James Read Branch (1828–1869)


James Read Branch was a Confederate artillery officer and banker who helped reestablish Richmond’s struggling economy after the American Civil War (1861–1865). Branch fought in the battles of Malvern Hill, Sharpsburg (Antietam), Fredericksburg, and Plymouth. He resigned from the army in 1865, after he was slow to recover from a severe leg injury. After the war he revived Thomas Branch and Sons, the banking house he had founded with his father and brother, and became active in the Conservative Party, serving on its executive committee. He was nominated to run for a seat in the Senate of Virginia in 1869. Branch and others felt the party needed the support of African American voters to defeat the Radical Republicans. Days before the election a large crowd attending a Conservative Party picnic to attract black voters crushed the bridge on which he stood. Branch fell into the James River and drowned.

Branch was born on July 28, 1828, at New Market, near Petersburg in Prince George County, the son of Thomas Branch and his first wife, Sarah Pride Read Branch. After an early education in the Petersburg schools he attended Randolph-Macon College, then at Boydton, and received an AB in 1848. An excellent student, Branch was elected principal of the preparatory school at Ridgeway, Warren County, North Carolina, one of four schools in that state then associated with the college. After a year there, he joined his father’s business in Petersburg. With his younger brother John Patteson Branch, they formed a partnership called Thomas Branch and Sons, which became one of the largest commission-merchant houses in that city. On December 3, 1856, Branch married his second cousin Martha Louise Patteson, of Richmond. They had one son and four daughters.

Battle of Malvern Hill

Branch shared his father’s Unionist convictions and his eventual support of secession. He organized an artillery company and entered active Confederate service on May 11, 1861. A family tradition has it that with only two cannons Captain Branch’s company checked two dozen Union guns during the bloody Confederate defeat at Malvern Hill on July 1, 1862. His battery also fought effectively in the battles of Sharpsburg (Antietam) and Fredericksburg, earning him promotion to major to rank from May 2, 1863, and to lieutenant colonel on August 25, 1863. As chief of artillery for Robert Ransom’s brigade, Branch took part in the successful siege of occupied Plymouth, North Carolina, on April 17–20, 1864. During the fighting his horse was shot and fell on him, breaking Branch’s leg in three places. He returned to Richmond, where his wife and children had moved in 1863, but recovery came slowly, and he resigned from the army on March 28, 1865.

After the war Branch helped to reorganize Thomas Branch and Sons as a banking house in Richmond. He became a leader among those businessmen struggling to rebuild the city’s economy and helped to found the Merchants’ Exchange, the Corn and Flour Exchange Association, and the Tobacco Exchange. Branch was also the Richmond banker for William Mahone and advised him in his effort to consolidate his railroad properties.

Gilbert C. Walker

Branch soon became involved in politics, too. After racially polarized voting in October 1867 resulted in a Radical Republican majority at a state constitutional convention, white leaders organized as the Conservative Party. Branch was elected secretary of the party’s executive committee. Unlike most other committee members he had not been politically prominent before the Civil War, but his future seemed bright, and Conservatives in Richmond nominated him for the Senate of Virginia in 1869. Deeming defeat of the hated Radicals to be all important, the Conservatives entered into an alliance with moderate Republicans to back Gilbert Carlton Walker for governor, and they even sought support from black voters. Branch endorsed that tactic and urged Conservative speakers to appeal to the reason of black voters rather than abuse them.

Branch attended a barbecue sponsored by the Colored Walker Club of Richmond on July 2, 1869, four days before the election. A temporary bridge provided access to an island in the James River where the event took place, but a policeman refused to permit those without tickets to cross. Already on the island, Branch stepped onto the bridge and shouted to the policeman to open the gate to all. The crowd streamed onto the bridge, which suddenly collapsed. Branch fell under the broken timbers and chains of the bridge and drowned. After funeral services at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church two days later, thousands of people followed Branch’s casket to Hollywood Cemetery. Members of the Colored Walker Club joined the procession, and along the way other African Americans taunted them as traitors.

Mary-Cooke Branch Munford

Martha Patteson Branch never remarried and taught her children to revere their father’s memory. Others remembered him, too. John Sergeant Wise‘s racist novel about Reconstruction, The Lion’s Skin, published in 1905 shortly after a new state constitution effectively disfranchised African Americans, recounted the drowning death of “a leading banker” who had sought to win blacks to the cause of the Conservatives as “an ill omen” of the futility of that tactic. Branch’s youngest daughter, Mary-Cooke Branch Munford, later explained her activism as inspired by the example of her father.

James Read Branch receives an AB from Randolph-Macon College, then at Boydton.
July 28, 1848
James Read Branch is born at New Market, near Petersburg in Prince George County, the son of Thomas Branch and his first wife, Sarah Pride Read Branch.
December 3, 1856
James Read Branch marries his second cousin, Martha Louise Patteson, of Richmond. They will have one son and four daughters.
May 11, 1861
James Read Branch organizes an artillery company and enters active Confederate service.
May 2, 1863
James Read Branch is promoted to major in the Confederate army.
August 25, 1863
James Read Branch is promoted from major to lieutenant colonel in the Confederate army.
April 17—20, 1864
Sometime during the siege of Plymouth, North Carolina, James Read Branch's horse is shot and falls on him, breaking his leg in three places. He convalesces in Richmond, but is slow to heal.
March 28, 1865
James Read Branch resigns from the Confederate army.
The Conservative Party in Richmond nominates James Read Branch for the Senate of Virginia.
July 2, 1869
James Read Branch dies at a barbecue sponsored by the Colored Walker Club of Richmond when the weight of the crowd crushes the bridge he stands upon.
  • Bowie, Walter Russell. Sunrise in the South: The Life of Mary-Cooke Branch Munford. Richmond: William Byrd Press, Inc., 1942.
  • Cabell, James Branch. “Relative to My Grandmother” in Georgia Review 7 (1953): 260–266.
  • Chesson, Michael. Richmond after the War, 1865–1890. Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1981.
  • Kneebone, John T. “Branch, James Read.” In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 2, edited by Sara B. Bearss, et al., 190–191. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2001.
APA Citation:
Kneebone, John & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. James Read Branch (1828–1869). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/branch-james-read-1828-1869.
MLA Citation:
Kneebone, John, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "James Read Branch (1828–1869)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 22 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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