James Ronald Chalmers was born in Halifax County, Virginia, on 11 January 1831. In 1839 his family moved to Holly Springs, Mississippi, where Chalmers was educated at St. Thomas Hall. Chalmers graduated from South Carolina College in 1851, then returned to Holly Springs, read law, and was admitted to the bar in 1853. He became district attorney in 1858, served as a delegate to Mississippi’s secession convention, and then raised a military company when the Civil War began. Entering the Confederate Army as a captain, he was soon appointed colonel of the 9th Mississippi Infantry and first saw action near Pensacola, Florida. Promoted to brigadier general on 13 February 1862 on the recommendation of Gen. Braxton Bragg, Chalmers distinguished himself at Shiloh, where his brigade held the far right of the Confederate line on the first day of the battle.
He assumed command of cavalry operating in northern Mississippi before returning to his brigade in time to take part in Bragg’s 1862 invasion of Kentucky. Chalmers led an ill-advised assault on a Union garrison near Munfordville but redeemed himself at Stones River, Tennessee, where on 31 December 1862 he led his men against a formidable Federal position. A shell fragment knocked Chalmers down and he was “borne senseless from the field,” according to his divisional commander. The blow terminated Chalmers’s career as an infantry officer. In March 1863 he received command of the 5th Military District, with responsibility over the northern counties of Mississippi. Chalmers organized a cavalry force and sparred with Federal detachments that made expeditions into the region.
At the beginning of 1864 Chalmers’s division was assigned to Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s command. Relations between the two officers were occasionally strained, and Chalmers may have felt that his services merited promotion instead of a subordinate position under Forrest. Chalmers was present during the controversial April 1864 attack on a garrison of black soldiers and Tennessee Unionists at Fort Pillow, Tennessee. The high death rate among the black troops led to charges that a massacre took place, although Chalmers’s role remains unclear. According to his report, the Federals refused to surrender, and many were killed while attempting to escape. Chalmers was with Forrest during a successful raid into West Tennessee as well as during John Bell Hood’s invasion that culminated in disastrous battles at Franklin and Nashville. The two generals and their troops retreated to Mississippi and ended the war in Alabama, where Chalmers surrendered and was paroled in May 1865.
After the war, Chalmers moved to Friars Point, Mississippi, and married Rebecca Arthur, with whom he had one daughter. He resumed his law practice and became a controversial political figure. In 1876 he led an armed force of white men against freedmen near Friars Point and drove their leader, the sheriff, out of the county. Chalmers served two terms in the US House of Representatives but was defeated in his 1880 reelection bid by Republican John R. Lynch, an African American. Disgruntled by what he took to be lack of support from US Sen. L. Q. C. Lamar, Chalmers bolted the Democratic Party in 1882 and returned to Congress with Republican support after a campaign marked by allegations of fraud on both sides. His congressional career ended with a defeat by a Democratic opponent in 1884, after which he abandoned politics, moved to Memphis, and practiced law until his death on 9 April 1898.
- Dictionary of American Biography (rev. ed., 1957–58)
- Jack Hurst, Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography (1993)
- Terry Jones, in The Confederate General, ed. William C. Davis, vol. 1 (1991)
- Thomas Jordan and J. P. Pryor, The Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. N. B. Forrest and of Forrest’s Cavalry (1868; reprint, 1996)
- The National Cyclopedia of American Biography (1906)
- Ezra Warner, Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders (1959)