV and a proud member of Alpha Iota Lambda Chapter, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Charleston, WV.

A lifelong member of St. Philips Episcopal Church, James served as a lay reader, chalice bearer, Vestry member, clerk and Sunday School Superintendent and as Senior and Junior Wardens. He was former Chair of the Episcopal Keymen of the Eastern Convocation, Diocese of West Virginia and served as former member of Executive Committee and Member and Past President of the Diocesan Committee on Racism. He served as a member of the Committee to elect the Fifth Bishop of West Virginia.

James was committed to numerous community activities. He was a board member of the Jefferson County Economic Development Authority; Chair of the African-American Community Association that was responsible for the restoration of Fisherman Hall; he was a Founder/Secretary of the Jefferson County Black History Preservation Society; he was a member of the West Virginia Martin Luther King Holiday Commission; member of the Community Relations Council, Harpers Ferry Job Corp; and a member Marshall- Holly Mason American Legion Post #102. James was the longest serving member of the Zenith Club, a social organization; and he supported a Multicultural Scholarship named in honor of his mother, Ollie Lightfoot Tolbert, at Shepherd University. James was the Chair and sat on the Board of Directors of the George Washington Carver Institute; served on the City of Charles Town Development Committee; was an interviewer on the Affirmative Action Committee for the Shepherd University Multicultural Leadership Scholarship. He was on the Boards of Directors of the Arts and Humanities Alliance; the Jefferson County American Red Cross; and the Jefferson County Boys and Girls Club. He served on the Board of Managers, Charles Town General Hospital; was President of the Board of Directors, Eastern Panhandle Mental Health Center. He was an organizer, leader, and committeeman of Cub Scout Pack #42; and organizer of the Charles Town Recreation League; Treasurer of the Jefferson County Civic League; and served on the EEO Committee, Baker VA Medical Center, Martinsburg. He served on numerous committees for the Jefferson County Schools.

Because of his dedicated service to his local, state, and national communities, James was honored with various awards and recognition. The James A. Tolbert, Sr. Civil Rights Scholarship was donated in perpetuity by Attorney and Mrs. J. Franklin Long of Bluefield WV and Hilton NC. He was awarded the 2011 Martin Luther King, Jr. Achievement Award from the West Virginia University Center for Black Culture and Research and the 1976 T.G. Nutter Award from the West Virginia NAACP. He received the 2003 West Virginia Civil Rights Day Award by the Governor’s Office; the Charleston Job Corp Center; West Virginia State University; and the West Virginia Human Rights Commission. In 1987, he received the Community Service Award given by Kappa Lambda Mu Sorority and in 2008, he was awarded the Community Service Award from the Eastern Panhandle Alumnae Chapter, Delta Sigma Theta, Inc. In 1988, he received the Living the Dream Award from the West Virginia Martin L. King Holiday Commission for Human and Civil Rights. In 1991 & 2002, he received the Dr. Benjamin Hooks Award, NAACP Midwest Region III as State President of Year. He was recognized in 1987 by the West Virginia Blue Ribbon Commission on Educational Reform and was honored by the West Virginia Human Rights Commission Task Force in 1992. In 2003, he received the 2003 Earl Ray Tomblin Community Service Award from the Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College.

James is survived by his wife of 61 years, Shirley Tolbert; his sons James Jr. (Constance) of Pittsburg, California; Michael (Erica) of Charles Town, WV and Stephen (Kim) of Ellicott City, Maryland; three grandsons, Miles, Aidan, and Logan; step-grandsons, Garik Pugh and William Lewis, Jr. and step-great granddaughters Alexis and Aniya Hemingway-Lewis. In addition to his parents, he was predeceased by a son Gregory and three siblings, Marion Tolbert Taylor, Edwina Tolbert, and William Tolbert, Sr. Survivors also include many nieces, nephews, cousins, and friends. He is also survived by former daughter-in-law Rachel Mahoney Tolbert.

Visitation will be from 6 pm to 8 pm, Wednesday, November 1, 2017 at the Eackles-Spencer & Norton Funeral Home, 256 Halltown Rd, Harpers Ferry, WV 25425. The funeral; service will be held at Zion Episcopal Church, 301 East Congress St., Charles Town, WV. 25414 at 11 am on Thursday, November 2, 2017. The service will be conducted by Reverend Joseph Rivers of St. Philips Episcopal Church, Charles Town and Reverend Michael Morgan of Zion Episcopal Church.

Interment will be in Milton Valley Cemetery in Berryville, Virginia.

In lieu of flowers, it is suggested that donations be made to Hospice of the Panhandle, 30 Hospice Ln, Kearneysville, WV 25430.